By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
PEOSTA, Iowa, April 10, 2022 – Father Jim O’Connor, the best thinker and writer I’ve ever known, and for nearly 40 years my chief spiritual advisor, died in the wee hours Friday, April 8, at the age of 98.
And I feel orphaned.
Oh, I’m happy that Father Jim is happy, and I know he is.
“I always feel like I’ve got one foot here, and the other foot in the hereafter,” he started telling me about the time he turned 90. “And I look forward to the day when the good Lord takes me.”
Father Jim O’Connor in 2014 at a picnic celebrating his 90th birthday. He was wearing a ball cap from his alma mater DePaul University.
But for the several hundred of us – or is it more likely several thousand? – in Father Jim O’Connor’s posse of followers, there will be no more “Jim-fixes,” as his distant cousin Sharon Grego, of the Chicago area, told me Saturday morning.
“That’s what we called coming out here for our visits with him,” she said. He had a way of always making you feel better about life outside New Melleray when you visited him. “We’d say, ‘We have to go for a ‘Jim-fix’.”
There were only four of us in the party of family mourners – Sharon and Tom Grego and their adult son Marty Grego, also from Chicago, and me. I met Father Jim when I was traveling the state all the time as a columnist for the Des Moines Register, became close friends with him, and I had asked a dozen or so years ago to be added to his list of family survivors, to be notified when he died.
His funeral Saturday was held as part of the regular 7 a.m. mass at the abbey. There were about 15 monks – most very elderly – in the choir stalls along the massive stone sidewalls of the monastery church. There were three younger newcomers who are considering monastic life. Plus there were two dozen or more people in the back pews, most of them on weekend retreats at New Melleray.
Presiding at the mass was Father Brendan Freeman, 83, now the acting abbot at the abbey after earlier serving 30 years as the elected abbot.
“You can see the sunrise streaming through our back windows in the church,” he said in greeting the small crowd. “We can only imagine how bright the Resurrection sunrise is that Father James O’Connor is seeing this morning. And may we all see it someday.”
His combined eulogy and sermon was serene, profound and so respectful. I talked him into giving me a copy of it, and it’s hereby required reading for all of you out there. You can get it by clicking here.
Procession out of the church, approaching the New Melleray Abbey cemetery for the monks.
I cried my way through the mass, praying and reflecting on how Father Jim had introduced me to so much of the spirituality that carries me in life today. And thinking of all the fun we had here, too.
New Melleray, I’ve been telling my readers since the early 1980s, has been “either the coolest spot in Iowa – or the hottest – I can’t decide which,” I’ve written.
I brought at least a couple hundred people here – as members of college classes my late wife Carla Offenbuger and I were teaching, on a couple bus tours we organized that included the monastery, or in small groups of our closest friends. The people in those crowds came from many different religious faiths – and some had no faith.
I swear every one of them left here thinking there’s something special that happens at New Melleray Abbey. Many couldn’t articulate it, and I barely can.
New Melleray Abbey on funeral day. That’s the monastery church on the left of the complex.
It is a feeling or a thought that sweeps deeply into your heart and mind. It’s both a blessed assurance and a stiff challenge – we all can be better.
When the mass ended, we four “family” mourners were invited to fall in behind a group of about a dozen monks, who carried and escorted the open, plain, pine bier holding their brother’s body. He wore his normal monk robe, hood up, his stylish & comfortable black “crocs” slip-on shoes on his feet, his favorite ball cap tucked between his legs.
We went to the monks’ cemetery inside the monastery walls, where the bier was placed on big boards across the new, open grave. A plain sheet was draped over Father Jim and tucked above his head and under his shoes. Father Brendan said final prayers, and blessed the body. The monks then grabbed the rope handles on the bier, lifted it slightly so the supporting boards could be removed under it, and then lowered the bier into the ground, still open on top, per the monastic tradition. “Remember man that thou art dust, and to dust you must return,” Father Brendan said. Then he invited all who wanted, to grab a shovel there, scoop a load of the fresh dirt, and unload it on our pal in the grave.
I did that. It was one of the strangest, most beautiful moments of my life.
FATHER JIM’S GREATEST HITS. Now please come along on a brief blast through the past.
I first became aware of Father Jim O’Connor in the very late 1970s and early ’80s. He was writing a feature column for the Catholic Mirror newspaper of the Diocese of Des Moines about monastic life, and he sprinkled it with enough fun that he developed a wide readership. So I struck up a correspondence with him and learned that he was a Chicago native, that before New Melleray he’d been a bomber co-pilot in World War II, returned home and used the new “GI Bill” to spend two years at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, and then two final years and earn his degree from DePaul University back in Chicago.
And what, I asked him many times, leads a young single man who has just survived a world war and earned a college degree to sign-on for the rest of his life as a monk in a monastery he’d never even visited?
First, he was very Catholic.
Second, as he explained in several of our interviews (this particular one in 1997), he talked about how he and the other 20-year-olds on the crew of their B-17 were fired on so much on combat missions over Germany that he “never dreamed I’d come home alive.” His brother Tom O’Connor, a fighter pilot, did not come home. He was lost over Burma. Father Jim said the prospect, back in 1946, that he could indeed have a good long life “seemed like a special gift, and gradually I came to a decision I should make it stand for something.”
He found that in the simple, hard-working, contemplative life of the Trappists (also known as Cistercians) at New Melleray. He told me that on the evening in 1949 when he was dropped off at the abbey to start, he “stood outside and finished my pack of Camels,” wadded up the package, threw it in a garbage can on the porch, “and walked in the door to the rest of my life.”
“We know some see us as a useless appendage in life because we don’t run a hospital or an orphanage or something like many religious orders do,” said O’Connor, “but we think we serve a purpose here. We consider our prayer life and self-denial as having some influence on society’s problems.”
Much later, he told me he came to New Melleray “just like most of the brothers do, without a clue about the depth of what you’re getting into. But you come to understand it as the years go by. By your sacrifices and suffering, more understanding of Christ’s life is opened to you. You come to understand more and more.”
A huge sculpture of Christ crowned with thorns, by an unsigned artist in 1967, punctuates the solemnity and serenity of New Melleray Abbey.
As his training began, he learned the schedule of prayers and meditations that monks do throughout the day. They also all have day jobs in or around the abbey, and he was first assigned as a stonemason. “Great job for an English major,” he’d quip years later.
They were still building out the monastery to accommodate the record number of monks they had – more than 160 by the late 1950s.
Keep in mind, at that early point, the monks took a vow of silence and only spoke to the abbot when he directed them to do so. Between each other, they used their own form of sign language. Their normal days stretched from about 3 a.m. until about 9 p.m. They were mostly vegetarian.
After the global “Vatican II” conference in the Catholic Church in the early 1960s, things got much better. The church dropped the required Latin during masses for the native language of wherever the faith was being practiced. And monks were allowed to start talking to each other and to members of the public they would encounter in the monastery or the surrounding 1,800 acres of farm fields the monks would work. (Total land holdings are 3,300 acres, with that beyond the farm fields being native forests, which supply the wood now used in the “Trappist Caskets” they’ve been building in more recent years.)
“When we could start talking to each other, it didn’t go so well at first,” Father Jim told me. “We had a lot of guys who really were recluses and they didn’t want to talk. Eventually the superiors had to bring in a shrink and other professionals, they sat us down in circles of chairs and re-taught us how to talk to each other.”
And that’s when it began to be possible for the public to share more in monastic life, to see what happens inside those walls, even to become friends with monks.
Father Jim had been “Brother Jim” for his first eight years at the monastery. But he completed his studies for the priesthood – taking courses there at New Melleray – and was ordained in 1957.
Inside the church at New Melleray Abbey.
In July of 1983, I finished my first ride as the new co-host of RAGBRAI – the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa – which that summer ended in Dubuque. On the Sunday morning after the ride ended, I pulled on a pair of cut-off jean shorts, a T-shirt and a pair of Birkenstock sandals and started driving for home in Des Moines. Just southwest of Dubuque, I saw the sign for “New Melleray Abbey.” I thought, “Hey, that’s where that writer O’Connor, the monk is!” I turned around, drove up to the monastery and arrived just in time for a very crowded Sunday morning mass.
I pretended I was dressed better, slid into the pew, enjoyed the mass and then waved at the organist, Brother Bob, after he’d finished his postlude. “You’re the new RAGBRAI guy,” he said to me immediately, explaining that while he hadn’t been on the ride, he was indeed an active bicyclist and had been reading about us.
I told him I’d been reading Father Jim O’Connor’s columns in the Catholic Mirror in Des Moines, and wondered if I could possibly see him. “Oh, another O’Connor fan, huh?” Brother Bob said, sounding almost disappointed. “Sure, I’ll go get him for you.”
Moments later I met Father Jim in the hallway outside the church, shook hands, we went to the Guesthouse cafeteria in the basement of the monastery, had coffee together and thus began a friendship that would span four decades, produce two dozen or more columns, and perhaps change some lives – certainly my own.
A PHILOSOPHER, A READER, A SCRIBE AND SPORTS FAN. In my subsequent letters and visits with Father Jim, I learned a lot. (One of many surprises was that I was not the only “O’Connor fan” at the Des Moines Register. Turned out, our great sports columnist Maury White had also been reading Father Jim and corresponding with him, too. And eventually, when White accompanied me on a visit to New Melleray, the monk went all fan boy on him.)
In my first few sports chats with Father Jim, I learned he was particularly interested in college football and Major League Baseball. But then in the 1983-’84 college basketball season, I noticed that his alma mater DePaul U, had a great season going under Hall of Fame coach Ray Meyer. So in one of my letters, I told Father Jim I knew of his other favorite sports, but that he had not mentioned college basketball – and then told him the DePaul Blue Demons were having a terrific season (they wound up 27-3, rated fourth in the U.S.).
He responded by mail almost immediately.
“Oh yes,” Father Jim wrote. “I know about the success of the Blue Demons. Among my jobs here, I am the Postmaster, so I see all the newspapers that are coming in here now. I typically read the Chicago Tribune, Des Moines Register and Dubuque Telegraph Herald every day, so I am able to keep up with most of the news and sports. Another of my jobs is that I mow the 10 acres of lawn that surrounds the monastery building, and that means I have access to the shed where we keep our lawnmowers and the tractors the guys use in the fields.
“I’ve been so excited about the DePaul games that, lately, I’ve been slipping down to that shed at night when the Blue Demons are playing, using a radio that’s on one of the farm tractors, tuning in WGN radio from Chicago, and listening to the games.”
And then he added: “I know that technically it’s probably a violation of monastery rules. But it seems a small transgression by an aging monk in his declining years.”
I laughed out loud, and then turned that right into the lead item in my next Des Moines Register column, including Father Jim’s confession. He was suddenly the talk not only of New Melleray Abbey but a lot of eastern Iowa and Chicago, too!
Father Jim O’Connor in 2013.
His two other jobs, by the way, were serving for years as “sacristan” – the monk who gets the sacraments ready before masses – and also editor for decades of the quarterly New Melleray newsletter, “Monastery Seasons,” which was read around the world. He was able to slip a lot of humor into that newsletter, but he always said, “I’m embarrassed we don’t have a better sports section in it.” (There wasn’t one at all.)
I once asked him if being asked to mow the 10 acres of grass around the monastery was demeaning. “Are you kidding?” he said with exasperation. “I’d rather mow that 10 acres than be Pope!”
He was a voracious reader of all kinds of books and magazines – philosophy, theology, history, poetry and, of course, sports. But he may have loved movies most of all.
After Vatican II eased some monastery rules, and as he began to age, Father Jim received permission from the abbots to leave New Melleray for a week or so, at most a couple times a year. He would also use that time to go visit his last sibling, his sister Jeanne O’Connor, who was a career teacher in Chicago. Before his visits, she’d start gathering the latest movies available on videotape, and they’d sit for hours watching and discussing them. He’d also say daily mass there in Jeanne’s home, and the members of the O’Connor clan would come fill the house for those.
HIS IS ONE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN WAR STORIES. Jim O’Connor enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps straight out of Fenwick High School, a Catholic school where the teams, by the way, are still the Fenwick Friars. (Father Jim would want you to know that.)
When he started flying the B-17 bombers, he didn’t yet have a driver’s license. Nearly all of the 10-member crew – the ones who never dreamed they’d survive – were in their 20s. And they came from all over the nation. As Father Brendan Freeman reported in his eulogy, they flew 35 combat missions from bases, generally from England, and bombing Germany. They were frequently flying through heavy fire from the ground. They nicknamed their plane the “La-Dee-Doo.”
So when peace came in 1945, the lads of the La-Dee-Doo collected their medals and citations, hugged each other and went their separate ways. Father Jim said that, as far as he knew, there was no contact between them for the next 50 years!
Father Jim cajoling his sister Jeanne O’Connor, when she was visiting in 2014 for the picnic celebrating her brother’s 90th birthday.
You can imagine how surprised he was in 1995 to receive a letter from his old co-pilot Lauren Porter. The “boys” were getting back together for a first-ever reunion, the letter said, and they’d managed to get a postal address from U.S. Air Force archives for “James O’Connor” on New Melleray Circle outside Peosta, Iowa. As I recall, the proposed reunion was going to be in some city about midway between all who could come, and wives were invited.
Father Jim called Porter for as great a conversation as you can imagine, including giving him the stunning news that he’d been a monk living and working in a monastery since 1949. The monastery rules wouldn’t allow a monk to travel so far, Father Jim said, and he added that he probably wouldn’t be comfortable in a social setting like that out in public. So, over Porter’s protests, Father Jim politely declined making a trip and attending.
The next day, Porter called back to New Melleray Abbey and got Father Jim on the phone. “I’ve talked to your abbot,” he said. “We’re all coming to New Melleray, and we’re going to have the reunion right there.” Wives included.
It was the highlight of most of their lives. And it was so much fun that they had a second reunion at New Melleray in 1999.
And all that prompted Father Jim to quit stalling and write the group’s own World War II story. The 75-page softcover book is titled, “The Year I Can’t Forget: A Combat Crew Diary,” and it’s as good as I always knew it would be.
SO, MY LAST VISIT WITH FATHER JIM WAS FOUR YEARS AGO. I frankly feel awful that the last time I saw Father Jim was in January of 2018. I hope you can tell how much I loved the guy and treasured his friendship and direction. But his loss of hearing got in the way – he eventually went totally deaf – phone conversations were impossible, he didn’t do email, senility was a late problem, Carla got sicker and died last July, and there was the pandemic that essentially shut down the abbey to visitors for two years. You don’t need to tell me now how lousy those excuses are. That will not happen ever again between me and one of my good friends.
But oh God, were our last couple visits ever fun.
In February 2017, we took along our great friends Doug and Karen Lawton, our Methodist neighbors, farmers (I knew that would grab Father Jim’s attention, and it sure did) and fellow adventurers.
One of the highlights that day is one I’ll remember forever. Carla was leaning right into Father Jim’s face, hoping he could hear her better as she was asking a question. He just sat there in silence, looking at her up close like that. He seemed to ignore, or not hear, the question, but finally broke the silence by saying, “Carla, you have the most beautiful face!” She blushed. “And are those your own teeth?” We all lost it!
All I can say is that I hope Carla Offenburger and Father Jim O’Connor are seeing each other in heaven.
Later, Father O’Connor excused himself after some other sly remark and said, “Sometimes there’s still a little impish boogeyman in me.”
I asked him that day – scribbling my questions on a paper tablet so he could read them – if prayer and meditation were still important to him.
“Yes, but after all the years I’ve been praying here, it’s really changed,” he said. “You know, when we came in here after the war as young novices, they’d give us a rosary that seemed like it was about three yards long, and we’d say the structured prayers — the Our Fathers, the Hail Marys — over and over and over. Now it’s more like an interior prayer life that I have. I find that I pray much of the time without words. I feel like I make direct contact with God in my thoughts, and then specific words aren’t important.”
That reminded me that several years ago, when Carla and I had both seemed to make remarkable recoveries from our extensive cancer treatment, and we were in obvious good health, he told us, “I don’t know what God has in mind for you two, but it must be something. If I were you, I’d be listening very closely.” You could hear a pin drop in that chat room for several minutes then.
On our last visit in early 2018, we took along our longtime friend Mary Riche, a member then with Carla of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Des Moines. who was at New Melleray and meeting Father Jim for the first time. We all came seeking anointments for various ailments we were all having and for encouragement in our spiritual life, too.
I wanted Mary to hear Father Jim answer some of the questions that all newcomers naturally have.
Father Jim O’Connor got used to Chuck Offenburger’s interviews.
When I pulled out the paper tablet and began scribbling questions for him, he said, “It looks like you’re interviewing me.” Maybe, I said. “I can see the headline now. It’ll be, ‘Monks still hiding out but police are getting close!’ ”
Next question, how do you feel about now having spent 69 years of your life here?
“Sixty-nine years!” he answered, sounding almost astonished himself. “Are you sure you are talking to me and not a ghost?”
But has the monastic life been good for you?
“Well, it’s kept me out of the taverns for 69 years,” O’Connor said. “So I guess that’s good.”
Another old friend of mine, Douglas T. Bates III, my best friend from our college days at Vanderbilt University and now a retiring lawyer in his hometown of Centerville, Tennessee, has also spent lots of time with Father Jim. And he pressed him many times on that same question – was joining the monastery in 1949 and spending the rest of his life here the right decision for him?
“The last time I was there and asked him that question, it was a really cold day,” Bates said. “He had his winter coat there, and he put it on. He said, ‘Doug come on a walk with me.’ We walked out the back of the church out to that cemetery. He led me down to the end of one row, pointed to the ground and said, ‘Doug, they’re going to bury me right there,’ pointing to the ground. ‘When they’ve got me in there, I want you to come back, stand here and ask me that same question. By then I’ll know the answer.’ ”
MOST OF YOU LOYAL READERS KNOW I’M NO LONGER CATHOLIC. I didn’t go quietly, back on May 9, 2019. You can read my rationale by clicking here.
I never told Father Jim. By then, I thought he was beyond telling something like that. I told another of the priests at New Melleray who is a good friend, and told him if he thought Father Jim should hear it, he could tell him.
I still have great respect for Catholicism, and great concern about its earthly leadership. As you’ll read, I’m now also a member at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Des Moines, and happier and more spiritual than ever.
Have no doubt, though, that I have even greater love and concern for New Melleray. I’m worried, almost sick sometimes, that monastic life seems to be dying. Father Brendan, the abbot, told me Saturday that there are now only 17 monks – most very elderly – with just three newcomers who may or may not stay. He said “we’ll know in about three years whether we’re going to be able to continue. We’ll be watching whether we get more newcomers.”
Remember, in the late 1950s and early ’60s, there were more than 160 monks.
In 1997, Father Jim told me, “The contemplative life is at a low ebb in popularity right now, but it will come back again. It has survived in cycles since the time of Christ.”
There’s an old saw that the monasteries always fill up during the world wars.
I certainly hope Catholic leadership can find an answer short of that.
And the reason I do is because, even now with numbers so low, I can see and feel all the good that happens when New Melleray Abbey has its monks working with people – of all faiths and no faith – on their spirituality.
I pray it can survive. Here in Iowa, we need it more than ever.
The funeral programs.
O’Connor relatives from Chicago joining the procession to the cemetery.
Father Jim O’Connor’s younger cousins from Chicago, Tom and Sharon Grego and their son Marty Grego.
Father Jim O’Connor and Chuck Offenburger welcoming members of the Notre Dame University folk choir that in 2018 were performing and overnighting at New Melleray Abbey. Offenburger had just talked them into performing the Notre Dame Alma Mater for Father Jim, who spent his first two years of college there.
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