John Francis Salm was born at Albany, New York on April 26, 1921, the first of eight children to John and Elizabeth Salm. A bright child (he skipped the second grade!), his elementary education was at St. Teresa’s School in Albany where he was taught by the Sisters of Mercy and his high school education at Christian Brothers Academy (CBA). There, having been influenced by a dedicated community of Brothers and inspired teachers, John decided almost immediately that he wanted to become a Christian Brother.
But he really had to fight for what he wanted. Admittedly, he was neither an athletic type nor one of the popular students and therefore not one of the boys the Brothers had their eye on to join. In fact, the first time the recruiter came around and asked what he wanted to be, he put down “a Brother” and he wasn’t even called in. During his junior year one of the Brothers even stated to him “You won’t last two weeks [in Barrytown].” Over the years Brother Luke often reminded that Brother and others of those sentiments.
After graduating from Christian Brothers Academy in 1938, John decided to enter the Christian Brothers. However, his father postponed his entry for a few years by putting him to work to help support the growing family during the Depression and to earn the money they charged for room and board at the novitiate ($10 a month). So after selling books door-to-door, working in a bindery sweatshop (William’s Press for 27 cents an hour!) and running a newsstand in the New York State Office building, John earned enough money to begin the novitiate at Barrytown.
In September 1940, together with 35 classmates, John F. Salm was invested with the Brothers’ habit and became Brother Celestine Luke. After spending only one year in the novitiate, albeit a rigorous and ascetical year, the whole class was then called to Washington, DC to attend the Scholasticate at Catholic University. Although he expressed a desire to major in religion, Luke was persuaded to major in Latin and graduated with a BA in 1945 Summa Cum Laude.
His first teaching assignment out of College was at La Salle Academy, on Second Street in New York City where he taught Latin, Geometry and moderated the band. Only three years later, thanks largely to pressure from the faculty at Manhattan College, he was summoned back to Washington to pursue a doctoral degree in theology. While completing his graduate studies, Luke served as a faculty for the student Brothers at De La Salle College in Washington. Despite a busy schedule of graduate studies and a full teaching load of theology, Greek and Latin, Luke became the first brother and first non-cleric to receive the doctorate degree in theology.
After receiving his doctorate in 1955, Luke was sent to Manhattan College to reorganize the religion department. Teaching within the new liberal arts program, Luke injected theology into the religion program and developed new courses on dogmatic theology. During this time, Luke also became an active member, and eventual leader, in the Catholic Theological Society of America. He helped form the Society of Catholic College Teachers of Religion as a forum for exchanging ideas. This helped Luke introduce new and current courses to the religious studies curriculum. He eventually went on to serve as chairman of the theology/religious studies department from 1962-1970, and as director of the graduate theology program from 1970-1978.
As a revered teacher, students often praised his wit and stand-up comedic style of lecturing that indeed held their interest. In addition to his teaching at the College, Luke also served as a Prefect in the residence halls where he both monitored and shared the best and the worst of student life. He earned the respect of the student residents for his openness and temerity.
With his esteemed status as the ranking Brother theologian in a time of change in the Church and Institute, Luke was elected to represent the New York Province at the 39th General Chapter, the “renewal” chapter called for by Vatican II and help in Rome in 1966 and 1967. With his involvement in the theological community worldwide and at the center of the Institute, is it not surprising he was re-elected again to the 1976, 1986 and 1993 chapters.
As a prominent lecturer on theology and religious life, Luke taught at St. Mary’s College, California in 1972 and 1980 and at the Maryknoll Seminary from 1973-1983. When the Buttimer Institute of Lasallian Studies came into existence in 1986 of course Luke was asked to be the main presenter. Called onto the lecture circuit time and again, Luke traveled the world.
With a remarkable gift for language and communication, Brother was also a renowned and prolific author. Luke’s first book was aptly named Beginnings, which was a collection of translations of Institute writings that focused on the formation and foundation of the Institute. Over the years he authored several other books and countless articles in his field of theology, on the history of De La Salle and the Brothers, the Institute, theology and spirituality to name but a few topics. In addition to Beginnings; De La Salle and his Brothers (1980) his books include: Encounters: De La Salle at Parmenie (1983); Brother Miguel Febres Cordero: Teacher, Scholar, Saint (1984); Brother Scubilion Rousseau; Apostle of Reconciliation (1986); Brother Arnold Reche: Apostolic Ascetic (1986); Brother Benilde Romancon: Teacher Saint (1988); John Baptist De La Salle: The Formative Years (1989); Brother Mutien Marie Wiaux; Sanctity in Simplicity (1989); The Work is Yours; The Life of Saint John Baptist De La Salle (1989); The Martyrs of Turon and Tarragona; The De La Salle Brothers in Spain 1934-1939 (1990); A Religious Institute in Transition; The Story of Three General Chapters (1992). As a result of his lecturing, these books and the numerous articles on Christian Brothers’ spiritualty, the history of Manhattan College, and religious education, Brother Luke’s name became recognized and celebrated all over the Institute. His research into Lasallian Studies and his writings also created the foundation for the vast Lasallian Studies Collection at Manhattan College.
In addition to becoming the first Brother to receive a doctorate in Theology and serving as a delegate to the General Chapters several times over, Brother Like received a number of honors and distinctions. These include; Phi Beta Kappa (CUA 1945); Honorary LLD degree from LaSalle University, 1977; Manhattan College Trustees Teacher-Scholar Award, 1983; the NARB “Proclaimer” Award, 1986; an Honorary L.H.D. degree from St. Mary’s College, California, 1988; and an Honorary D. Humanities degree from Lewis University, 1990.
In the early 1990s, Brother Luke retired from teaching and was appointed the Archivist of the De La Salle Christian Brothers Archives of the New York District. There he collected, preserved and made available the history of the Christian Brothers of the New York District. Although he occasionally spoke or wrote about the history of the Institute, his own writing and lecturing mostly took back seat while he helped other scholars in their research.
By the early 2000s, although he only threatened to retire as District Archivist, Luke did scale back the time spent in the Archives. He used his energy for daily walks in Van Cortlandt Park and his passion for ships and ocean liners on relaxing sea-faring vacations with his family and friends.
When Luke first learned of his pancreatic cancer five years ago, he faced his illness with his typical frank and sensible logic. He wrote to the Brothers; My attitude is that I have had 82 years of eating and drinking whatever I want with no serious illness and it is about time I paid my dues. If God wants me in God’s company instead of in your company that is God’s choice. Lord, “The work is yours.”
God chose to keep Luke here for another five years. But the second time around, as the cancer returned in May of this year and his condition declined, He finally called him to experience in reality and vision what Luke had all his life experiences in faith.