Former abbot remembered for his straight talk, transparent life
by Joe Bollig
ATCHISON — If you needed to talk to someone, a good “someone” was retired Abbot Owen Purcell, OSB.
And Father John Reynolds should know.
“He was my spiritual adviser,” said Father Reynolds, pastor of St. Vincent de
Paul Parish in Onaga, St. Patrick Parish in Corning and St. Bede Parish in Kelly.
“He was a man of integrity and honesty,” Father Reynolds continued. “Certainly, he was someone who was a really good listener, and generous with his time. . . . He was a straight-talker, honest in his communication.”
That’s what a lot of people said about Abbot Owen — honest, unpretentious, humble, even-tempered. What you saw was what you got. One of his frequent sayings was, “Thanks for everything. I have no complaints whatsoever,” said Sister Barbara McCracken, OSB.
Abbot Owen loved to fish. He loved to read and he loved to learn — he taught himself Brazilian Portuguese. He could play a mean “Finnegan’s Wake” on the harmonica. He stood up for the underdog. And he loved people.
Abbot Owen’s definition of a monk was simple: “The goal of his life as a monk is to live transparently; that is, what they see when they meet you is what is also going on inside. No veils, no hypocrisy,” said William Hyland, former professor at Benedictine College in Atchison, now at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, United Kingdom.
Abbot Owen, 82, died on Nov. 8 in his room at St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison. His health problems included congestive heart failure.
Abbot Owen was born on July 25, 1931, in Leavenworth, the only child of Thomas and Martha (Michalak) Purcell. He attended the North Broadway School and graduated from Immaculata High School in 1949.
His personal contacts with the Benedictine monks of St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison led him to enroll in St. Benedict’s College. Discerning a vocation as a Benedictine monk, he entered the novitiate on July 10, 1951. He professed his first vows on July 11, 1952, and graduated cum laude from St. Benedict’s College in 1954.
He studied for the priesthood and professed solemn vows on July 11, 1955. He was ordained a deacon on May 26, 1956, and a priest on May 30, 1957, at St. Benedict’s Church by Archbishop Edward J. Hunkeler of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
The newly ordained Father Owen began to teach at Maur Hill Preparatory School in Atchison in 1958, but left to earn a master’s degree in Latin from 1960 to 1961 at St. Louis University.
He went on to study at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in 1963, and undertook studies in spirituality at the Dominican House of Studies in River Forest, Ill., each summer from 1964 to 1966.
Abbot Thomas Hartman asked Father Owen to assume the roles of cleric master and subprior from 1966 to 1969. He returned to Maur Hill, where he served as chaplain, teacher and prefect from 1969 to 1980.
“He was very gentle and had a good sense of humor — a dry wit,” said Sister Anne Shepard, OSB, prioress of Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison. “Students would say that you could count on Abbot Owen coming prepared for class and inviting them to stretch [their minds]. He would get them to think deeply and to leave class knowing more than when they walked in the door. He was not overly demanding or a breeze. He was a great moderate teacher in that sense.”
Frequently, Father Owen would serve in multiple ministries.
At one time in addition to serving as chaplain at Maur Hill, he was chaplain for the Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Atchison, and at Valley Hope Center in Atchison. In 1980, he was appointed prior and novice master at the abbey. Later, in 1986, he served as an adjunct Latin professor at Benedictine College for the fall semester.
Abbot Owen was elected the seventh abbot in the history of the community on Dec. 28, 1989, serving until he resigned in the spring of 1994. As abbot, he had to guide the monks through difficult times and experiences.
“He was out in the parishes most of the first half of my time with the monastery,” said Abbot James Albers, OSB. “He was very concerned with the people he served — whether the Sisters at the Mount or the Charities of Leavenworth, or the parishes he served. He developed deep relationships and brought the gift of those relationships back to the community.”
Not all the things he was famous for were spiritual: He will be remembered at the abbey for bringing onion and peanut butter sandwiches back to the monastery menu. He loved them.
Abbot Owen became a “rookie pastor” at the age of 64 when Abbot Barnabas Senecal, OSB — recognizing his ability to connect with people — asked him to take on pastoral ministry for the archdiocese.
“Abbot Owen was a man willing to listen to many persons, from high school-aged youth to grandparents; from people at peace with themselves to those who were troubled; from believers to doubters,” said Abbot Barnabas.
While recovering from a heart attack, he served as pastor at St. Mary Parish in St. Benedict, later taking on St. Bede Parish in Kelly and St. Patrick in Corning. Next, he was pastor of St. Ann Parish in Effingham and St. Louis Parish in Good Intent.
“He was very beloved in every parish he had, and people hated to see him leave,” said Sister Anne. “Would that every pastor could say that.”
From 2009 to 2012, Abbot Owen served as assistant chaplain at the University of Saint Mary in Leavenworth and chaplain for the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. Additionally, he undertook prison ministry at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth.
Students would line up for the opportunity to talk to him, remembered Sister Julie Marsh, PBVM, University of Saint Mary campus ministry director.
“Abbot Owen loved helping with the late night breakfasts for students during finals weeks,” said Sister Julie. “He was known as ‘the biscuit man,’ and we had T-shirts made up with that. He would actually toss the biscuits on the plates.”
“We loved him,” said Sister Anne. “You could count on his homilies to be witty. He was always well-prepared and concise. You always knew there would be a speck of profound wisdom you could relate to — not just pie in the sky. He had a concrete, incarnational theology.”
Abbot Owen was preceded in death by his parents. He is survived by his brother monks at St. Benedict’s Abbey. A Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated for Abbot Owen at St. Benedict’s Abbey church on Nov. 13, followed by interment in the abbey cemetery.
Memorials in honor of Abbot Owen may be sent to St. Benedict’s Abbey, 1020 N. Second St., Atchison, KS 66002. Arrangements were by the Arensberg- Pruett Funeral Home.
Father Meinrad Miller, OSB, contributed to this article.