At 82 years old, Jerry Hinders spends much of his day in the workshop at La Salle Retreat Center in Wildwood, restoring and organizing the three-room complex — tools, machines, work benches, cabinets, hardware and more.
In addition to regular maintenance duty, he’s been chipping away at this monumental endeavor since the early 2000s. By then, the workshop had become a dirty, tangled and rusty mess, not at all resembling the well-oiled machine it was in the late 1950s — Hinders’ first go-round working at the former La Salle Institute.
Hinders had been integral to that operation, managing aspects of the property’s working farm that fed and sustained the Christian Brothers and young men in formation in the juniorate (a boys high school) and novitiate. So, just a few years into the 21st century, when the late Brother Marvin Becker, FSC, needed a helping hand at the former house of formation and now retreat center, he called on Hinders, who gladly accepted.
“I loved it here years ago,” Hinders said. “This place has always been part of me. My heart is right here.”
The restoration project started as a labor of love, one man’s effort to preserve a vital piece of La Salle’s storied past. But in the past decade, Hinder’s work has evolved into a mission for the universal Church — preservation at the place where a Christian Brother took the first steps of formation en route to potential sainthood.
Servant of God Brother James Miller, now recognized by the Vatican as a martyr and soon to-be beatified, arrived at La Salle in 1959 and spent countless hours working side-by-side with Hinders on the farm. Miller graduated from La Salle’s high school in 1962, then entered the novitiate there. Hinders mentored the young man from Stevens Point, Wis., just as Brother Philip Matthew, FSC, had mentored him in the 1950s out of a Christian Brothers’ high school in Amarillo, Texas. All three were farmers, or as Hinders called them, “Farm brothers.”
Young Miller certainly looked the part — a 6-foot-2, 220 pounder, with a flat-top and a wardrobe out of central casting.
“He was always wearing overalls and an engineer’s cap,” Hinders said, noting that “Big Jim” continued to do so after entering the novitiate and taking the religious name Brother Leo William. (Later, he resumed using his baptismal name, and became “Brother Jim.” “Anytime he wasn’t in his habit, there he was in an engineer’s hat and overalls. … Big Jim was the ultimate farm boy.”
And handy, too, McGyver-ing solutions to fix-it problems.
“We always had bailing wire and used to kid around, ‘If you had bailing wire, you could fix anything,’” Hinders said, with a laugh.
Big Jim also did so joyously, with a pleasant demeanor.
“You’d never see him with a frown on his face,” Hinders said. “No matter what would happen, he was always happy.’”
La Salle’s farm happened to be next to the Salesian Sisters from Mexico, who handled cooking and other housekeeping chores at La Salle. Hinders cared for the farm’s poultry — chicken, turkeys, ducks — so he regularly interacted with the sisters. Miller worked around the barn so naturally, he interacted with the sisters, too. The connections ultimately inspired him to serve the Christian Brothers’ missions in Central America.
“We talked about it quite a bit; he was very much interested in the missions,” said Hinders, who had wanted to pursue the missions himself before becoming a working brother — rather than a mission brother. “I could see the promise in him.”
After final vows in 1970, Brother Jim was missioned to Nicaragua, where he developed a school at which enrollment nearly tripled — to 800 from 300. He also supervised the construction of 10 rural schools, but Nicaragua’s civil war prompted the community to recall him to the U.S. in 1979 for his safety. After a brief stint as a high school teacher in Minnesota, he was again missioned to Central America in 1981, this time to Guatemala. He taught at the secondary school in Huehuetenango and worked with young indigenous Mayans at the Indian Center, which ultimately led to his martyrdom.
The Guatemalan Army regularly conscripted the young — and exempt — indigenous boys into its ranks. This action prompted a visit to the Army base by Brother Jim or another Christian Brother to right the wrong; they’d point out the illegality of conscripting underage students, then bring the boys back to the school. However, in doing this, Brother Jim was targeted for death.
On Feb. 13, 1982, Brother Jim was on a ladder repairing a wall at the Indian Center when three hooded assailants shot him to death.
Initially, Hinders felt remorse and lamented his role helping to inspire his friend’s mission work. But ultimately, he concluded that Brother Jim’s martyrdom came while serving, teaching and protecting indigenous youth and working on a ladder, no less. A farm boy and servant of Christ to the end.
“That’s who he was; that’s Jim,” said Hinders, who counts himself as lucky to have worked with a man who may be canonized one day. “I know this is special.”