Fr. Donald Grabner, OSB, enters eternal rest

At 3:51 p.m. on Monday, 17 April 2023, our beloved confrere, Father Donald Grabner, OSB put aside all matters of worldly concern in his final obedience to the upward calling of God and passed into the eternal. Fr. Donald was in his 95th year of life, and a Jubilarian in both monastic profession and priesthood. Fr. Donald had been resident in our St. Stephen’s Infirmary since 2018. He had been serving as chaplain to the Franciscan Sisters of Savannah, Missouri, when he suffered a fall in his quarters there, sustaining a broken arm. After hospitalization and considerable physical therapy, it was deemed best that he return to Conception where he could receive appropriate care during his remaining years.

Raymond Alfred Grabner was born on 4 November 1928 in Neodesha, Kansas, the second of three sons born to Bernard and Regina (Eigenbrodt) Grabner. He was baptized in the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in Neodesha the next week, and confirmed in the same church in 1939. The stable upbringing of his family life provided a substantial foundation for the monastic life he later embraced.

The first stirrings of his vocation, however, were more “generic,” Fr. Donald later admitted: he simply felt called to become a priest. After completing public grade school in Neodesha, he came to Conception Seminary High School as a candidate for the Diocese of Wichita in 1943. Observing the monastic priesthood as lived by the ordained monks of Conception, he soon discerned that their form of service was “much more attractive” to his own sense of what he was seeking. After his second year of college, he entered the novitiate of Conception Abbey. He made first profession of vows on 3 September 1949, receiving the religious name Donald—not for any particular devotion to the 8th-century Scottish farmer-saint, he admitted, but because Abbot Stephen, wishing to “keep peace in the family,” bowed to the wish expressed by the young monk’s mother: she had originally wanted him to be baptized by that name.

During his years in simple vows, Frater Donald completed his bachelor’s degree at Conception Seminary; his academic performance provided plentiful evidence of intellectual acumen. After solemn profession (1952), he was sent to study dogmatic theology at Sant’ Anselmo. During the summer interim of 1954, he returned to the U.S. to be ordained to the priesthood; then it was back to Rome to complete the STL and STD degrees. He returned to Conception in 1957 to become a Professor of Theology; he was named Dean of the Theology Faculty in 1959. Teaching became a core element of Fr. Donald’s monastic practice, one that he was to engage for nearly sixty years. To his many courses in systematics and comparative religion, Fr. Donald added a course on the literature of Flannery O’Connor that became quite popular; he was adept at revealing the theological intent hidden in O’Connor’s Southern Gothic milieu. One of his most satisfying personal accomplishments was the organization of a Symposium on O’Connor here at Conception, which was keynoted by Sally Fitzgerald, O’Connor’s editor and close friend.

The list of Fr. Donald’s monastic assignments goes far beyond the classroom, of course.

While teaching, he served as Prefect in St. Joseph Hall from 1959–63. He was appointed Subprior of the community in 1962, and served a first term as Prior from 1963–73. He became Associate Spiritual Director in the seminary in 1964, and Director of the Summer Pastoral Institute in 1964–65. He was Assistant Director of Spiritual Formation from 1969–70, Director of Public Relations for Planning and Development from 1973–76, and a member of the Liturgy Committee from 1970–73. His appointment as Director of Monastery Collections (a position he held from 1974 –2004) allowed him to exercise personal interests in philately and numismatics. He was allowed to engage further theological studies at the University of Chicago in 1976. For many years Fr. Donald acted as Selector of Refectory Reading for the monastic community. He was appointed to a second term as Prior from 1987–90, after which he took up the important responsibilities of Novice and Junior Master from 1990–93.

Another of Fr. Donald’s singular achievements involved the dialogue between western monasticism and the monasticism of Asian faiths, particularly Buddhism. His interest in comparative religions gave him a natural entré into Monastic Interreligious Dialogue; in 1988, he hosted with MID a group of Buddhist monks and nuns who visited a series
of American monasteries, and was able to travel to India himself to experience the life of Buddhist monastic communities there. He was a member of the MID Board from 1996–2001, and continued to correspond for many years with Buddhist friends met during this period. Because his mind and soul were open to spiritual riches beyond those of the western tradition, he was uniquely able to guide a wide variety of souls in their own spiritual quests; over the years he directed countless retreats and days of recollection for monks and nuns, religious and laity, priests and seminarians—all of whom were enriched by his breadth of wisdom, experience and understanding.

With the advancing years, Fr. Donald began to take on assignments that were somewhat less arduous. He acted as Monastery Porter from 2011–16, and at various times as Intentionarius and manager of the Bennet Book Shop. In 2016 he became Chaplain to the Franciscan Sisters of Savannah Missouri, a situation that allowed him to maintain an active spiritual life while still being able to offer spiritual advice and guidance to others. He was in Savannah when he suffered the fall that necessitated his return to Conception and residence in our Infirmary. In early March 2023, Fr. Donald’s condition noticeably worsened, and he was placed on hospice care. His final passing was marked by the tranquility and patience that had long characterized his life in community.

The reception of the body of Fr. Donald will take place at St. Stephen’s Infirmary Chapel at Conception Abbey at 5 p.m. on Friday 21 April 2023. Vespers of the Faithful Departed will be sung on Friday 21 April 2023 at 7:15 p.m., and Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 11 a.m. on Saturday 22 April 2023. We commend our beloved confrere to your prayerful remembrance. May he rest in eternal peace!

Abbot Benedict and Community

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