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|Abbot Gerald Benkert, OSB|
Conferral speech for the Distinguished Alumnus Award given at the 2011 Saint Meinrad Alumni Reunion
Presented July 19, 2011
Delivered by Dr. Carney Strange, President of the Saint Meinrad Alumni Association for Abbot Gerald Benkert, OSB. This award was given in absentia.
Tonight we honor the 19th recipient of this award: Benedictine Abbot
Gerald Benkert, the founding abbot of Marmion Abbey.
When you talk with Abbot Gerald or read the Memoirs book he wrote in 2009, of his—and Marmion Abbey’s—story, it’s the numbers that you remember.
Abbot Gerald is 101 years old. In 1947, at the age of 37, he was named the first abbot of a new abbey in Aurora, Illinois, founded by Saint Meinrad Archabbey. At the time, he had been the rector of Saint Meinrad Minor Seminary for three years.
He served as Marmion’s abbot for 22 years. Then, upon his "retirement” in 1969, he decided to learn Spanish and join his confreres in Guatemala, who were serving at Marmion’s priory and teaching at its minor seminary.
He spent more than 30 years doing mission work in Guatemala, during some turbulent times, including the devastating earthquake in 1976 that killed more then 30,000 people and several years of guerrilla violence during the 1980s.
For the two months each year that the seminary was not in session, he would return to Marmion and raise funds for the Guatemalan mission.
Since his permanent return to Marmion Abbey, Abbot Gerald has continued to take part in the prayer life of the monastic community. In addition, he has written a book of memoirs about his life and the history of Marmion, which was founded in 1933. Their history is clearly intertwined.
But let’s back up a little further…
Francis Benkert, often called "Franz” by his family, was born in 1909 in Louisville, Kentucky. Already at that time, several men in the Benkert family were members of the Saint Meinrad monastic community, including his father’s uncle, Abbot Athanasius Schmitt, OSB; and two brothers, Brother Innocent and Father Boniface; and a cousin, Father Fidelis. So it’s certainly not inconceivable that Franz would go to the seminary at Saint Meinrad.
He entered the seminary here after his eighth-grade graduation from Holy Name School in Louisville. He arrived on September 11, 1923. About his first day, he wrote, "With the other new students, I was then assigned a bed in a large dormitory, a desk in the front row of the huge study hall, one of the front pews in the chapel, and a place at table in the dining room.”
During his third and fourth years of seminary, he debated whether to join the monastic community—as he originally intended—or become a diocesan priest in Louisville. The main attraction of studying for the Diocese of Louisville was that he’d probably get to study at the North American College in Rome—quite a dream for a 16-year-old Kentucky boy in 1926!
Eventually, however, he discerned that it was God’s will that he should enter the monastery, which he did along with five others on August 5, 1928. A year later, he made his first vows and took the name Gerald.
On November 30, 1932, he became a fully professed member of the Saint Meinrad community. He was ordained a priest on May 22, 1934.
The summer after ordination, Saint Meinrad’s Abbot Ignatius Esser sent young Father Gerald for graduate studies at DePaul University in Chicago, where he stayed at the nearby Marmion priory—his first visit to the place that would eventually become home. He then returned to Saint Meinrad to begin teaching Latin in the Minor Seminary.
In 1936, Abbot Ignatius sent Father Gerald to Catholic University to begin a program of graduate studies in philosophy. After earning a master’s degree, his studies were interrupted when Abbot Ignatius appointed him as headmaster of Marmion Military Academy for two years. The appointment came as a surprise to the young priest, but it was nothing compared to his unexpected appointment as abbot a few years later.
By the way, Father Gerald later returned to Catholic University to complete his doctorate in philosophy.
In 1942, he returned to Saint Meinrad to teach philosophy I and II in the Major Seminary. While continuing to teach, he was appointed rector of the Minor Seminary, a post he held for three years, from 1944 to 1947.
During the Easter break at Saint Meinrad Minor Seminary in 1947, Father Gerald traveled to Boston for a meeting of the American Catholic Education Association. While he was away, Abbot Ignatius received word from Rome of the establishment of Marmion as an independent abbey and approval of his request that Father Gerald be named the first abbot.
At that time, the nation’s telephone operators had gone on strike, so Abbot Ignatius sent word of the appointment to Father Gerald by telegram. But due to a mix-up at the hotel, he didn’t receive the telegram until a day after it had been delivered.
By the time the hotel clerk handed it to him, six other telegrams had arrived—all congratulating him on his new appointment!
During the more than two decades that Abbot Gerald was the Marmion superior, he provided both the spiritual and physical foundations the new community needed to thrive. A few of his many accomplishments are these:
The abbey purchased more than 200 acres on which to build the monastery and other buildings.
Marmion Military Academy relocated to the property and a new school complex was built, consisting of a classroom building, dormitory, gymnasium, dining hall and power plant.
A Christmas tree farm was planted, which opened to the public in 1966 and provided a source of income for the abbey.
The monastic community, which comprised 32 members when the abbey was established, grew to 75 monks by 1965.
Enrollment at Marmion’s two campuses (a resident campus and a day school) peaked at 884 students in 1964.
Responding to Pope John XXIII’s call for religious communities to serve Latin America, Marmion agreed to establish a priory and operate a minor seminary in Guatemala—the Collegio Seminario de San José.
Another of Abbot Gerald’s achievements was noted in his nomination for the Distinguished Alumnus Award. According to one nominator, Abbot Gerald was "zealous to promote the beatification of Abbot Dom Columba Marmion by appointing Fr. Alcuin Deck [also a Marmion monk] as the postulator for the United States.”
Columba Marmion, for whom Marmion Abbey was named, was the third abbot of Maredsous Abbey and a well-known spiritual writer. When he was beatified by Pope John Paul II in front of St. Peter’s Basilica on September 3, 2000, Abbot Gerald was privileged to join his confreres and friends to witness the historic event.
In Memoirs, Abbot Gerald sums up his life experiences by quoting a verse from an antiphon that is sung during Vespers every Saturday evening: "The will of God gives joy to the heart; we see all things in its light.”
"Looking back over my many years,” he writes, "I can say that the great truths in this antiphon have served as guiding principles through the various stages of my life—monastic, priestly and abbatial—even though I may not have been fully aware of it at the time.”
For his service to Saint Meinrad and the Church – through his leadership, his dedication to the education of priests—here at Saint Meinrad, at Marmion Abbey and, finally, at the college seminary in Guatemala; and as a witness to the monastic life of prayer and work for more than 80 years…we are proud and grateful to honor Abbot Gerald Benkert as one of our most distinguished alumni.
Due to his health, Abbot Gerald could not attend tonight’s ceremony, but Marmion Abbey’s current superior, Abbot John Brahill, is here this evening to accept the award on Abbot Gerald’s behalf….