SANTA PAULA, Calif. — Last Christmas season, Jared Kuebler returned to his residence hall at Thomas Aquinas College to find a CD left by his “Kris Kringle” — a “secret Santa”-type of tradition at the small, Catholic liberal arts school.
A computerized voice on the CD led Kuebler on a weeklong, elaborately planned scavenger hunt. He scoured books at the library, read a poem in front of the entire lunch crowd and, following the voice's instructions, wrote notes to teachers — called “tutors” at the college — expressing his thanks and appreciation for their hard work.
Before the school dance where Kris Kringles were unmasked, Kuebler composed a song relating how his secret friend had taught him about love and friendship.
His Kris Kringle, Kuebler learned that night, was John Marie St. Francis, a lively senior known for his complex fusion of personalities: sophisticated prankster, talented artist, skilled athlete, “Renaissance man” and devout Catholic with a passion for the Latin Mass.
“It was amazing; he spent so much time planning all of that,” Kuebler later said. “But that was John Marie — he loved to make people do exciting things they normally wouldn't do.”
Around 10 p.m. June 8, St. Francis died when his 1970 BMW plunged over an 800-foot cliff at an especially dangerous curve on the Big Sur Coast in California. Less than a month before, he was among 77 graduates to receive a bachelor's degree in liberal arts from Thomas Aquinas College and planned to teach English in Poland for a year. He was 22.
The same young man who was known for rearranging ceiling tiles in the kitchen to spell a message for the cook also leaves behind a range of eclectic interests and memories of deep conversations.
Falconry, architecture, piano, art, languages and fencing — he was a two-time gold medalist at the Junior Olympics — all held his attention to varying degrees. St. Francis also taught fencing to tutors' children and planned to pursue it again at tournaments in Europe while teaching.
“He just loved life,” Valana Stevens said of her son five days after his death. “He had so many interests and he wanted to do everything. He loved nature and books and fencing and everything. He just devoured life as if he thought he was running out of time.”
The same could be said about his faith. Friends at the small, Catholic liberal arts college noticed changes in the past year; St. Francis often served at daily Mass and talked with some about a possible calling to the religious life. On a questionnaire given to all seniors before graduation, he wrote that he wanted to spend a year in a Benedictine or Norbertine monastery or a seminary to discern his vocation.
“He had a lot of questions about God and Mass, but it's like he really started to believe there was an answer,” Kuebler remembered. “He still wondered about things, but it was a satisfied wonder.”
St. Francis' funeral Mass was celebrated June 16 at San Buenaventura Mission in Ventura, where he often attended Mass. Mourners gathered at the college the evening before to pray the rosary and hold an all-night vigil.
After a childhood described by friends and family as “not easy,” St. Francis struggled with questions of religion for a long time.
“He was really angry for a lot of years,” said his mother, who named her first-born son after John, the beloved, and Mary, the Mother of God. “But he was letting go of a lot of this. I just noticed a difference when I would see him again in the summer and holidays, and I know that the college is responsible.”
The college's role in St. Francis' life and death started when his uncle attended Thomas Aquinas more than 30 years ago. From that point, his mother said, there was never any question where her children would go. His sister, Fiona Stevens, 17, will attend Thomas Aquinas this fall. His brother, Peter, is 14. The family has even asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the school.
Tutors learned of his death before anyone else. Unable to find information about relatives, the coroner's office turned to materials found among pictures of friends in St. Francis' vehicle.
The call came June 8 just as the college's 8:30 a.m. Mass was beginning, and that Mass was offered for John Marie. By 11:30 a.m., news had spread and the small chapel was overflowing as a second Mass was said for St. Francis.
Comfort arrived as details emerged. The morning of the accident, people soon learned, St. Francis had attended Mass and reconciliation at St. Mary Margaret parish in Oakland. He had been visiting his uncle in Pleasant Hill before leaving for San Diego, where he planned to stay with friends for a month until traveling through Europe with his sister, then stay in Poland to teach.
“It's a great loss,” his uncle Francis Poon said in a press release from the school, “but you have to believe in Divine Providence. He's in God's hands and he's happy now in a way that no one could be happy or loved in life.”
Dana Wind writes from Raleigh, North Carolina.