My family moved to Kentfield in 1977 when I was 6 years old. I walked to school along Laurel Grove Avenue and was always intimidated by a tall white building on one side of the street that was obscured by trees and lots of ivy.
It was dark and quiet there and sometimes I caught glimpses of robed figures moving silently among the trees and the grounds behind the building. To a kid like me this was pretty strange. I would run quickly past that building and can still recall the feeling of relief as I slowed down once I’d gotten far enough away.
Then one day the building was torn down and large homes and a tennis club replaced it.
They named the tennis club The Priory after the building. My family and I were original members and sometimes on hot summer days I’d lay by the pool and look up at the Redwoods and try to imagine what it was like to live there in the old days. What were those robed people doing in that building? What were their lives like?
Over 30 years later I decided to find out.
Sister Billie, a nun at the Dominican in San Rafael, suggested I phone Brother Raymond Bertheaux in Oakland, the archivist for the Western Dominican Province.
When I drove out to meet Brother Raymond he was all smiles.
“We’ve had this file on the Kentfield Priory for over 30 years and you’re the first one to ever call,” he said.
He led me into a dark chamber within his Oakland monastery and fanned a folder of photos across a table.
There it was! The Priory! Not nearly as scary as I remembered it.
As I scanned the photos with my laptop and portable scanner, Brother Raymond spoke of his days living at The Priory from 1960 to 1962 when he was in his twenties.
He told me during the late 1800s The Priory property was owned by a Sanitarium. There was a large mansion on the premises with gardens and pools for Tuberculosis sufferers. In the 1920s the lot was sold to the Western Dominican Province and the monks lived in the mansion until a fire burned it down in the ’40s. The monks built a new Priory in 1944 which lasted until 1977.
JASON: You lived in the Priory in Kentfield during what years?
BROTHER RAYMOND: Years ago it was called Ross. We had to go to the Ross post office to get our mail. I was there from 1960 until 1962. The tennis courts were just being finished around 1961. Behind the tennis courts was a large incinerator where we used to burn all the garbage. All the really wet garbage would go out.
JASON: Do you remember Marin outside of the monastery?
BROTHER RAYMOND: Just Marin Junior College. They had a little Catholic social club.
JASON: So the tennis courts were alongside the chapel. Did the noise bother you?
BROTHER RAYMOND: No, but we didn’t want little children to play on them, you know how little children fight amongst themselves. One time a child came running into the chapel all bleeding. It was terrible. So we said no children on the courts after that.
JASON: You mentioned you used to make the neighborhood kids cookies…
BROTHER RAYMOND: On the side of the chapel there used to be a carport. The brothers would be there baking cookies and cupcakes and the kids would come by.
JASON: Did you have much interaction with the neighbors beyond the children that would come by?
BROTHER RAYMOND: Very little. At Christmas time they would send gifts over like cookies and fruit baskets because they were using the tennis courts, but that’s all. We didn’t know anybody’s name.
JASON: So the tennis courts were built by the Dominicans. But the neighbors used them sometimes?
BROTHER RAYMOND: Yes, we had our hours of recreation during the week but Saturdays and Sundays were big days for cleaning the house, going to church, staying in the chapel. So the neighbors would be on the courts enjoying themselves. In those days there was no traffic. You could dance in the middle of Laurel Grove because there were no cars.
JASON: You used to do a lot of hiking in the Sixties?
BROTHER RAYMOND: Oh yes, we liked to hike. Some days we used to go all the way up to the top of Mt. Tamalpais. We used to hike over the hill from The Priory to catch the bus to San Francisco somewhere in front of Marin College on Sir Francis. The hill wasn’t paved. Some of the brothers caught poison oak. One kid suffered a lot and he couldn’t stay.
JASON: Can you describe the physical layout of the Priory?
BROTHER RAYMOND: The tennis courts were almost up to Laurel Grove. Behind the tennis courts on the end side of the property was a dirt road going down to where we did our laundry. It was a beautiful little Spanish style building but it was once (used as) the morgue for the old Sanitarium.
JASON: Were there any myths or stories about interesting things that had happened at one time on the property?
BROTHER RAYMOND: Nobody would do their laundry at nighttime. I don’t know why but nobody would go there (the old morgue) at night.
JASON: Are ghosts a part of the religion?
BROTHER RAYMOND: Maybe it was just superstition! (Laughs)
JASON: How old would you say most of the monks were?
BROTHER RAYMOND: Everybody was in their twenties. There were a few older Fathers.
JASON: What sort of things would you guys do that would surprise people who don’t know anything about monks?
BROTHER RAYMOND: (People) didn’t know what we were dressed up like. They thought we were Ku Klux Klan or something like that. (Laughs hard.) We were always supposed to keep silent. We had certain times of the day to talk during what we called Recreation. Most of the time we had to be silent.
JASON: What happened if somebody spoke when they weren’t supposed to? Would they get in trouble?
BROTHER RAYMOND: No. Everybody kept silent.
JASON: Did anyone ever just start to laugh accidentally?
BROTHER RAYMOND: Laughter didn’t break the silence. You could laugh if someone made a mistake or did something silly. Like one day in the morning during prayer somebody had to go to the bathroom and when he came back his tunic was (stuck above his rear end). He came back and made a reverence (bow) to the alter. Well… everyone started laughing and, of course, that ended prayer. The superior just pointed to the door for everyone to leave. We were all laughing.
And if you came in late or made a mistake in the prayers you had to put yourself on the floor and kiss your scapular (cloth over-garment). One guy did it but his rosary got stuck on the heel of his shoe so when he tried to get up he was hopping all over the place. Everyone was laughing and that ended prayer too.
Interview by Jason Lewis
Highlights of MarinNostalgia User Memories
I visited the Priory once with a friend of my mother’s who knew one of the Friars there. When she introduced us, he shook my hand and then said “You’re a nurse.” It put chills down my spine, I was in nursing school at the time. My mother’s friend said she didn’t tell him I was coming or anything about me. — Ramona Walker, MarinNostalgia Facebook Group
We had Brother Christopher OP as a teacher at MC. He lived there. Before he joined the order, he had been a professional entertainer under the name Kevin Kelly (I believe). He said he had played on the Sgt. Bilko show, but I never did see an episode with him in it. — Bob Perrier, MarinNostalgia Facebook Group