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Deception in Conception, Missouri » Tower Topics: A Year Later
 
July 1, 2003

 

Tower Topics: A Year Later
 

At 8:45 a.m. on June 10, 2002, an internal e-mail hit computer screens across Conception Abbey. “HELP!!!” it read. “We have heard gun shots. What is going on! PLEASE CONTACT!!!!

No one could make sense of such a message. A year later, its meaning is still coming clear.

***

Father Kenneth Reichert opened the door. There stood a 71-year-old man. The sounds were gunshots, but before Father Kenneth had any way of comprehending that fact, he was on his back on the coffee-room floor. Twelve months later, Father Kenneth still remembers the pain and the puzzling realization that if he pulled his hand away from his belly his internal organs, and most likely his life, would spill out on the monastery’s hardwood floor. He hears his own unanswered pleas echoing off the walls.

Father Kenneth Reichert sees the vacant eyes of Lloyd Jeffress every day.

In an eight-minute rampage, the former postal worker also wounded Father Norbert Schappler and took the lives of Father Philip Schuster and Brother Damian Larson. He then made his way to the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, settled into a back pew, and turned a gun on himself. His motive remains a mystery.

The memories, like the gunman, creep in with detached malice, attempting to undermine Father Kenneth’s peace. They come when he wakes in the morning. They come when he’s pulling a brace onto his numbed right foot. They come when he folds his hands in prayer.

But they no longer linger.

Father Kenneth calls it a battle of will. There are other memories. A hospital room forested with flowers. Complete strangers nervously visiting his sickbed. More than 500 cards, e-mails and letters. The smiles of doctors and nurses as he left the hospital. The visits with his new friend, Sheriff Ben Espey, the first person who came to his aid. The day he returned to the Basilica to pray the Divine Office.

“There are two ways you can react to something like this,” Father Kenneth says. “You can give in to feeling sorry for yourself and become very bitter and angry at everything and everybody. You can think the whole world is evil. Or you can consciously will yourself to find good in all of it.”

The memories of violence are fleeting. The memories of kindness endure.

“I’ve been overwhelmed by the love and support I’ve received through all this,” he says, tears welling in his eyes. “It is a constant reminder of how much good there is in the world, and I don’t want to waste it.”

Loud noises still startle him “and probably always will.” His heart sometimes pounds as he walks the monastery’s first floor hallway. There are still times he’s tempted to lock himself in his room, pull the shade and never come out.

But then he tells himself, No. “If I let fear get a hold of me,” he says, “I’m conquered.”

***

Don’t expect Father Norbert Schappler to talk too much about emotions and memories and stuff like that. Sitting for an interview is not a high priority.

The no-nonsense monk has no time for such distractions.

Each day since Lloyd Jeffress tried–and failed–to kill him, Father Norbert has been hard at the work of recovery and making sure his survival in some way fulfills God’s plan.

It takes the 76-year-old monk 45 minutes to dress for the day. His left foot is paralyzed, and a badly damaged sciatic nerve has left patches of numbness and pain in his leg. He must wear a compression sock to control swelling and a brace on his foot. He no longer takes the stairs to his third-floor room in the monastery, instead riding the elevator, which he says with a chuckle works most of the time. The nerve damage is slowly mending, but it could be two years before doctors know how much more he will improve. “It’s not that difficult,” he says gruffly, lest the listener mistake his list of ailments for complaining.

“I’m more aware of the shortness of life here on earth,” he says. “As Christians, it’s always in our minds, but sometimes its pretty far back. This experience has given me incentive to live with more dedication to my calling, to better fulfill the responsibilities of my vocation.”

Father Norbert calls the pain and limitations of his foreseeable future “a fact of life,” and says with a shrug that he will continue to “do what I can do, and don’t do what I can’t.”

His assessment of the past year: “I’m making good progress. I limp around pretty good, and although it takes longer I usually get where I want to go.”

The rest, he says, is useless detail.

***

When it came time to spray the abbey orchards this spring, a frustrated Brother Blaise Bonderer had to decipher the nebulous schedule left behind by Brother Damian, a man so attuned to nature he followed the seasons with hunches, not science.

Choosing when to plant the tomatoes and uncover the strawberry plants is a bittersweet task. A year before, it was the responsibility of his mentor Father Philip.

Since the day he saw Brother Damian gunned down, and later walked past the ravaged body of Father Philip, Brother Blaise has encountered daily reminders of his two friends.

There was the first time he gave a hayride to a group of children, something Brother Damian always reveled in, or the first time he pulled out the so-called Weather Monk’s “Holy Smoker” for a barbecue. There are the twice-weekly bridge games Father Philip never missed, the quiet times when he longs for the blunt, horse-sense advice of Father Philip. And those divots left by the bullets in the monastery floor, permanent scars of that fateful morning.

During the sign of peace at this year’s Easter Vigil, Brother Blaise reached out in an E.T.-style greeting to a fellow monk. It was reminiscent of an irreverent practice of Brother Damian, who was uncomfortable with the traditional “kiss of peace.” Self-conscious of the grimy residue of his work with the soil, he avoided handshakes. At the moment the tip of Brother Blaise’s index finger touched that of his fellow monk, tears sprang to his eyes.

“It brought up some very deep emotions,” he said, “because it reminded me how much I miss Damian and Philip. They were two people who shared my witness of what monasticism is, namely manual labor. They were people who pitched in, people who had the same interests as me. It’s hard to replace someone like that.”

There is a point in each Mass when a monk or seminarian carries a vessel of smoking incense down the Basilica’s middle aisle, wafting pungent fumes over the worshippers, honoring them as members of the Body of Christ. The thurifer, as that person is called, then exits the back of the church into a hallway still disfigured by violence. Following the quadrangle of the monastery’s first floor, he returns to the sacristy at the front of the church.

Brother Blaise stops twice along the way. In a silence stronger than the memories of gunshots, he incenses the spots where Brother Damian and Father Philip fell.

***

A floral-print blouse and skirt hang in Beverly VanVactor’s closet. She hasn’t worn them since the day she stood behind Brother Blaise at the end of the monastery hallway and saw the murder of Brother Damian Larson. Yet neither has she been inclined to give the outfit away. “I guess it’s a reminder of how lucky I was that day,” she says with irony.

Other than the fact that she survived that bloody morning to see her family again, VanVactor considers herself anything but lucky. Almost daily, the images and sounds of Brother Damian’s and Father Philip’s last seconds roil in her mind. For months she was terrorized by nightmares, and even the sight of a hallway in her own home was too much to bear. A slamming door or backfiring car can leave her rattled for 45 minutes.

Beverly VanVactor, 46, was the fifth victim of a loner from Kearney, Mo.

As Brother Blaise left to warn his brother monks, VanVactor “stood frozen, trying to comprehend what [she] was seeing,” then backed into the business office and locked the door. Frantically pacing, she heard more gunshots, each time wondering who else had been killed. “I was scared to death,” she says. “I was simply reacting. There was no thought process.” VanVactor jumped out a window, gashing her leg, and ran to warn monks and employees in the infirmary. It wasn’t until two hours later, when she saw a CNN report, that she knew the killing was over.

Weeks after the shootings, exhausted by nightmares, VanVactor sought counseling for what was later diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. A year later, she is still seeing the counselor and working toward a recovery that will probably never be complete. VanVactor still finds moments of peace: sitting on her patio watching a thunderstorm, inhaling the aroma of a spring rain, taking long walks after work, watching proudly as her son Brett received his master’s degree.

But festering deep in her soul is a most devastating wound. Guilt.

Although countless monks, counselors, law enforcement officials, friends and family members assure her that she did everything she could, VanVactor regrets each day that instead of retreating into her office she didn’t brave the gunfire to warn Father Philip.

“Maybe I could have taken him out the front door and he would still be alive today,” she says. “He was a sitting duck.”

“If I had the chance to say one thing to all the monks,” she says, “it would be to apologize that I didn’t react differently and save one of their brothers.”

***

It’s an interesting question.

What if they knew that their fellow monks would gain a new appreciation for each other and for the life they have chosen? What if they knew four new candidates, drawn by its renewed peace, would join the monastic community? What if they knew hundreds of guests in the wake of tragedy would find “something special” at Conception Abbey? What if they knew the confreres they left behind would challenge and inspire thousands with their ready forgiveness and unflinching hospitality? If they knew all this would happen in the 365 days following their violent deaths, would Father Philip Schuster and Brother Damian Larson have voluntarily laid down their lives?

Father Albert Bruecken suspects they would.

The abbey’s vocation director still hears the sounds outside his office door: gunfire, whistling bullets, Father Kenneth’s pleas for help. He vividly remembers abbey carpenter Norb Schieber, who was installing a shelf in the monk’s office, preventing his wandering into the line of fire. He recalls talking to a 911 dispatcher as he heard the gunshots that ended Father Philip’s life.

A year later, Father Albert sorts through the confusing emotions of his survival. He replays the sounds in his head daily, and like VanVactor, struggles with the guilt of what-ifs. He has apologized more than once to Father Kenneth for not coming to his aid, yet he is convinced that if not for Schieber, he would have been the third dead monk in the hallway that morning.

Father Albert worries about Beverly VanVactor. He worries about Schieber. He worries about his fellow monks. He worries about the family of Lloyd Jeffress.

But, he says, no one need worry about the monastic community.

“I really think there have been graces,” he says. “There have been small things and maybe big things, that have changed in people’s lives.”

Four new candidates enter Conception Abbey this summer. While none of them cited the tragedy as a reason for joining, Father Albert believes the shootings had an indirect influence. One observed in his application, “This man couldn’t take away the peace here.”

“Vocations are affected by how serious we are about our lives, how prayerful we are, how much we care for each other and how we treat our guests,” Father Albert notes. “The shootings made us reflect on what we do. We are carrying on, but we are carrying on more seriously. I think that shows.”

Father Albert is comfortable these days.

He has renewed old friendships. Things that used to irritate him don’t matter anymore. The voices in the monastic choir are more beautiful. He savors more fully the “privilege” of praying the divine office.

Father Albert counts among the greatest blessings of the past year the strengthened bond between the monks and the Benedictine sisters at nearby Clyde.

On the day of the shooting, the sisters invited the monks to their monastery for vespers and a meal, a gesture he found profoundly healing.

“They really stepped up,” he says. “They were there when we needed them. They prayed with us. They gave us a meal.”

Father Albert concedes he will never be the same. “This is part of who I am now,” he says. This summer he viewed the grisly crime scene photos, an unpleasant task he hopes will bring a sliver of closure to his loss.

He ponders the fear he still feels. Should the abbey lock its doors? He has even mulled whether the monks should arm themselves.

“Is our role to beef up and defend ourselves, or is our role to just be peaceful,” he wonders. “The witness of peace and the witness of prayers is what we are. If we die doing that then we die being who we are.

“Damian and Philip taught me that.”

***

A limping Father Norbert Schappler, without fanfare, celebrated Mass in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on June 6, the feast day of his patron saint, exactly a year since he last presided.

Father Kenneth Reichert is back at his duties as prior and counseling seminarians in their spiritual lives. And Abbot Gregory recently appointed him the new director of the oblate program. Along with these many duties, Father Kenneth accepts the ongoing challenge of forgiving his assailant.

“I have to forgive daily,” he says. “It’s not something that all of a sudden goes away. Every time I think of that day I have to make a conscious decision to forgive Mr. Jeffress. My advice to anyone who has gone through something like this, is to be ready to forgive for the rest of your life.”

Beverly VanVactor says her faith in God was shaken a year ago. “I know he wouldn’t give me anything I couldn’t handle,” she says, “but there were times when I wondered.” She continued going to church each Sunday, and now has reclaimed her faith as a force in her life.

She is learning she is not alone. She thinks daily of Father Philip and Brother Damian, aching for all they had left to do, for the people they had touched in their lives, some not so different from Lloyd Jeffress.

“What a hopeless awful feeling he must have felt that would make him do something like this,” she says. “I sometimes wonder if we had a kinder, gentler, more understanding society, maybe somebody would have reached out to him. But then again, I’m also sure there were times when people reached out to him and he rejected them.”

As this article went to print, Brother Blaise was probably watering the droopy pine tree in the monastery courtyard, tending the orchard, mowing the abbey grounds. Or just maybe he was sticking out one finger to a fellow monk during the sign of peace.

***

Years ago, in a meadow on the Abbey grounds, Brother Damian erected a succession of crosses commemorating the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Perhaps not coincidentally, this “Way of the Cross” also reflects the sort of stubborn obedience Father Philip demanded of himself and his confreres.

Their path doesn’t end at the 14th station. Completed a month before tragedy struck Conception Abbey, “Damian’s Trail” meanders through an elm grove, past a rickety hermitage, through the apple orchard he planted and on to the shores of Lake Placid. A walk along its length is a reminder that a life well lived never ceases to yield blessings.

During a combined 90 years of monastic life, Father Philip and Brother Damian gave everything they had to offer. A year ago, God wanted more.

For those left behind, June 10, 2002, was a reminder that His call can be terrible, but also the first step on a new path, where fuller faith and forgiveness promise still greater reward.

Summer 2003
Tower Topics