CONCEPTION, Mo. (KRT) – The basilica bells at Conception Abbey tolled more than 80 times beneath storm clouds Tuesday morning, marking the number of years two monks shot and killed here had dedicated to their faith.
For the first time in recent memory, the Benedictine priests and brothers of the monastery did not gather for a morning prayer. Instead, they remained in their rooms in meditation as police investigators processed the crime scene in their midst.
A 71-year-old retiree from Kearney, Mo., drove to the monastery in this rural corner of northwest Missouri early Monday and shot four before turning a gun on himself. Two priests survived with serious injuries.
The incident shook the community of monks set in farm country about 90 miles north of Kansas City, but it did not rattle their faith, Abbot Gregory Polan said in an interview Tuesday.
“You see, here is a man who really must have been experiencing problems mentally, emotionally and spiritually,” Polan said. “That gives us a way to open our hearts to someone who in one sense can’t be held responsible for what he did.”
Investigators Tuesday worked to shed more light on the life of Lloyd Robert Jeffress, who wandered the first-floor halls near the basilica with an assault rifle Monday, seemingly shooting indiscriminately. The retired steelworker and postal employee took his own life in a basilica pew.
Jeffress at one time had been a practicing Catholic, said Sgt. Sheldon Lyon of the Missouri Highway Patrol, though investigators still had little to go on in their pursuit of a motive.
Police handling the case were privately speculating that they might never know why Jeffress carried out his rampage. Initial interviews with family were largely fruitless, police said Tuesday, as the relatives were mostly estranged from Jeffress, U.S. Army veteran who fought in Korea.
News that Jeffress had once been part of the Catholic Church led to speculation that the sex abuse scandal now buffeting the priesthood might have triggered the attack.
“That’s certainly one possibility, but we’re going in a lot of different directions trying to figure this out,” Lyon said.
A spokesperson for the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph said officials have no record of Jeffress as a parishioner.
Jeffress apparently had few friends in the late years of his life. Residents of the Kearney Senior Citizens complex where he lived in a small apartment said he was a loner there. While many residences were decorated with flags and flowers, Jeffress’ was unadorned Tuesday, save a lawn chair left near the door.
Residents offered little information about him, describing their neighbor as private. He did laundry late on Sunday nights to avoid contact with his neighbors, they said, and watched television with the volume turned up because of his poor hearing.
“Nobody here knew him and he didn’t talk to anybody,” said one resident who asked that her name not be used. “He always seemed so mild, but he was a phantom.”
As the monks of the abbey dealt with the tragedy, Polan said it would not change the monastery’s mission as a welcoming beacon of hope. The abbey has a long Benedictine tradition of hospitality that it will not alter, Polan said, noting that it welcomed 30,000 pilgrims and guests last year.
“We have a 1,500-year-old rule that every guest who comes here is Christ. That’s what we believe,” Polan said.
At night, the only locked door at the complex is the front entrance, he said, and the abbey will always welcome those who are troubled for prayer.
“This is what our life is about,” he said. “We will not live in fear.”
Polan said he did not believe Jeffress had been to the monastery before Monday.
He had been attending the First United Methodist Church in Kearney for about a month, according to Pastor Brad Reed. Jeffress was an unassuming gentleman who would offer a smile and warm handshake, Reed said.
“He seemed to be getting more comfortable here,” Reed said.
Still, Jeffress did not offer churchgoers a glimpse into his life during his short time there.
Jeffress attended services the morning before he drove to Conception, Reed said.
“The theme Sunday was that Jesus is a gift of love from God,” Reed said. “And we as Christians should reflect the same love.”
The monks were attempting to ease their pain by reading Scripture Tuesday, Polan said, including a message from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” he said.
Answers still unclear in Conception shooting