by Joe Bollig
ATCHISON — It was fitting that Abbot Ralph Koehler, OSB, 91, died on March 21 at St. Benedict’s Abbey here on the feast of the death of St. Benedict, according to the preconciliar church calendar.
He was a Benedictine monk, but more: a leader, pastor and missionary.
Abbot Ralph (Wilfred) Koehler was born on Jan. 20, 1929, in Seneca. He was one of seven children of John M. Koehler and Helen Victoria (Heideman) Koehler.
The Koehlers were members of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish and the children attended the parish school. Abbot Ralph graduated from high school in May 1945 and enrolled in St. Benedict’s College in Atchison that fall. He entered St. Benedict’s Abbey but did not stay.
He entered the U.S. Air Force in July 1947, eventually serving as an airborne radar technician in the Eighth Air Force at Roswell, New Mexico. He was discharged in June 1950 as a sergeant.
In 1954, he returned to St. Benedict’s College and, in July 1955, he reentered the novitiate of St. Benedict’s Abbey and was given the name Ralph. After professing his first vows on July 11, 1956, he completed his studies in 1958. He was ordained a priest on May 31, 1962. He was going to be a missionary.
On Sept. 21, 1962, Father Koehler and Father Herbert Hermes (a future bishop) boarded the MS Estrid Torm in New York and sailed to Brazil, disembarking on Oct. 4 at Rio de Janeiro. They went to the abbey’s new mission of St. Joseph Priory in the city of Mineiros, in the state of Goias, Brazil.
Father Ralph would minister in Brazil for the next 13 years, learning the language, land and people.
In addition to his pastoral work, Father Ralph helped plan and supervise the building of St. Joseph Priory, the first chapel in Mineiros and the renovation of a closed Catholic school into a lay formation center in Mineiros. He also was instrumental in the building of the convent of the Benedictine Sisters from Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Atchison.
“I was with Abbot Ralph,” said Father Duane Roy, OSB. “We were missionaries together at St. Joseph Priory.
“He was quite energetic and had the capacity to get things done. He was a great missionary. . . . He traveled on the weekends over rough roads [to other parishes] and he was on the ground floor of building our priory. And he knew about architecture and plans. He was good at planning and executing.”
Father Ralph returned to St. Benedict’s Abbey in 1975, where he went on to teach mathematics at Maur Hill-Mount Academy in Atchison and was director of Camp St. Maur.
“We were in the same novitiate class together,” said Father Roderic Giller, OSB. “Abbot Ralph was a take-charge guy.”
In 1976, Abbot Brendan Downey appointed Father Ralph as prior. Upon Abbot Brendan’s death, Father Ralph was elected the sixth abbot of the abbey on Nov. 28, 1980. He was blessed by Archbishop Ignatius J. Strecker on Jan. 4, 1981.
“He was the abbot when I became a novice in 1985,” said Father Meinrad Miller, OSB. “He was a very good abbot. During his time, we put together our Liturgy of the Hours books, renovated the monastery and started a health care facility for the elderly monks. He was a good spiritual father.
“Those were difficult times in the 1980s, because there weren’t a lot of vocations, but he always kept an optimistic outlook on life.”
He served as abbot from Nov. 28, 1980, to Dec. 3, 1989. Upon his retirement, he began serving as the pastor of parishes in the northern regions of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the monks celebrated a Vespers of the Dead and the Mass of Christian Burial on March 23, with only family present. Abbot Ralph was buried in the abbey cemetery.