The abbot learned that it’s best to make certain that no disagreement goes unresolved. A lack of forgiveness or inability to be forgiven can be among the most crippling of experiences.
From death, new life
CONCEPTION, Mo. – Abbot Gregory Polan preaches the same calm message of forgiveness today as he did five years ago, when a gunman violently altered Conception Abbey’s history.
As had been the tradition well before the shootings, Abbot Polan and everyone else who calls the abbey their home continues to openly welcome strangers in the spirit of Christ’s teachings. Extinguishing such an open-door policy would defeat the monks’ purpose.
On June 10, 2002, 71-year-old Lloyd Jeffress drove to the abbey and shot four monks. Two of the men – the Rev. Philip Schuster and Brother Damian Larson – died in the gunfire. Meanwhile, the Rev. Norbert Schappler and the Rev. Kenneth Reichert were able to fully recover from their wounds.
The distance time creates and the memories of the sorrowful day haven’t diminished beliefs passed down from the days of St. Benedict, founder of the abbey’s religious order. St. Benedict, according to Abbot Polan, instructed that monks keep death before their eyes daily. That belief gives perspective to the monks’ way of life.
The Reverends Schappler and Reichert are now doing well, according to Abbot Polan, despite recent health concerns. The Rev. Schappler had cataract surgery almost two weeks ago, while the Rev. Reichert had quadruple bypass heart surgery earlier in May. He is recovering from the surgery at the monastery. “(The rule of St. Benedict) means much more to us” now since the shootings, Abbot Gregory said.
The actions Mr. Jeffress took don’t act as a roadblock for the abbey’s residents, he said, although the shootings will be an ever- present reminder.
“We have a desire to be able to move forward, (to) move on,” Abbot Polan said.
That direction still includes forgiveness for Mr. Jeffress rather than labeling him as an enemy. The abbot learned that it’s best to make certain that no disagreement goes unresolved. A lack of forgiveness or inability to be forgiven can be among the most crippling of experiences.
“It certainly came from my family,” he said of the forgiving characteristic.
Forgiveness became a prominent feature in the aftermath of last fall’s shootings at an Amish school in rural Pennsylvania, Abbot Polan said. The manner in which the school community responded to the crisis reminded many people of how the abbey reacted and served as yet another symbol of forgiveness, he said.
More compassion, understanding and new life coming out of death – the Roman Catholic Church’s paschal mystery recalling Christ’s resurrection – is the best way Abbot Polan personally sums up the past five years. The tragedy has born other fruit. Nine young men have entered the monastic community and another four plan to enter this fall.
“These are all signs of new life,” Abbot Polan said.
The monks maintain friendships with the law enforcement officers, emergency medical technicians and others who responded after the shootings. An occasional exchange of visits with Nodaway County Sheriff Ben Espey cements the bonds.
“We always have a handshake,” Abbot Polan said of the relationship with the Sheriff’s Department.
Mr. Espey and his deputies remain complimentary of the monks and bask in the camaraderie and shared respect.
“The unbelievable strength and faith … have overwhelmed us,” he said. “We’re always welcome. They’ve always told us … It brought a lot of people closer together.”
Sgt. David Ray knows the shootings could easily have happened at any other location, such as a factory or school. He was among the first law enforcement personnel to arrive on scene, along with Mr. Espey, Lt. Randy Houston and Trooper Travis Williams of the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
“That (abbey) is the last place I’d have ever thought it would’ve happened,” Mr. Ray said.
Mr. Espey said the tragedy spurred upgrades in training and techniques for such responses in the future.
“We have better equipment now,” he said. “The abbey shooting has brought that forth.”
Dan Madden – who now works for St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, Kan. – was a spokesman for the abbey when the shootings occurred. He recalls crying on daily drives to and from the abbey. In between those times, he was immersed in the business of gathering and releasing information from abbey officials to the media.
“Having one thing to focus on carried me like a wave throughout the week,” he said.
The incident has had consequences for Mr. Madden, who said he now has more respect for the jobs that law enforcement, paramedics and other first responders perform.
“Everything is changed,” he said. “I’ll never ever be the same again … I always call it the worst day of my life, and I also call it one of the most important days of my life.”
Law enforcement’s composure, as demonstrated by Mr. Espey and the patrol’s Troop H spokesman Sgt. Sheldon Lyon, taught Mr. Madden how to handle the onslaught of media inquiries. He had just become the abbey’s communications director after working as a reporter himself.
More importantly, the aftermath of what Mr. Jeffress did – and the effect of other shootings around the nation since then – pointed out a continual stigma in how mental health and emotional issues are addressed for both perpetrators and their victims, Mr. Madden said.
Authorities were never able to assign a motive to Mr. Jeffress, although his list of prescriptions included drugs to treat anxiety and depression.
“People don’t get help for it,” he said. “(Mr. Jeffress) was not getting the proper care. We continue to see it in the school shootings” such as the recent Virginia Tech massacre, he said.
Mr. Lyon also was among the first contingent of officers to arrive at the abbey. He and the other officers returned a year later for a special meal with the monks, thanking law enforcement for their response.
The strength and faith of Abbot Polan and the monks under duress also impressed Mr. Lyon, who recalls the shootings whenever he drives by the abbey.
“All things work for the glory of God,” he said. “They never lost focus of their mission.”
Although the anniversary occurs today, the abbey does not plan to hold a special Mass. Instead, a newly ordained priest will celebrate Mass for the community, Abbot Polan said. Prayer and other means of private reflection will be the order of the day.
“It will certainly be in the hearts and minds of all of us,” Abbot Polan said.
From death, new life
St. Joseph News-Press
June 10, 2007