Abbey mourns slain monks

Friday, June 14, 2002

Associated Press WriterCONCEPTION, Mo. (AP) -- More than 1,000 mourners packed the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception for Friday's funeral Mass for two monks slain in a rampage by a gunman who later took his own life.

The Rev. Philip Schuster and Brother Damian Larson were to be buried in plain pine caskets, side-by-side in St. Columba Cemetery across from Conception Abbey.

In his homily, the abbot, the Rev. Gregory Polan, reminded mourners that "Peace" has been the Benedictine order's longtime motto.

"Yes, there has been injury to the peace of this household of faith, but it has not destroyed the essential element of our Benedictine life," Polan said.

The abbey's peace was shattered on Monday, when Lloyd Jeffress killed the two monks and wounded two others before committing suicide.

One of the injured monks, the Rev. Norbert Schappler, 75, of Atchison, Kan., attended Friday's funeral Mass with medical workers attending to him.

"He's in a fragile condition, but he really wanted to come today," abbey spokesman Dan Madden said.

Schappler and the Rev. Kenneth Reichert, 68, of Brunswick, are expected to recover. Reichert remains hospitalized.

Polan asked mourners at the Mass to pray not only for the dead and injured monks, but for Jeffress.

"Such acts of violence as happened here on Monday could only have come from someone in desperate need of help," he said. "Hatred, anger and unwillingness to forgive only keep us crippled and bound by the evils that surround us."

Still, Polan acknowledged that believers will have questions.

"In a moment of tragedy such as we have experienced, people of faith ask themselves, 'How does God speak to us in this event? How does God speak to us in a manner such as this?"' Polan said. "To be sure, there are no easy answers."

But, he said, the answers will come in time.

"It is a wisdom that will show itself in unexpected happenings of grace and goodness," Polan said. "And when it comes, we will know it, because it will bring us peace."

Bishop Raymond J. Boland of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph canceled his trip to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas so he could attend the funeral and remain close to developments in the case. Other denominations also sent representatives.

Investigators have yet to determine whether Jeffress' unhappiness over a 43-year-old divorce and later annulment by the Catholic Church fueled the attack.

Jeffress, 71, of Kearney, was said to be upset about the way he was treated by the church after the breakup of his five-year marriage in 1959. Investigators hoped a review of church papers from the annulment, granted 20 years after his divorce, would give them some insight.

"Right now there is speculation about what gave rise to the motive Mr. Jeffress had for his action," Polan said. "That may be the important work of law enforcement, but it is not our work at this moment."

The Missouri State Highway Patrol's investigation will likely continue into next week, Sgt. Sheldon Lyon said, and no further statements are planned until then.

The shootings will not force the abbey, which hosts about 15,000 visitors each year, to alter its policy of hospitality to travelers and spiritual seekers.

"Hospitality and the Benedictine charism (a word meaning "gift of God's grace") are so intertwined that it really is inconceivable that such a thing would happen at Conception Abbey," Polan said.

About 750 people attended a wake for the slain monks on Thursday night.

Schuster, 85, of Pilot Grove, Mo., had spent 51 years at the abbey, and Larson, 64, of Wichita, Kan., had been there for 32 years.

Schuster served as porter and was the first person many visitors saw upon arrival at the abbey, about 90 miles north of Kansas City.

Larson had a passion for meteorology, earning him the nickname "weather monk." He spent warm months clad in bib overalls, helping tend the abbey's 960 acres and working in the apple orchard.

When the weather turned cold, Larson would take up his other hobby: whittling miniature replicas of Roman Catholic churches from worn apple crates. Some of his creations were on display in the room where monks gathered with guests after Thursday's service.

"Initially, I can forgive," said the Rev. Albert Bruecken, who delivered the eulogies for both monks at Thursday's service. "But emotionally -- when I go look for Brother Damian and he's not there, or when I go past the porter's office and Father Philip is not there, it makes it pretty hard."

The real tragedy is not the loss of Schuster and Larson, Bruecken said. Death is the moment they have been anticipating all their monastic lives so that they may be united with God, he said in his eulogy.

"No, the real tragedy is that Lloyd Jeffress came here troubled and without peace and he shot the very people who might have helped him find it," said Bruecken, monastic vocation director and science professor at the seminary.

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