Catholic Sentinel photos by Gerry Lewin
Fr. Robert Palladino works on calligraphy in his Sandy farmhouse.
Catholic Sentinel photos by Gerry Lewin
Fr. Robert Palladino works on calligraphy in his Sandy farmhouse.
In the morning cold of the farmhouse, his hand is stiff as he grasps the broad-edged pen. His eyes have aged. But the 78-year-old priest and calligraphy master plans to write until he dies.

Father Robert Palladino is as much evangelist as artist. He creates letters full of grace not simply for their beauty, but to communicate the Word of God. He's a man with a daring ideal: create a form as worthy as possible for divine content.    

His work is sought after and hangs in the homes of many Oregon Catholics. He melds Latin, English and Hebrew letters in ways that show the vitality and universality of scriptures. He also writes the words of theologians and spiritual masters, usually short, memorable quotes people can live by. He has engraved the texts and notes of ancient chant, which he admires greatly.

“I do things that inspire me in the hope that they may inspire someone else,” says the priest.

He's both a former Trappist monk and a widower, a lover of Gregorian chant and a fervent backer of bringing the church into the modern world.

Father Palladino is the grandson of an Italian stone mason who came to the U.S. and was recruited to work on St. Francis of Assisi Cathedral in Santa Fe, N.M., a building finished in 1886. Both grandmothers were singers.

His father, a frustrated would-be architect who became a grocer and church choir director, was born in the house of the Bishop of Santa Fe. His mother, of Scotch-Irish descent, was the church organist.

Young Robert, the last of eight children, grew up in Albuquerque, a half block from the Jesuit-run parish where his grandfather had built the school. The boy was an altar server from the fourth grade on. He got the call when there was a need at Mass. He loved being close up, where he could hear the priest's soft words clearly.

As a boy approaching adolescence, he would walk home from church and pray.
One day a thought hit him.

"There I was concerned about so many things and there is the Lord in his house," he recalls. "I decided I wanted to spend my life being closer to the Lord."

After graduating from Catholic high school in 1950, Robert investigated joining the Jesuits. He admired his pastor, a saintly Jesuit whose room was filled with holy pictures. But the life seemed solitary. The old Jesuit suggested the Trappists, who live together in a close community of prayer and work.

The Trappists had a monastery north of Santa Fe on an old dude ranch. The slim, small boy made a retreat with the monks and at age 17 joined the silent order. A Jewish man who had purchased his father's grocery store advised him to stay for at least a year before making any big decisions.

The counsel helped him endure. His hair was shaven and he wore a scratchy woolen hood. He and the other monks pulled rocks out of arid fields in an attempt to farm. One priest who came to join the monastery left after just half a day.

In his second year, he continued developing a long interest in handwriting. Father Maurice, a former professor who knew calligraphy, began giving him lessons. The young monk soon had the task of writing certificates to thank donors and crafting name plates and directive signs.  

"In a silent monastery, signs do come in handy," Father Palladino says.

The silence forced him to pay more attention to books. The way the letters look, he mused, can help tell the story.

In 1955, the Trappists decided that their northern New Mexico land lacked what was needed for farming and headed to Oregon. The men arrived at Lafayette in a downpour, but were glad to see grass and trees as opposed to rocks and dust.  

Young Frater Robert became Father Robert in 1958. His superiors, noting his love of music, asked him to take over the choir, which sang Gregorian chant in Latin. Liturgical prayer, the main work of the monks, took place eight times a day.

At the same time, he worked like every other Trappist, performing manual chores. He served in the bindery, sewing books by hand, trimming pages and stamping the bindings with gold lettering.

By the mid-1960s, the Second Vatican Council brought changes to monastic life, including the replacement of Gregorian chant. Father Robert was devastated. Chant, for him, made the Word of God memorable and alive. It had been part of monastic life for more than a millennia.     

"For me the important thing is always the text," he says. "Chant brings out the words better than any other music. It was the ideal liturgical music for me."

Other parts of Trappist life were changing and he felt he no longer fit.

About the same time, he was taking clarinet lessons to learn modern musical notation in an attempt to embrace the liturgical changes. His teacher was Catherine Halverson, principal clarinetist for the symphony in Portland.

In 1968, he left the Trappists after 18 years and in 1969 married Catherine. He was dispensed from monastic vows and celibacy by Pope Paul VI. The couple had a son in 1970.

Known simply as Robert Palladino again, he obtained a position at Portland's Reed College teaching calligraphy and ancient scripts.

The life at Reed could hardly have been more different from the abbey's. T-shirts read "Communism, Atheism, Free Love."

He found the students brilliant and curious. They got the joke the first time. Many science majors took his courses, including a young man named Steve Jobs, who later co-founded Apple Computers.

Calligraphy teaching posts also came from The Museum Art School, Marylhurst University and George Fox University.

He and Catherine moved out of Portland to 20 acres in Sandy. She wanted to "get out to where the people are real" and loved the garden.

He had worked with sheep at the monastery and so bought a herd for the farm.
In 1987, after a long illness, Catherine died. For five years, the dejected widower worked to emerge emotionally and financially from losing the love of his life.   

Meanwhile, he kept hearing from friends and other parishioners about the need for priests. He went to then-Archbishop William Levada and offered his services. The archbishop welcomed him. That began a three-year process, at the Vatican and in Oregon. Father Palladino became a parish priest with papal approval in 1995. He served for 12 years, including a decade as administrator of St. John Church in Welches and St. Aloysius in Estacada.

"I found the nicest people in both churches where I served," he says.

He still helps at the parishes in Welches and Estacada and presides at sung Latin Masses at St. Stephen's in Portland. He officiates at weddings often and says Mass somewhere every weekend.

During the week, he works as a professional calligrapher, as he has for more than 40 years.  

"His being a priest and someone knowledgeable about the liturgy and the theology of the church gives special meaning when he is writing something of theological or spiritual content," says Msgr. Chuck Lienert, a pastor and photographer who has a Palladino piece hanging on his wall. "He crafts the work to reflect the spiritual meaning."

Chuck Lehman, a longtime calligrapher and an Oregon Catholic, says Father Palladino's distinctive contribution to the craft is a "total devotion" to the scholarship of Roman Caps, the lettering many consider the high point of the art in western civilization.

Lehman says that the priest has a deep sense of Jesus as the word and the art of God.

"For him," Lehman says, "it's no surprise that the written word becomes important."

Jean Germano, an Oregon Catholic artist, took a class from Father Palladino 20 years ago and has remained a friend. What strikes her is his unshakable sense of his place before God and in the world.

"He comes from a place that's very centered," Germano says. "I am so impressed with how he knows himself and is at peace with himself."

Those who get letters from Father Palladino know he uses stunning Italics in everyday communications. The reader feels important.   

"To me it's a human experience," he says. "Writing on a computer is dehumanizing. You feel the same way when you push an e as when you push an r. To me, every letter has a personality."

His life has been varied and he's enjoyed all of it, he says. He manages the great losses.

His health is steady. An artificial heart valve put in place 11 years ago is still humming along.

An intellectual, he reads five books at a time. The book, beside the Bible, he could not do without: Romano Guardini's The Lord.

He has as much work as he can do. It goes slower than it used to but he won't sacrifice the quality. It's too important.    

At present, Father Palladino is completing a piece for a calligraphy show on a sequence of 15 psalms that bear the title "A song of ascents." As he writes, the chant tone and Latin words still ring in his head from 18 years in the monastery. His letters, he says, must give dimension to that sound, and even more, to that incomparable message.