Fr. Donald Walpole, O.S.B.
May 1, 1917 -- January 27, 2012
NOTE: This afternoon, the most senior member (in terms of age) of our monastery died. He was 94, professed as a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey for 71 years. Though he was the oldest, there are three surviving monks here--all in their 90s--who have been professed just a little longer. While Fr. Donald had been in declining health of late, up until several months ago, he was still belting out psalms in choir each day with the rest of us and making the rounds of the monastery for community functions on his motorized scooter. With his death, the eldest monk here is now former Archabbot Bonaventure Knaebel, who is 93 and is still very much with it. Posted below is a piece on Fr. Donald I wrote for our vocations website when I was a novice. May he rest in peace. -- Br. Francis
Fr. Donald Walpole’s life as a monk is a portrait of obedience, not a mystery, he says.
Ever faithful to Saint Meinrad’s daily rhythm of prayer and work, he does his best artwork between 8 and 11 p.m., yet is up at 4 a.m. to quietly reflect on the things of God. He loves a good joke, has a sharp memory and a penchant for telling stories, and he takes no prisoners during card games.
“Being a monk is not a mysterious thing, although you might think it is,” he says. Although his murals and mosaics adorn the walls of the monastery at Saint Meinrad and churches throughout the country, he also points out that being a monk is not about the work one produces. “Monks come to seek God. When you take the vow of obedience, you may be given a number of different things to do, but it has to be the way of life, seeking God, that attracts you and keeps you going. That is our primary work. Other work is more general.”
His work, he says, has typically been a result of faithfulness to the vow of obedience, although it has usually allowed him to express his artistic identity. After joining the monastery and being ordained, he was sent to the Art Institute of Chicago, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree. Upon returning, he taught art history and related art subjects in the seminary college for 48 years, all the while taking on additional assignments and producing a vast array of artwork. Some of his art students included future abbots and bishops – whose grades he is still able to recall.
"I never dreamed I’d be involved in everything I have done,” he said, remarking that he expected initially to be assigned to the Abbey Press, where he did accounting work before being ordained. “I wanted to be a monk and to seek God. Beyond that, I was willing to do whatever was required, whatever I was assigned to do.”
As a young monk, Fr. Donald helped Dom Gregory de Wit, O.S.B., paint the ceiling of the Chapter Room for one summer, and he painted the crucifixion scene with Saint Gertrude in the area leading into the Chapter Room. Later, he painted the Stations of the Cross that now hang in St. Joseph Oratory in the crypt of the
His works are displayed not only throughout the monastery, but also around the country. His glass mosaics, murals, window designs and linen hangings are in cathedrals, parish churches, monasteries, convents, chapels, schools, mausoleums and universities, from the
Perhaps more revealing about Fr. Donald than what is depicted in the contemporary design of his art is that he vividly recalls the people involved with each project, who provided assistance, and how each work came together, right down to the materials that were used.
De Wit [a Belgian monk who visited Saint Meinrad in the 1940s] was a tremendous influence on him artistically. “I wouldn’t have attempted much of what I’ve done without his help. I learned so much from him.”
Growing up as Martin Walpole in
His older brother Robert began the path toward diocesan priesthood by attending high school at Saint Meinrad. Young Martin, a bit more tentative, attended high school in
“I was attracted by the liturgy here, the beautiful chant – in Latin then, of course,” Fr. Donald said. “The idea that the monks were sacrificing all also appealed to me. I liked the way of life, the work, and the quiet, although the place wasn’t very beautiful then like it is now.”
His parents were resistant at first. “They didn’t know what a monk was,” he said. “My mother cried. She thought she’d never see me again. When I came here, I thought that was it, that I had left my family.” However, he was often sent to
Since then, Fr. Donald has witnessed many changes, at Saint Meinrad and within the Church. He remembers when the monks had to play baseball in their habits and when a good game of bridge was considered common indoor recreation.
“Nobody plays cards anymore,” he said. “There’s too much else going on.”
The biggest challenge, he said, was adjusting to the changes in the Church after the Second Vatican Council, when the Divine Office each day began to be prayed in English rather than Latin.
“I still recall a lot of the Latin verses. English has helped other people understand everything that’s going on in the liturgy, but the Latin helped convey the depth of spiritual meaning better and still helps me to be more aware of the presence of God,” he said. “But most of us saw the necessity of the change. We did lose some things, but nothing more than we gained for the benefit of the whole Church.”
Throughout the decades and the changes, Fr. Donald has held fast to his calling within.
“Never did I feel I had made a mistake. I was called here, led by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit opened up avenues here that seemed to fit me.”
Fr. Donald recalls his own experience of becoming acquainted with Saint Meinrad in offering advice to those who may be considering monastic life. “It takes meeting the monks and discussing the life with them, not just seeing them in church. You must not only be inspired by their service, but see the reality of the life.”
That reality of the life, Fr. Donald says, is the means by which the monk seeks the mystery of God – whether in the daily round of work, the art of creation, or in the darkest silence before the bells summon the monks to the
“People come here to seek God. God doesn’t have a face like ours. He is goodness and pure truth, and that’s what we seek, according to the Rule of St. Benedict.”
Click here to read Fr. Donald's full obituary.