Abbey mourns slain monks

Saturday, June 15, 2002

CONCEPTION, Mo. -- Two monks fatally shot at a Roman Catholic abbey were remembered as "icons of honesty and simplicity" who were taken in a brutal and senseless way.

More than 1,000 people filled the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception -- the site of Monday's bloodshed -- for Friday's funeral Mass for the Rev. Philip Schuster and Brother Damian Larson.

The Benedictine monks' black habits billowed in the wind as they walked the plain pine caskets to St. Columba Cemetery, across from Conception Abbey. The monks sang of resurrection and hope before their slain confreres were buried side-by-side.

"They welcomed people not only into their homes, their monastery, but also in their hearts," the abbot, the Rev. Gregory Polan, said in his homily. "They had a way of putting people at ease, focusing them on the beauties that surround us, and inviting them to share in the peace of our life."

The abbey's peace was shattered Monday when Lloyd Jeffress opened fire in the hallway of the monastery that adjoins the basilica. Two other monks were critically injured.

In the basilica, which underwent a cleansing and rededication ceremony on Wednesday, Polan asked mourners 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."

Polan acknowledged that believers will have questions, but he said answers would 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."

One of the injured monks, the Rev. Norbert Schappler, 75, of Atchison, Kan., attended the funeral 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, who was immediately returned to the hospital, and the Rev. Kenneth Reichert, 68, of Brunswick, are expected to recover. Reichert also remained hospitalized.

Popular monks

Schuster and Larson were among the more popular monks, Madden said. 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.

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 what fueled the Jeffress attack.

Jeffress 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.

Law enforcement kept watch over the abbey during Friday's funeral.

Hospitality to visitors

But the shootings will not force the abbey, which has about 15,000 visitors a year, to alter its policy of hospitality to travelers and spiritual seekers, Polan said.

"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," he said.

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

Bishop Boland, 70, told mourners he will miss Schuster's hearty greetings.

"Father Philip used to say, 'Welcome Bishop, may I carry your bags up to your room?"' Boland recalled of the elder priest. "I assured him that they were not heavy and that I could keep my balance."

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.

"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."

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