June 8, 2003


Peace, forgiveness ease monks’ pain

Conception’s ninth abbot tries to make sense of the shootings. In an effort to understand and help authorities, the abbey staff went through press files, employment records, seminary rosters and guest registries looking for any tie between Mr. Jeffress and Conception.

Peace, forgiveness ease monks’ pain

CONCEPTION JUNCTION, Mo. – Peace lives at Conception Abbey. In fact, it works here. It greets everyone who pulls onto the grounds.

The Rev. Albert Bruecken knows this as truth.

“There is a peace here, and there is a regularity about our life,” the abbey’s vocation director says.

Lloyd R. Jeffress shattered that peace a year ago. On June 10, 2002, death came riding up in a green Chevy Cavalier. He somehow missed the tranquility of this place that morning.

The 71-year-old Kearney, Mo., man drove nearly 100 miles with killing hot on his mind. No one knows what prompted Mr. Jeffress to murder two people and wound two others before taking his own life that humid June morning.

Bullets from Mr. Jeffress’ MAK-90 assault rifle took the lives of the Rev. Philip Schuster, 84, and Brother Damian Larson, 62.

The Rev. Norbert Schappler and the Rev. Kenneth Reichert suffered serious injuries from the same gun.

The incident still baffles the monastic community. But peace and forgiveness help ease the pain.

“People ask me a lot, ‘When did you forgive?’ And I tell them, ‘I’m still forgiving,'” the Rev. Reichert says. “I don’t want to live the rest of my life angry and resentful.”

Abbot Gregory Polan forgave Mr. Jeffress immediately, regarding it as necessary to the community and the Christian message embodied there.

“I have seen so many lives crippled by an inability to either forgive or to be forgiven,” the abbey’s leader says. “I know that if we weren’t able to forgive, our community would be crippled.”

Forgiveness, he believes, is at the heart of what the Conception monks stand for.

“Every day when we pray the ‘Our Father,’ we pray, ‘Forgive us as we forgive,'” Abbot Gregory says.

Nervous laughter works for the Rev. Bruecken. He uses it as a defense mechanism against the pain of remembering that day.

Now, whenever a door slams or a stranger walks into the church, it conjures fear and apprehension. But the Rev. Bruecken fights it every day.

“I try to make a conscious effort not to be totally suspicious or not to be hostile,” he says. “We want to be hospitable, and we want to share the peace that’s here and we want that peace to return.

“And that doesn’t happen if we’re suspicious all the time and let this event be the most formative thing that ever happened in my life.”

The Rev. Bruecken recalls Brother Damian and the Rev. Schuster with a smile on his face. It helps defuse the pain and anger. The support of friends and the secular community helps, too.

“I guess the other thing that happened as a result of this, we found out that we have a lot of friends, lots of people who appreciate us,” he says.

That also comforts the Rev. Patrick Caveglia, who has good days again. But the notches made by bullets on the shiny hardwood floor in the south hallway still bring back pain.

“You kind of have flashbacks walking down the hallway and, ‘Ooh, this is where -,'” he shudders.

The abbey’s business manager, the Rev. Caveglia always figured he’d die here too, just like his brothers. In fact, he always planned on it.

“We know we’re going to die here. Most of us are going to die over in the infirmary in a lot more peaceful way with a bunch of people around us, and we’ll slip away and that’ll be the end,” he says. “So in a sense, Damian and Philip, except for the violence, senselessness and shock of all that, they reached what we’re all going to reach here. They died here.”

The Rev. Reichert lives every day with the shootings, from the scars left from his wounds and subsequent surgery to remove 12 inches of his colon to the brace he wears on his injured right leg. A bullet claimed part of the middle finger on his right hand.

He first battled anxiety, a victim’s fear of the violence repeating itself. But while he’s worked that out, and continues to work it out, he concedes, “It’s something I think that’s going to be with me to the day I die.”

A member of the Conception community since 1953, the Rev. Reichert spent six weeks of his convalescence in the abbey infirmary, hooked up to a machine that helped his wounds heal. Without appetite and often nauseous, he lost 50 pounds after the shooting.

But 35 of those pounds are now back on his frame, and he often takes an afternoon walk without his brace. Part of his regular route includes the abbey cemetery, where he says he likes to “visit old friends.”

Nerve damage numbs his right foot below the instep, but he feels fine and carries out his full duties as the abbey’s prior.

He admits the mental healing takes longer, but the Rev. Reichert says the experience has not been without its benefits. He insists his wounds make him more understanding and compassionate of people, especially those who have been hurt.

Likewise, Abbot Gregory believes the shooting strengthened his faith. Having lived through an act of violence, he says, the monks feel a new solidarity with people of the world who experience the same thing, live with unanswered questions and must look at faith to sustain them.

“It’s one of those bittersweet experiences that you see how suffering has led you to blessing,” he explains.

Still, Conception’s ninth abbot tries to make sense of the shootings. In an effort to understand and help authorities, the abbey staff went through press files, employment records, seminary rosters and guest registries looking for any tie between Mr. Jeffress and Conception.

They found no connection.

The mystery remains complete, but Abbot Gregory remains at peace with that.

“We don’t always understand and know why,” he said. “But with our own belief in God and God’s providence and God’s care for us, we are able to accept those kinds of things, and we move on with life.”

Alonzo Weston’s email address is alonzow@npgco.com. Ken Newton’s email address is kenn@npgco.com.

Peace, forgiveness ease monks’ pain
St. Joseph News-Press
Alanzo Weston and Ken Newton
June 8, 2003