Fr. Denis Meade - 65 Years - A Monastic Lifetime

There is an Abbey legend – that a certain Br. Matt had the ability to predict which novices would stay and which would leave.

“He took care of the gardens and the novices would work for him,” said Fr. Denis Meade. 

“After I made my profession, after a year, in joking I asked ‘Br. Matt, which ones of these novices are going to stay and which ones are leaving?’” said Fr. Denis. 

“I ain’t making predictions any more,” said Br. Matt. 

“Why not?” asked Fr. Denis.

“When you came, I thought ‘Shucks, that fella’s gonna to leave in three weeks,’” said Br. Matt.

Br. Matt certainly had a sense of humor. Maybe.

“Maybe he really meant it,” said Fr. Denis.

If only Br. Matt had lived long enough to see Fr. Denis break his own record. 

This year, Fr. Denis celebrates his 65th anniversary of becoming a monk and 60th anniversary of his priestly ordination. He will mark the anniversaries by celebrating the 10:00 a.m. Mass on Sept. 13 in the Abbey Church with a reception afterward. The public is welcome to attend.

“It’s great to be a monk because you have a great way of life, which is encouraging and challenging,” said Fr. Denis. “You join the school of the Lord’s service so you can, in the words of the Prologue to the Rule, live this way of life so you can run the way of God’s commandments with expanded hearts and the inexpressible joy of love.”

“That’s a wonderful goal. It’s enough to keep you going through the years,” he continued. “And also the idea of the fraternal life of people striving to go together toward God, living in the bonds of fellowship, friendship and charity. And doing something productive for the Kingdom of God.”

Fr. Denis was born in Des Moines but raised in Cumming, Iowa, the youngest of six. His baptismal name was James Thomas Meade. His Benedictine journey began while he was at Dowling Catholic High School in Des Moines. He wanted to go to a larger school.

“I had a friend there who transferred to Maur Hill in Atchison,” said Fr. Denis. “Interestingly, by the time I transferred there the next year, he had been expelled. I understand he was a good benefactor of Maur Hill over the years, nevertheless.”

Fr. Denis graduated from Maur Hill in 1947 and began studies at St. Benedict’s College. He had begun to think seriously about becoming a priest in his later high school years.

At the college he lived “on the hill,” in a residence for young men considering religious life or the priesthood. One of his classmates was Fr. Anthony Licktieg, a priest of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

“I was drawn to the life of religious community,” said Fr. Denis. “I thought, hopefully, I might be a teacher. The vast majority of the faculty and administration of the college were the monks themselves. At that time it was customary for those who were interested in becoming [monks] to enter the Abbey after their sophomore year in college, so that’s’ what I did.”

He entered the Abbey and professed his first vows on July 11, 1950, months shy of turning age 20. Two years later his abbot gave him the opportunity to study at the Pontifical Atheneum of Sant Anselmo, the international Benedictine college in Rome. 

“I was pleased,” he said. “I didn’t go kicking and screaming.”

In those days students learned Italian and Latin the way Viking children learned to swim: No preparation, just jump in and sink or swim.

“It was a struggle,” he said. “Our classes were in Latin. We had taken Latin here, but we never [were instructed] in Latin.”

So, how was his Latin?

“Poor,” he said. “Well, mediocre. My Latin was passable. And then Italian, with self-help books, you learned on your own.”

Fr. Denis studied theology at Sant’ Anselmo from 1952 to 1956, and then canon law at the Pontifical Lateran University from 1956 to 1961.

In those days people didn’t buzz back and forth across the Atlantic, so Fr. Denis would explore Europe during his summers. He went to Bavaria, Austria, France and Belgium.

He professed solemn vows on May 26, 1953, in a subterranean chapel of Monte Cassino, which was still being repaired after the World War II Allied bombing nearly obliterated the cradle of the Benedictine order.

He was ordained a deacon on Sept. 8, 1954, at the Abbey of St. Paul of Wisques in northern France. He also spent a short time at the Abbey of Saint Andres in Bruges.

 A part of him will always remain in Bruges — literally.

“I also had the good fortune of leaving my appendix there,” said Fr. Denis.

He was ordained a priest on June 28, 1955, at St. Peter’s Abbey in Assisi, Italy, by Bishop Placido Nicolini, OSB. The bishop saved hundreds of Jews from the Nazis as mastermind of “The Assisi Underground.” 

Fr. Denis returned to Atchison in 1961 and for a short time, taught in St. Benedict’s Abbey’s internal seminary. When it closed he became an instructor of religious studies at St. Benedict’s College, later Benedictine College. He taught introduction to theology, moral theology, church history and sacramental theology.

“I taught introductory courses to under-motivated freshmen,” laughed Fr. Denis.

Maybe not so under-motivated.

“He was just so personable and so knowledgeable,” said Deacon Frank Olmsted, a teacher at De Smet High School in St. Louis., who was an undergraduate at the college from 1969 to 1972. Deacon Olmsted also taught at the college from 1975 to 1984.

“We used to joke in class [Fr. Denis] had infused knowledge,” Olmsted continued. “He seemed to have everything at his beck and call. Anything he read, he had. It was a part of him. He seemed like an infinite well of knowledge and wisdom. I have three degrees in theology . . . and I taught theology for 41 years. If there is one person responsible for what I ended up doing, it would be Fr. Denis. He was a terrific model.”

Another student Fr. Denis motivated and inspired was Patrick Carr, a member of the Church of the Nativity in Leawood, Kan.

“Fr. Denis is clearly a special person,” said Carr, who graduated from Benedictine College in 1994, and has been working for Hallmark Cards since he graduated.

“He was a really good professor . . . he was such a welcoming spirit and inspirational teacher,” Carr continued. “I connected with Fr. Denis the first time I met him.  So over the years we developed a friendship. My wife Kate, who graduated in 1993, also had Fr. Denis as a professor. In fact, we appreciated him so much that we asked him to officiate at our wedding in El Paso, Tex., after we both graduated from college.”

Fr. Denis was assigned to St. Joseph Priory in Mineiros, Brazil from 1987 to 1989. After he retired from teaching in 2000, he returned to Brazil at age 71 and ministered from 2001 to 2005. He worked in the marriage tribunal and did parochial work. He also worked in the formation of the Abbey’s new monks in Goiania.

 “I found it in the main pleasant,” he said. “Brazilians are warm, affectionate and hospitable.”

He kept busy after he returned to Atchison.  From 2007 until now he has been postulant director. He served as junior master from 2008-2015.

Much has changed in the Church and the abbey during Fr. Denis’ life and ministry. Some have been merely “stylistic,” while others have been more substantial — and welcome.

“Our day is still framed by the Liturgy of the Hours, but it is now in English, and I consider that a blessing,” he said. “But one does miss the beauty of the lovely Latin chant.”

“It’s a source of happiness now, that after some years of drought, we are experiencing a steady entrance of new members at the Abbey,” said Fr. Denis. “One of the nicest things I’ve experienced after coming back from Brazil is helping all these men get their start. So now our monastery is becoming young again.”

One of those younger monks guided by Fr. Denis is Fr. Meinrad Miller, who has known him since he was a student at Benedictine. 

“He’s a faithful monk and priest,” said Fr. Meinrad. “When he came back [from Italy] with his doctorate, it was an interesting time. There was a lot of upheaval and changes. But I think he was a steadying force. He neither wanted to go back to the way things were in the old days or throw everything out the window. He’ll be remembered as reasonably looking at the signs of the times and helping us to evaluate which way to go.”

Fr. Blaine Schultz, who has known Fr. Denis for at least 50 years, appreciates Fr. Denis’ ability to tell a good story and his “fantastic memory for names.” He also gave Fr. Denis high marks for being a “good community man” and keeper of the Abbey’s history and lore. He does liturgy very well.

Fr. Denis is also has a way with words, a “delightful conversationalist” and homilist.

“I’ve always enjoyed his homilies and other people do, too,” said Fr. Blaine. “I would rate him one of our better homilists. Not pretty good — really good, very good.”

And so Fr. Denis, even in retirement, keeps doing those “better things.” In addition to his work as postulant director and director of junior professed, he celebrates daily Mass for the Benedictine Sisters at the Dooley Center at Mount St. Scholastica Monastery, and is a judge in the tribunal of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

Being a senior monk is both a responsibility and a privilege for Fr. Denis. He contributes to the stability and vitality of the community. And he is an example to the younger monks, sharing his wisdom. 

He even has some wisdom about wisdom, too.

“Don’t be conceited about the thought that you have accumulated a lot of wisdom,” said Fr. Denis. “Look back over your years and thank God that people have forgotten the embarrassing things you’ve done, and be grateful for the presence of the Lord in your life. 

“Be grateful for whatever good you’ve been able to do, and the tolerance people have given you throughout the years when your performance has been mediocre,” he continued. “Or maybe under-motivated.”