“I never would have expected I was going to become a Benedictine monk in Italy, in the birthplace of St. Benedict, and a priest!” says Dom Augustine (Philip ’13) Wilmeth, O.S.B., of his childhood years. “I wasn’t agnostic or atheist, but like many kids nowadays I just didn’t think much at all about God or religion; it wasn’t on my radar.”
Yet on September 18, 2021, His Eminence George Cardinal Pell, Prefect Emeritus of the Secretariat for the Economy, ordained Fr. Augustine to the holy priesthood. The young priest now walks in the footsteps of St. Benedict at the 1,000-year-old Monastery of St. Benedict in Norcia Italy, where he also manages his community’s financial affairs and oversees its brewery.
Fr. Augustine’s path to the priesthood was a surprising twist of Providence. Born in Anderson, South Carolina, and baptized Episcopalian, he attended a Catholic high school, where he first began to detect the stirrings of faith. “There were many exceptional teachers that were invaluable witnesses to the truth of the faith and Christ,” he recalls. “It was really something for me as young man to see adults I respected on their knees in prayer at Mass, or making a visit to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.” Inspired by their example, as well as their teaching — particularly about Church history — he entered the Catholic Church at the age of 16.
Around that same time he learned about Thomas Aquinas College and read its founding and governing document, A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Liberal Education. “I was pretty convinced I had to go there; it was the only college I applied to,” Fr. Augustine remarks. In the fall of 2009 he enrolled as a freshman. “I remember my time at the College very fondly. The whole program has also been very helpful for my priestly studies; even now I know I’m standing on that solid foundation when I have to teach, preach, or engage people in the apostolate.”
“I remember my time at the College very fondly. The whole program has also been very helpful for my priestly studies; even now I know I’m standing on that solid foundation when I have to teach, preach, or engage people in the apostolate.”
Sustaining that intellectual life were the spiritual opportunities the campus afforded. “The sacramental and liturgical life — not to mention the inspiring example of the tutors and chaplains — were invaluable helps for me and my classmates in growing up as adults and men,” he says. At the urging of one of the College’s then-chaplains, Rev. Charles Willingham, O.Praem., he consecrated himself to the Blessed Mother — a decision that would profoundly affect his future.
“After I was consecrated to Our Lady, she didn’t waste any time,” he notes — and he began to discern his vocation. Fr. Augustine recalls a frank conversation with Fr. Charles, who asked whether he intended to get married, or become a priest or religious. “I said, ‘I don’t know; they all seem really good. Maybe I’m equally attracted to both paths,’” Fr. Augustine recalls. “His response was something like, ‘Well, if that’s really true, then you should pursue the path that, objectively speaking, is more likely to make you a saint — you should become a religious.’ Maybe he also said, ‘At least give it a shot and see whether you have a vocation or not.’”
Acting on that advice, Fr. Augustine visited the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, Italy, after his sophomore year. “I had a very powerful experience — another moment of deeper conversion that was beautiful and freeing but also very intense, and I came to see that God was calling me here to continue that work of conversion as a monk,” says. Fr. Augustine. “My time at the College deepened my appreciation for the sacred liturgy, beauty, and especially Gregorian chant, and I think all of these attractions converged in my Benedictine vocation.”
After graduating in 2013, Fr. Augustine entered the Monastery of St. Benedict, and he has been there ever since — surviving the 2016 earthquakes that virtually demolished the Basilica of St. Benedict and the Monastery itself. In good times and ill, he and his brother monks have lived according to the Rule of St. Benedict.
“St. Benedict urges monks to ‘Prefer nothing to the Work of God,’ and so much of the day is dedicated to the Opus Dei, the Work of God — and yes, it really is work,” he says. “It takes preparation, effort, and energy to do well and engages one’s whole body and soul. We spend 4 - 5 hours every day praying the Divine Office, and on top of that we have a sung Conventual Mass every day, as well as Low Masses earlier in the morning — both are offered in the Extraordinary Form. As a priest now I offer Holy Mass daily and assist with the confessions of the many travelers and pilgrims who come to the monastery.”
Then there are the day-to-day responsibilities or administering the monastery and tending to its brewery. “At the moment I serve as the cellarer: I oversee and coordinate all of the material and financial affairs of the community,” he says. “This includes our reconstruction project: Rebuilding a completely ruined historic 16th century Capuchin convent exactly as it was, and at the same time integrating state-of-the-art anti-seismic isolators into the foundation.”
Reflecting on the path on which God’s Providence has led him, Fr. Augustine imitates the example of his namesake and likewise searches for echoes of the Lord’s Providential plan. “Several times throughout my life I have become very committed to a path once I had settled that it was what I should do and what I think God wanted me to do,” he observes. “This happened with my conversion, going to TAC, and, later on, becoming a monk. It might be partially from temperament and personality, but I also think that God given me this special singlemindedness and conviction as a special grace — maybe I wouldn’t have made it in any other way.”