Fr. Samuel Russell, OSB, enters eternal rest

On Tuesday, 14 November 2023, our beloved confrere, Father Samuel Russell, OSB surrendered the cares of earthly life to answer the final calling of his Lord and Savior. His monastic life had been one of diligent service to his community and the wider Church, encompassing a broad array of assignments from maintenance and manual labor to administrative service and priestly formation. He had been a monk for seventeen years when he was called to consider the possibility of a priestly vocation; he took up sacerdotal responsibilities with the zeal and industry that had characterized his monastic life from the beginning. Though his final illness had gradually diminished his ability to exercise his many talents, he continued to demonstrate unyielding fidelity to his Benedictine identity, always preferring nothing to Christ, in whose path he strove to walk.

John Robin Russell was born in Chicago, Illinois, on 14 May 1952 to John R. and Bernice (neé Gauchas) Russell. He was baptized the next day in St. Benedict’s Church, and confirmed some ten years later at St. Ailbe’s, both parishes of the archdiocese. His associations with his home town were deeply rooted, as was his appreciation for his Lithuanian ancestry. When as a teenager he began to explore the idea of vocation, he chose to enroll in the archdiocesan seminary program. There he met the young John Polan, who, under the religious name of Gregory, was later to become monk and abbot of Conception, and eventually Abbot Primate of the Benedictine confederation. The future Fr. Samuel chose a similar path from Chicago to Conception, where he entered the novitiate in 1974. Some doubts persisted, and he terminated this first attempt at monastic life, but then began a second novitiate in 1976. His doubts allayed, he professed first vows in 1977, being given the religious name Samuel. He made solemn vows in 1980.

Br. Samuel’s monastic journey included assignments various and diverse. He began as Custodian of the House (1980–81), but soon turned towards more academic pursuits. He did Italian language studies at Praglia Abbey from July–September 1981 in preparation for Monastic Studies at Sant’ Anselmo (1981–83). He returned to Conception to act as Seminary Chaplain from 1983–91, serving as director of Seminary Maintenance during part of that same period. He rounded out his service as assistant Master of Ceremonies (1983–85); these duties were later resumed in a longer term as Master of Ceremonies (1999–2014). He completed a course of Clinical-Pastoral Education in Providence, Rhode Island, during the summer of 1985, and a second course in Newton, Kansas, in the summer of 1986. He served on the Church Planning Committee (1985–91) during the earliest stages of our efforts towards the renovation of the Abbey Basilica. He was Church Manager from 1990 to ’91, and Administrative Assistant to President-Rector of the seminary (1987–91). He was then assigned to studies for a master’s degree at Loyola University in Chicago over summers of 1987 through 1990.

Called to the priesthood by Abbot Marcel, Br. Samuel returned to Sant’ Anselmo for Theological Studies (1991–93). Important as his studies were, his broader education was vastly augmented by opportunities to travel in the former Eastern Bloc during the politically tumultuous early 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. During this second stay at Sant’ Anselmo, Br. Samuel had the opportunity to visit relatives in Lithuania, who introduced him to two Benedictine women’s communities that had remained largely underground during the Soviet period. From these initial encounters arose a relationship that lasted many years, and developed far beyond anything that either Br. Samuel or the sisters themselves could have foreseen. At first his interest and concern was largely expressed in raising funds to help them in the process of emerging into an open society. But these efforts soon expanded; meetings with the archbishop of Vilnius and the papal nuncio led to a more official status for his mediation on behalf of the sisters. Having been ordained in 1994, Fr. Samuel found it advantageous to set about learning the Lithuanian language in order to facilitate his work on behalf of the sisters. He was asked by the Congregation for Consecrated Life to provide guidance and advice regarding the situation of the sisters as the process of their regularization proceeded, and was designated Apostolic Visitator to the communities in 1996.

All the while Fr. Samuel continued to serve in various capacities at home. He was again assigned as a Chaplain in the Seminary College (1993–2007), and served as Dean of Students (1995–2007). During that period he acted as Vice-President for Administration (1993–96) and Vice-Rector of the seminary (1996–2007) as well. He was both Director of Alumni (2006–7) and Director of Admissions (2013–14). His administrative service in the seminary culminated in a term as President-Rector from 2007 to 2014.

In 2014, Fr. Samuel was diagnosed with posterior cortical atrophy, a rare disorder associated with Alzheimer’s disease. This was a severe blow for a man as active and energetic as Fr. Samuel, but he accepted the inevitable with grace and fortitude, confident that God would enable him to carry this unexpected burden. As his cognitive abilities became more impaired, his administrative works were necessarily reduced. He engaged brief turns as instructor in the seminary (2014–16); director of Apostolic Assignments for seminarians (2015–16); socius to the master of novices (2016–17); part-time porter (2016–17); and special ministry to Alumni (2017). When it became necessary for him to move into our St. Stephen’s Infirmary, this too was accepted with characteristic patience. When during the last year his condition worsened, he was placed on hospice care. During a visit to the infirmary a brother monk chanced to see Fr. Samuel and asked what he was up to; Fr. Samuel’s response, frank and cheerful and utterly without self-pity, was, “Oh, I’m dying.” This he did without earthly fanfare at 3:15 in the afternoon on Tuesday, 14 November 2023; we are confident that the heavenly fanfare on his arrival there was much more substantial.

Fr. Samuel is survived by his brother Robin J. Russell and wife Gabriela of Huntington Beach, California; by nieces Leah Russell and Melanie Linburger; by numerous cousins, and by his monastic confreres.

Fr. Samuel’s body will be received at 5 p.m. on Friday, 17 November 2023. Vespers of the Faithful Departed will be prayed at 7:15 p.m. that evening, and Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 11:00 a.m. on Saturday, 18 November 2023. We commend our beloved confrere to your prayerful remembrance. May he rest in the peace of Christ!

Abbot Benedict and Community

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