Missionary from Columbia made mark on Japan, literary world

Respected author, son of UM professor, coined the term “neighborhood novel”


Professor and Divine Word Missionary Father David Mayer, 80, who introduced a new literary genre, died Dec. 6 at Techny.

A missionary in Japan for almost 45 years, Fr. Mayer served as professor of American literature and language at Nanzan University in Nagoya and was an expert on the works of Flannery O’Connor, James T. Farrell, Japanese-American writer Toshio Mori and urban ethnic writers.

In his book, The American Neighborhood Novel (University of Nagoya Press: 1986), Fr. Mayer developed the genre of the neighborhood novel, fiction that either celebrates or criticizes the values and relationships of an urban group closely knit by their common identity and physical presence.

Neighborhood novels focus on ethnic elements either in the immediate immigrant period or in the stages of transition.

Fr. Mayer drew upon the studies of sociologists Andrew Greeley, Suzanne Keller and others to flesh out this new term.

“David recognized the need to categorize literature that was steeped in childhood ethnic experiences,” said Divine Word Father Thomas Krosnicki, former director of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Committee on Liturgy and a classmate of Fr. Mayer.

“He aptly dedicated The American Neighborhood Novel to four people who inspired his thinking: his parents; Rabbi Herman Schaalman, an interfaith leader and pillar of contemporary Reformed Judaism who taught at St. Mary’s Seminary at Techny; and Bishop Harold Perry, the Divine Word Missionary who became the first African-American priest in the 20th century to be named a bishop,” Fr. Krosnicki stated.

He was born in 1938 in Columbia, a son of Dennis and Virginia (nee Miller) Mayer.

As a teenager, he entered the Society of the Divine Word high school seminary at East Troy, Wisconsin.

He professed religious vows in 1958.

In addition to degrees from St. Mary’s Seminary in Techny (Northbrook), he earned a master’s degree in English from Georgetown University and a doctorate in English from the University of Maryland.

Ordained to the Holy Priesthood by Bishop Perry in 1966, Fr. Mayer taught at Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa, until 1968.

He began teaching at Nanzan University in 1974.

During his tenure at the university, he also served as English Department head; head of the Graduate School, English Section; a member of the Board of Councilors, Nanzan School Corporation; and researcher at the Nanzan Center of American Studies.

A prolific writer, he penned academic works, essays and book reviews.

His scholarly publications included: Reading Japanese American Literature: The Legacy of Three Generations; Drooping Sun, Coy Moon: Essays on Flannery O’Connor; The American Neighborhood Novel; and Door Stoops and Windowsills: Perspectives on the American Neighborhood Novel.

But genre did not confine him.

His bibliography lists a great variety, including haiku poems, a book of homilies, a collection of short stories published in Japanese, and a novella called “Flutterby Days.”

In 2009, he published Komagane Poems (Mission Press, Techny, Ill.), a series of short essays and haiku-like verses with drawings about nature.

He then applied the essay style to The Pleasures of Pottery: Japanese Ceramics in Pastel and Poetic Sketches, which was published as a limited edition to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the Society of the Divine Word in Japan.

“For me,” he once wrote, “writing is a way of consolidating and focusing on the grandeurs and diversity of God’s creation.”

In Spring of this year, Fr. Mayer returned to the United States for home leave and stayed for health reasons.

“His love for Japan is forever,” said Divine Word Father Lukas Batmomolin, superior delegate for the Society of the Divine Word’s North American provinces. “Until his last days, he was still hoping to return to Japan, even after being transferred to the Chicago Province for retirement.”

Surviving is a brother, Michael Mayer of Missouri.

His Funeral Mass was celebrated on Dec. 15 in the chapel of Divine Word Residence at Techny, followed by burial in St. Mary’s Cemetery.