In Memoriam: Fr. Athanasius Buchholz, O.S.B. (1928-2018)
FATHER ATHANASIUS BUCHHOLZ, O.S.B., a monk of Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon, U.S.A., passed peacefully to the Lord on the 22nd day of February, 2018. He was in his 90th year of age, his 69th year of monastic profession, and his 64th year of ordination to the priesthood.
Father Athanasius was born in Mt. Angel, Oregon, practically in the shadow of the Abbey where he made his monastic profession of vows in 1949. After his solemn profession in 1952 he was sent to Rome to study theology at the Benedictine College of Sant’ Anselmo, and in the following year he was ordained a deacon at Mount Angel’s mother Abbey of Engelberg in Switzerland.
It was at Solesmes Abbey in France that he was ordained to the priesthood in 1954. Upon his return from Europe Father Athanasius taught languages in the seminary, but much of his time and attention over the years was devoted to the library and to the books for which he had such great love, especially as a collector of rare and beautiful high-quality works on plants and birds. (He was even an award-winning grower of daffodils!)
Father Athanasius’ ability with the ancient languages found reflection even in his prayer life, as his celebration of the Eucharist and his prayer of the Hours remained in the Latin language. Though he was a person of strong character, health was a long-time issue for him, and in his final years he required care in the Providence Benedictine Nursing Center in Mt. Angel.
He was brought back to the Abbey on the 21st of February, 2018, so that he could make his passage to the Lord in the midst of his brethren. May he now rest forever in the peace of Christ… Thank you for your prayers for him!
— Abbot Jeremy Driscoll & Community, Mount Angel Abbey
Eulogy by Abbot Peter Eberle, O.S.B., Monday, February 26, 2018
Not too long ago I was thinking of Father Athanasius, and especially musing about his passing, which I knew was inevitable sooner rather than later. A question, perhaps more implicit than explicit, popped into my head: ”To whom, “ I wondered, “could Father Athanasius be compared?” Probably most of his confreres would spontaneously answer, “Nobody.” How after all can you compare the incomparable?
But I thought of a character, Ruth Zardo, whom the novelist Louise Penny created and who regularly appears in her novels. Louise Penny, as you may know, is a contemporary writer of mystery novels. They are set in Quebec, and usually in the village of Three Pines, which is a remote but idyllic place except for the fact that a murder occurs there about every year or so.
Ruth Zardo lives in that fictional village of Three Pines and is an extraordinarily colorful character. As portrayed by Penny, she is a world-class poet. She is also an eccentric curmudgeon, that is, a cantankerous, difficult person. But she is a very delightful curmudgeon. She has a sharp tongue and an even sharper wit. To illustrate, when she learns that a new neighbor in the village has written a book, she remarks, “[Well then] she’s written more books than she’s read.”
It might seem quite inappropriate, to begin a eulogy of a confrere by insinuating that he is an eccentric curmudgeon. But a eulogy can hardly be a “good word” if it isn’t also an “honest word.” And in fact, like Louise Penny’s Ruth Zardo, Father Athanasius was an eccentric curmudgeon albeit a very delightful one. Stories abound about his antics. Just before this Vigil began, the monastic community gathered in the main recreation room to tell and mostly retell some of them. Virtually every one was a curmudgeonly tale, but we were roaring with laughter.
Having taken this tack, I could hardly pass on without sharing at least one such story. This one occurred many years ago, when Father Norbert Novak, a confrere who later transferred to Ascension Priory (where he recently died) was a young monk and a student here in the seminary. He was enrolled in Father Athanasius’s Introductory Hebrew course. Early in the school year, Father Norbert suffered an illness that kept him out of class for several days. When he returned he was far behind everyone else. However, on the day he returned Father Athanasius, in a moment of magnanimity, encouraged the class to ask questions. “Ask any question you like,” he said. So Father Norbert did. “Well,” responded Father Athanasius, “the questions don’t have to be that dumb.”
Of course, that story adds only minimally to the lore. Taken all together the stories reveal him as a remarkable character who will not soon be forgotten by those who knew him.
But there is an irony here too. These stories reveal the character we knew, but in many ways they hide the person he was. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising. After all, the very word “person” is drawn from a Greek word that means “mask.” How fitting! Every person is masked because every person is so much more than what any of us can see.
So it was with Father Athanasius. No doubt about it: he was an eccentric curmudgeon and all those stories will live on for a long time. But he was so much more than that.
He was, for one thing, quite a cultured and learned man. He loved the opera. He had a friend, Phyllis Dunn, who occasionally took him to Portland for a performance. She had to insist that he shave and dress properly for the occasion (which he did) but he enjoyed those outings.
He actually was a man of many interests and talents. Much to the surprise of many of us, he was a horticulturist, specifically a world-class grower of daffodils. As I recall he developed many that were unique and caught the attention of daffodil growers everywhere.
He was a bibliophile, that is, a lover of books. That dimension of his person is illustrated by probably the most memorable story in the Athanasian lore—a story that has been told and retold—of the time Abbot Bonaventure walked into Powell’s Book Store and found Father Athanasius working there as an employee. When he asked Father Athanasius what he was doing there, he replied, “Well, we all have our little secrets.”
The reason why he kept his little secret from his abbot is because he wanted to earn money to buy books, especially books on birds and plants. He knew what books were worth getting. If the library has a fine collection of beautifully photographed volumes of birds, it is due to Father Athanasius’s efforts. He became I interested, he studied, and he became an expert. In fact just recently a room containing the books Father Athanasius acquired and gave to the library has been opened in the library.
Above all, even as we remember him for the great character he was, we should never forget that he was a monk. Admittedly he lived his monastic life in his own unique way, but he lived it faithfully. One of my very earliest memories of Father Athanasius takes me back to a time when I was still in grade school, probably not much beyond the fifth or sixth grade. My family had come to the abbey one Sunday afternoon to visit Father Luke, my Dad’s brother. I can barely remember the scene, but as we were visiting, as I recall sitting outside, we caught sight of a monk pacing back and forth in the background and looking rather glum. “Who is that?” someone asked. Father Luke, who was Novice and Cleric Master at the time, chuckled and said, “Oh, that’s Frater Athanasius. The abbot is sending him to Rome, and he doesn’t want to go.” But he was a monk and go he did, because he was obedient.
He demonstrated that obedience in different ways throughout his lifetime. Indeed his career as a Powell’s Bookstore employee ended the evening Abbot Bonaventure found him there because Abbot Bonaventure told him it was ending. Father Athanasius didn’t resist. He simply accepted because he was obedient.
Of course as a monk Father Athanasius was a man of prayer. That too he practiced in his unique way especially as it unfolded in his older age. He said his private Mass each day on an altar right above the choir in the triforium. That altar was a sight not so much for sore eyes, but to make eyes sore. It could have been used as is for a rummage sale, because on top of it rested every item imaginable. His alb was, as Father Paschal might have put it, “a fright,” perpetually unwashed and wrinkled.
In like manner Father Athanasius prayed the Liturgy of the Hours faithfully each day. When he was young he came to choir, and in fact was in the schola. But in later life he said his office privately, partially I think because he preferred to say it, just as he celebrated Mass, in Latin. How often too could he be seen walking about with his Rosary in hand?
Finally a eulogy, for Father Athanasius would hardly be complete if no mention were made of one other aspect that surely contributed to the person he was. His suffering. As far as I know Father Athanasius never enjoyed robust health. I remember when I was a young monk, he was laid up for a long time with phlebitis, and he always had to keep his legs wrapped in long elastic stockings. They must have been uncomfortable in any season, but especially miserable in the summer. But that wasn’t the half of it. For years, perhaps most of his life, he suffered from an ulcerated colon. How terribly painful that must have been, but he chose to bear it rather than undergo a any treatment that might have alleviated it but would have brought its own unrelieved suffering.
Father Athanasius the lover of opera; Father Athanasius the horticulturist; Father Athanasius the bibliophile; yes, Father Athanasius the eccentric, cantankerous but always delightful curmudgeon: these are but a few of the characteristics that flourished behind the mask, and made Father Athanasius the person he was. So ultimately who was he? I suggest overarching everything was Father Athanasius the monk, a faithful pupil in the school of the Lord’s service, who through patient sharing in the sufferings of Christ, now shares in his kingdom. I for one like to think that when he entered it, it was rollicking with laughter. After all Abbot Bonaventure, he who was the greatest teller of “Athie stories,” had preceded him and long ago all those “little secrets” must have been told and retold in the heavenly realm. How could the heavens not laugh when finally he himself arrived?
Welcome home, Father Athanasius!