In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth. Then there was Light. And Water. Oh heavenly water that pooled and cooled into a giant oval sheet of ice at Steinberg Skating Rink in Forest Park.
For the Rev. Canon Jean-Baptiste Commins of St. Francis de Sales Oratory of St. Louis, the ice was good. So very good that on a crowded Saturday evening in early December after intently lacing up his Bauer hockey skates beneath his long cassock, he waited eagerly for the rink’s Zamboni to finish its rounds.
When the big machine lumbered off the rink leaving the surface glistening under starry holiday lights, Commins bolted onto the ice.
He did a quick turn with his hands in his fleece vest pockets. His habit blew backward at his ankles. He darted left and right, forward and backward around dozens and dozens of more earthly, wobbly skaters.
“Wow, look at the priest,” gaped a little boy as the priest swept by. “He skates backward!”
“That man is skating in a dress,” said a girl clutching on to her giggly group of friends.
“Yeah, he’s good. He’s good,” said a guardsman at the rail — high praise from one of the men in orange who oversee the rink.
Commins was so fast — his edges so strong and his crossovers so sharp — not even the little hockey speed demons could catch him.
Commins is only 27. A Frenchman who grew up in a military family that moved 12 times, he’s a St. Louis transplant by way of South America, the west coast of Africa, Florida, and a one-year stint at a boarding school in New Hampshire where he perfected his skating. He’s been an ordained priest in St. Louis for less than two years.
After several stints in tropical climates — including a year in seminary in Gabon, Africa — he’s taken full advantage of St. Louis’ winter weather to become Steinberg’s unofficial holy man of the ice.
He can be found at the fabled outdoor rink — and sometimes at the indoor rink in Brentwood — skating full speed in his cassock and white cleric’s collar about once a week. Sometimes he comes with members of his historic south St. Louis church, other times alone.
Wherever people find him, they see a man captured by the joy of skating. And they smile as if they’ve seen something that’s a little bit divine.
“Well, I love it. If I could, I would go every day,” Commins said in his French accent. “With the cassock, it has a real power, too. Because many people ask me where I am from. They ask if I am a real priest. It helps me be a real apostolate for the church. It shows that we can have a priest doing normal stuff like sports.”
Skaters apparently heed the call. Commins said people who meet him on the ice occasionally come visit St. Francis de Sales, an ornate Gothic Church that’s sometimes referred to as the Cathedral of south St. Louis because of its dramatic, towering spires.
‘The church is alive’
Commins belongs to the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest. He is one of only a handful of priests from the institute ordained in the United States. The religious community, founded in Africa in 1990, regularly celebrates the old-style Latin Mass, or the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, as Pope Benedict XVI referred to it.
In addition to immersing themselves in the original language of the holy Mass, the institute’s seminarians and priests also go “old school” in their garb. They typically wear the ankle-length cassock in public.
Commins has been wearing one since he entered seminary at 19.
One would think ice skating in religious robes would present a challenge. But Commins shrugs it off because long before he ever went skating in the cassock, he often went snowboarding in his habit in the French Alps during seminary.
“People always ask if it’s possible, and I say, I don’t have any problem with it.”
His St. Louis congregation adores his talents.
“We are very, very blessed to have an energetic priest. It’s just very inspiring for people, and he certainly sticks out in a crowd,” said Sarah Wichmer of St. Louis, one of about 10 church members on the rink with Commins that night. “He’s been begging us to go skating with him,”
Commins said skating with his church community amounts to true communion, and he is proud to show this unity to other skaters.
“You you can see it on their faces,” he says of onlookers. “They see this joy we have to show it’s OK we are Catholic, and we are happy to be with our priest — that the church is alive.”
One of 10 brothers and sisters, Commins was born in French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America when his father was stationed at an Army base near the French space center there. A year later the family moved to southern France near Nice. From there, the family lived on and off in parts of West Africa, Paris, Brittany and Florida.
Despite the many moves, Commins said he and his siblings remain close thanks to two things: Catholicism and outdoor sports.
The only priest in the family, Commins said he first felt his calling about age 12 but wasn’t fully able to understand it until he got a true sign at 18. That’s when he was struggling to decide whether to join the military or follow in the life of Christ.
“One day I went to an adoration with many young teenagers, and a basket was next to the holy sacrament with folded papers, each one having names of different saints and a prayer intention written on it. The one I picked was St. Jean-Baptiste Vianney; ‘Pray for priestly vocations.’ ”
He was the patron for the priesthood. In that moment it was as if a voice spoke to him, Commins said.
“So that was a sign. I was called to the priesthood. To me it was very clear.”
Though never a hockey player, Commins says that in addition to skating at Steinberg Rink he’s also become deeply devoted to the St. Louis Blues and is a fan of Vladimir Tarasenko.
It has not escaped Commins’ attention that the Blues will play in an enormous outdoor rink inside Busch Stadium in a potential barn burner against the Chicago Blackhawks in St. Louis’ first-ever Winter Classic on Jan. 2.
As Nat King Cole crooned a Christmas carol over Steinberg’s tinny outdoor speakers, the dashing young priest hinted he’d be glad to send a few prayers the Blues’ way.
“If the Saint Louis Blues need a chaplain,” he said sheepishly. “I’m a big fan, so. …”
Four days later, on a frigid Wednesday afternoon, Commins was back on the ice at Steinberg. About an hour in, something mystical happened. Louie the blue polar bear — the Blues mascot — showed up for a previously scheduled birthday party with some of the skaters there that day.
Was it coincidence? Or was it ... a sign?