A life well lived

Belmont Abbey's first African-American monk reflects on his life

The first Black monk of Belmont Abbey credits the monastery for introducing him to what would become his life’s calling. 

Local and national publications noticed Grippon Boags. Described as tall and intelligent by newspapers, he took his vows on March 4, 1962. That day, he adopted the name Martin after Martin De Porres, a Black monk from the Dominican order who was later made a saint. 

But Martin Anthony Boags, O.S.B cut his monastic stay short at 23 and went out into the world with stops in New York City and Charleston, S.C., his longtime home.

“There’s a saying. ‘Many are called, but few are chosen,’ Boags said. “And I just wasn’t one of the chosen. I was called there and I went. I just wasn’t one of those chosen ones. But I always look back and say that without their teaching and training… there’s no way I would’ve survived.”

Now in his 80s, he can say it all goes back to the Abbey. A decision he never regrets making.

Life at the Abbey

At 17, Boags decided in the 11th grade to leave Immaculate Conception High School in Charleston. The school opened under the guidance of St. Katherine Drexel’s Order of Mercy Sisters. (Years earlier, Drexel’s charity helped build Belmont Abbey’s Basilica.) 

At first, family helped Boags get acquainted with monastic life. 

His older brother, Isadore Boags Jr., stayed for the summer in 1956 at Mepkin Abbey in Monks Corner, S.C., outside of Charleston. He remembered wanting to play football in the fall in high school, so he stayed with Isadore to prepare. It was there that one of the lay brothers, or non-ordained member of the church, from Belmont Abbey showed him a book about religious orders. Soon, he wrote to Abbot Walter Coggin, O.S.B requesting a visit. Later, the brothers visited Belmont before Isadore chose another order outside of New York City.  

“And I stayed,” he said. “I liked it so much that I stayed.”

Boags easily got caught up in the life of a Bendictine monk. He remembered the daily prayer schedule, the work and isolation from the world. 

“You have to have a vocation. You have to know that this is what God wanted for you to be a monk. Because a lot of young men came while I was there and they didn’t complete anything. It’s a life that’s not easy. You are having to live by a schedule. Everything is regimented.”

Boags continued.

“Being at the Abbey (monastery), I never had to worry about eating or money in my pocket. I didn’t have any money at the Abbey. I didn’t have to worry about clothes because I was given the Benedictine robes… It was an experience for me because I didn’t have that before. I was a young kid when I entered the Abbey.”

As a teenager, he lamented the times he could’ve joined his peers, but overall, he said it kept him out of trouble.

“You were always on the move,” Boags said. “I never had time to think about going to the movies or going to a dance or a bar. You just didn’t have time for that.”

During that time, he earned his GED and took college classes. He got into carpentry to start. Then he painted the Basilica windows. He painted on the basilica spire’s clock faces and made new numbers out of copper. He was at the Abbey back when they had just built new dorms and even tended to some dairy farm duties. He also worked with bookbinding at the new college library, likely binding some of the first Life magazines that arrived. He recalled times of good humor, rooting for Notre Dame football, fellowship and learning. There were tennis games and talks with Fr. Lawrence Willis, O.S.B and classes with Fr. Matthew McSorley, O.S.B and other friendships. He learned how to bind books in the library with Fr. David Kessinger, O.S.B.

“I was fortunate to be among men with master’s degrees, doctor degrees,” Boags said. “Very smart people. Just being around these brilliant minds was amazing.”

There were times the outside world came to him. He recalls sit-ins in Charlotte and the South during that time. He met students from Johnson C. Smith University who came to campus once. They were active in the fight for civil rights and beckoned Boags to join.   

“I wanted to go and do the sit-ins,” Boags remembered. “But the Abbot didn’t give me permission. I thought he didn’t want me to get hurt.”

He also served as a caregiver at the infirmary. He cared for the older monks. When Brothers Fritz Keilhacker, O.S.B and George Poellath, O.S.B were hospitalized, they requested Boags in their final moments. Brother Fritz, who came from Germany in the early part of the century, died in his arms during a 1958 visit. Poellath died in 1963 after Boags and another monk visited him at the hospital. 

“Another monk came to me and said the other monks didn’t want me to come to see them at the hospital,” Boags laughed.

Another time, Boags recalled the Benedictine monks from Italy who wore all black robes like Benedict the Black (aka Benedict the Moor) who was canonized in 1807. When talking with his brothers, he joked that he was the only Black monk at the monastery among them bringing out rows of laughter.

It was in a Biology class that Boags may have found his future talents. A Biology class came naturally to him. The professor was a nun and she brought in a number of guinea pigs for embalming.

Boags said he felt like a natural at his lesson, learning how to make the right incision to embalm the pigs right away. The other students had a hard time, calling on him to help them make their cuts. Later, in his mortuary studies, he said his hand dexterity came to him, just like it did in those Abbey classes years ago.

Learning in New York

Armed with some college credits, he went to New York City after the Abbey’s 1963 school year. He enrolled at Brooklyn College, taking night classes while working during the day. 

Photo from Jet magazine, July 29, 1965

He met African-American artist Joel Johnson, a man who would have a profound effect on his life. Boags came to New York jobless and his friends said he looked like he “came out of the woods” after his monastic time.

Johnson shook off his skepticism of Boags and helped him get work as an artist and paper hanger. Johnson, who went to a union trade school, helped Boags find work. One job led to Boags getting hired as an apprentice painter and meeting the late actor Henry Fonda at his apartment. Boags went on to earn his Associate’s Degree in Art in 1965.

Years later, another connection by Johnson led Boags to a Queens funeral home. While working,  he honed his biology skills while taking classes from 1972-1973 with the hopes of becoming a funeral director, mortician and embalmer. The school was American Academy of Embalming and Mortuary Research, later the American Academy McAllister Institute. It was the oldest mortuary school in New York.

By luck, a little money and hard work, Boags worked toward graduation while many dropped out. He saved money while working in Queens. A week before mortuary school started and he was able to get a loan for his studies. Days before his first downpayment for his first semester, the government passed a law helping mortuary students get loans for school.

“That’s what got me in. Somebody was looking out for me,” he said.

After all the hard work at two colleges and the mortuary school, Boags was able enjoy having his degree.

“When you walked down that aisle with your diploma, it felt good,” he said.

Time went by fast

The next few years flew for Boags, who lived in the Bronx and worked at J. Foster Phillips Funeral Home in Queens and L.H. Woodward Funeral Home in Brooklyn. At Woodward, he learned of a funeral home back in Charleston where the owner was looking to sell and retire.  

After some negotiation, he took over the Harleston Funeral Home and renamed it Harleston-Boags in 1978. It was across from the Mother Emanuel AME Baptist Church at 121 Calhoun St. He ran it until 2013 when quadruple bypass surgery pushed him to sell the business.

One particular child’s death still stays with him to this day. His efforts to pay for four-year old Herbie Brown’s funeral arrangements became heroic in the community. In 1983, when the Department of Social Services could not help with the boy’s funeral, Boags stepped up to provide services and also secured a gravesite. After the visitation and burial, it dawned on him that March 21 was St. Benedict’s Day. That day and the memory of the boy remains with him. Prayers and grave visitations are still part of Boags’ life.

Herbie Brown’s gravesite Photo by Cynthia Jennings/Findagrave.com

Now, at 81, he’s comfortably living back in the Charleston area with his wife. The couple had two children. He’s a parishioner at St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Charleston. 

Still working, he helps Rev. Charlie and Chardale Murray at Murray’s Mortuary in North Charleston. The Murrays and other staff members make up a good group that he’s known for years.

“I trained them. I gave them jobs working at the funeral home when they were in high school. So they gave me a job at their funeral home,” Boags said. 

Abbey lane

Boags left on the Abbey on good terms. Over the years, he traded letters with Abbot Walter. On a visit to Charlotte in the 1990s, he took his family and told them it was like being “back home.” Another meeting with Abbot Oscar Burnett, O.S.B in 2004 resulted in Boags requesting his parish priest to offer two masses a month for Belmont Abbey vocations. Boags is also a fourth degree knight in Knights of Columbus Council 1,071, a Catholic men’s service organization.

“What I learned at the Abbey, I tried to practice throughout my life. I’m grateful. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”

-- Matthew Memrick

Photos from The Spire, Charlotte Observer, Gaston Gazette, Jet Magazine, Charleston Chronicle, Findagrave.com.

Correction: This story was corrected on Feb. 7 and Feb. 9 for minor edits and to identify St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church is in Charleston, S.C.