Thomas William McGraw was the second oldest of five children born to Joseph and Lucile Frances (Ryan) McGraw in Litchfield, Minnesota, on June 19, 1935. Thomas received his elementary schooling in the Minnesota towns of Litchfield and Little Falls. In Little Falls, he was taught by Benedictine sisters from Saint Joseph, Minnesota. Even in these earliest years, Thomas was surrounded by a milieu that nourished his priestly vocation: “Undoubtedly, the first and strongest influence that sent me on the way to the priesthood was our home life. With little money in the family treasury, we manufactured most of our entertainment at home. It kept us together and under the influence of our parents. Family prayer was a part of our daily schedule, and the family Rosary is among my earliest recollections.”
He enrolled at Saint John’s Preparatory School from 1949–53, where he was involved in many extracurricular activities. Recounting his prep school days: “My contacts with my teachers and prefects exerted an incalculable force driving me to the Benedictines. The most powerful force, as always, is an example.”
Thomas continued his education at Saint John’s University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1958. He was first professed as a Benedictine monk in 1956, taking the monastic name Rene, with final profession in 1959 and ordination to the priesthood in 1962.
Father Rene continued his education at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he earned an M.A. in philosophy in 1966, and from there, he went on to earn his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Paris, Nanterre, France, in 1972.
Father Rene’s philosophical interests were centered on phenomenology. As a young cleric, one would often catch sight of him stretched out on a sofa in an abbey recreation room, singularly focused on some philosophical tome and seemingly lost in thought. Father Rene also had a deep desire for social justice, and he helped launch the college’s peace studies major in 1987.
Father Rene punctuated his academic career with sabbaticals at the New School for Social Research in New York City, at the Program for Non-Violent Sanctions at Harvard University, as well as at Oxford University. It was during these leaves that he especially cultivated his own unique philosophical approach to and justification for peace studies. Among students, Father Rene had a reputation for being demanding, but he excelled as a teacher, earning two teaching awards in 1986 and 2007.
Father Rene had an impish sense of humor with which he frequently chided his confreres, always in good fun. He was a careful and thoughtful homilist, and he frequently reminded the assembly of vigilance in attending to issues involving social justice.
Father Rene served SJU for many years as a faculty resident, largely in the freshman dorms of Saint Thomas and Mary Halls, and he counted many former residents among his friends. After a serious fall in June 2021, Father Rene spent the rest of his days in the Abbey Retirement Center. The abundant visitors there as well as to his Caring Bridge site, repeatedly remarked on Rene’s care and attention to them as persons. Many said they had come to know themselves better as Rene listened and asked questions.
His contributions to his home community of Saint John’s Abbey were also noteworthy. From 1987 through 1993, he served as formation director, and he was a spiritual director for many in the community. Father Rene embodied a wonderful sense of community service and was always ready to volunteer when the need arose.
Father Rene died on Sunday, 20 November, 2022, in the retirement center at Saint John’s Abbey. He is survived by his sister, Mary Lambert, Milford, CT, brother-in-law, Bill Friedman, New York, NY, and the community at Saint John’s Abbey. The monks, family, and friends will receive the body at 7:00 pm on Friday, 25 November, and celebrate the Mass of Christian Burial for Father Rene at 10:30 am on Saturday, 26 November, in the Saint John’s Abbey and University Church, with interment in the Abbey Cemetery. The service will be live-streamed at www.saintjohnsabbey.org/live.
We ask each community member to offer two Masses according to the manner of his participation in the priesthood of Christ. We commend our brother Rene to your prayers.
Abbot John Klassen OSB
and the monks of Saint John’s Abbey