Each year, Basilian Father Thomas Michael Miller had a saying for his students at Rochester’s Aquinas Institute.
“I told them they were very lucky,” Father Miller said. “I told them I was better this year than I was last year. But then I’d tell them I feel so sorry for you. You don’t have me next year, because next year I’ll be even better, because I’ll have more experience.”
“I didn’t tell them I might get worse,” he finished with a chuckle.
With his 90th birthday approaching Feb. 9, Father Miller has decided to retire for the last time. He previously retired from teaching at Aquinas in 1966, and retired from a post as the school’s alumni director in 1981.
Due to poor health, he is officially stepping down from part-time duties assisting at St. Jude the Apostle Church in Gates.
Born in Rochester to William and Margaret Grace Miller, Father Miller grew up on Chili Avenue and attended St. Augustine, Sacred Heart and Holy Rosary parishes. He said his parents were the model for a devout life.
“My mother and father used to say the rosary, and they would go to daily Mass,” Father Miller said.
He attended Nazareth Hall and Aquinas Institute, and joined the Basilians in 1936. He then attended Assumption College in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, and received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Western Ontario in 1940.
“I think I might trace my vocation to the fact that Sister Pauline, a sister of St. Joseph, loaned me from the Aquinas library (the biography of) St. Aloysius Gonzaga, a Jesuit,” Father Miller said. St. Aloysius, who gave up the title of marquis to enter the Jesuit novitiate, died at 23 after catching the plague from those to whom he was ministering.
Father Miller said two of his brothers followed his lead into the priesthood. One, his twin brother Richard, became a Jesuit priest after attending St. Mary’s College in Emittsburg, M.D. Robert joined the Basilians after earning a Ph. D. in philosophy from the University of Toronto’s Institute of Medieval Studies.
Father Miller has said becoming a priest was a double joy, because he was ordained Aug. 15, 1945, the day after World War II ended.
After his ordination, he received a master’s degree in education from the University of Rochester in 1957. He then taught history, English, public speaking and religion at Basilian high schools in Toronto, Detroit, Houston and Rochester, finding the world of education to be full of sink-or-swim experiences. He also served as moderator of the school newspaper at the Detroit high school, and the moderator of the yearbook in Houston. At Aquinas, he was coach to many oratorical winners and the valedictory speaker for many years.
After he retired from teaching, Father Miller was asked to organize Aquinas’ alumni registry. He found he would have to start from scratch. For about 16 hours a day for nearly 16 years, he researched former alumni using tools such as the city and suburban directories and the phone book. He was responsible for the alumni newsletter and for organizing reunions. The work would prove instrumental to ensuring the financial stability of the school, he said. After his retirement, he still helped rake, weed and trim the Aquinas grounds.
“Alumni, parents, and students were very fond of him,” said Aquinas Alumni Relations Officer Lisa Clicquennoi. “The Sports Booster Association even named the concession stand in the Aquinas campus stadium Father Tom’s Hots. A scholarship fund, named in his honor, generates tuition assistance for young men and women attending Aquinas today.”
After working at Aquinas, Father Miller was semi-retired but helped out at several parishes, including St. Jude. Now Father Miller enjoys reading and listening to speakers on Eternal Word Television Network, including Father John Corapi and Father Benedict Groeschel. He also has organized years of classic sermons by topic and said he plans to pass the sermons on to a fellow priest.
St. Jude parishioner Rose SanFilipo said the church is planning a birthday party for Father Miller following the 8:30 a.m. Mass on Feb. 11. She said it has been delightful having the priest at the church.
“He’s such a wise man, and I love his jokes,” SanFilipo said.
Alan Vieira, also a St. Jude parishioner, said he has been able to reconnect with Father Miller, his American history teacher in 1958.
“When we walked in to class, all the chalkboards were covered with all this writing on it,” Vieira said. “The first 15 minutes of class, we wrote down all the notes, and that’s what we needed to remember and study. If you knew what he had on the chalkboards, you didn’t have a problem in American history.”
Jim Burke, a former student of Father Miller’s who attended St. Jude, said he admired Father Miller because he was not afraid to speak out about controversial issues, such as abortion and homosexuality.
“Today most priests will not touch it, and these are serious issues affecting Catholic faith,” Burke said.
Father Miller encourages today’s priests to hold their ground on controversial issues.
“We are in a period of relativity,” he said. “There’s a great admiration of relativity, and no solid dogmatic facts, to the point where the church’s teaching on contraception, abortion, birth control, euthanasia, ordination of women, ordained, married clergy — all of these — are constantly beating at the doors of the church. We have to be able to defend these positions of the church, which are not going to change.”
Father Miller said people should take heart in the number of new Catholics from other denominations.
“People hunger for solid teaching, so be sure that you give them that,” Father Miller said.