by Joe Bollig
ATCHISON — Retired Abbot Barnabas Thomas Senecal, OSB, had the soul of a priest and monk, the mind of an administrator, the sensibilities of an educator, and the eyes and voice of an artist.
But most of all he had a heart — and he gave it generously to his family, brother monks of St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, students and faculty at Maur Hill-Mount Academy and parishioners at the various places where he ministered.
Many mourned when they learned that Abbot Barnabas, 84, died on Dec. 7 at the abbey. He had been in declining health when he returned to the abbey in 2018.
He was a priest for 57 years, a monk for 63, teacher and administrator at Maur Hill-Mount Academy in Atchison for 24 years and abbot for 18 and a half.
“Abbot Barnabas was an amazing man, always enjoyable to be around,” said Phil Baniewicz, president of Maur Hill-Mount Academy. “He was one of those people that, if you were able to get time with him, you left a little bit different than when you started, simply because of his joy and sense of humor, and his compassion. You could sense his compassion.”
He spent his final years at the abbey in prayer, visiting many friends and being an example to the younger monks.
“The abbot was a large figure,” said Abbot James Albers, OSB, who succeeded Abbot Barnabas in 2019. “He was an anchor to the community through his humor, wit and genuine concern for others. Now that he’s no longer here, there is a void. We’re experiencing that right now in our community.”
“I feel a great loss,” said Archbishop Emeritus James P. Keleher. “I will miss him very much.”
Abbot Barnabas was born Gilbert Thomas, with his twin brother Albert Timothy, on Oct. 16, 1937, at home in Atwood. He was one of the seven children of Lionel John and Clara Josephine (Strecker) Senecal. The family belonged to Sacred Heart Parish, across the street from the family home.
John Senecal had three brothers who became priests and three sisters who became nuns. He insisted that his children receive a Catholic education, which is why they all ended up in Atchison. Their uncle — Father Lucien Senecal, OSB, of the abbey — influenced the boys to attend Maur Hill Academy.
Thomas Senecal attended Maur Hill from 1951-1955. After graduation, he enrolled in St. Benedict’s College in Atchison. He became a novice in 1957, professed first vows in 1958 and received the name “Barnabas.” He made final vows in 1961 and was ordained a priest on May 30, 1964.
After ordination, he taught theology and was a dorm prefect at St. Benedict’s College. Later, he was an assistant pastor at St. Joseph Parish in Atchison and taught part time at Maur Hill. In 1968, he began to teach full time, was assistant headmaster from 1969-1979 and headmaster from 1979-1990.
It was in Rome while on sabbatical that he discovered a passion and talent for photography, teaching himself. His photos, with accompanying meditations, appeared in the ecumenical liturgical magazine Celebration, as well as on calendars and greeting cards, and in exhibitions.
He also had a wonderful love of and talent for singing; the motto on his coat of arms was: “Sing to the Lord a new song,” from Psalms 98 and 149. In 2002, in an effort to lighten the confirmation demands on Archbishop Keleher, he began celebrating confirmations at archdiocesan parishes. There, he would frequently sing and became known as “the singing abbot.” He and other monks produced a CD of music, entitled “On a Musical Journey,” as a fundraiser for remodeling projects at the abbey.
Abbot Barnabas was elected the eighth abbot in the history of St. Benedict’s Abbey in 1994, reelected in 2002 and stepped down due to age limits in 2012. He introduced modern fundraising and hired the first development director, oversaw remodeling the abbey church and guest house, rewrote the first Customary (monk’s guidelines) since the 1960s and led the abbey’s 150th anniversary in 2007.
After stepping down as abbot, he returned to parish work. Through his relationships he created strong ties between the abbey and parishioners.
Abbot Barnabas was preceded in death by his parents John and Clara; sister Clare; brothers Father Gerard Senecal, OSB, William and Richard. He is survived by his twin brother and his sister Mary Hansen.
Memorials in his honor may be made to the Abbot Barnabas Legacy Fund at: kansasmonks.org/legacyfund, or by mailing a check to: St. Benedict’s Abbey, 1020 N. Second St., Atchison KS 66002.