At 10:34 a.m. on Friday, 21 July 2023, our beloved confrere, Father Richard Cleary, OSB, laid aside the cares of earthly life to enter that sanctuary not made by hands, in full hope of hearing those words of welcome addressed by the Lord to his faithful servants: “Come, blessed of my Father; enter the joy of your Master!” After a long life of priestly ministry in many locations, advancing years and declining health had brought Fr. Richard back to Conception Abbey in 2010; further decline eventually necessitated his move in 2018 to our St. Stephen’s Infirmary and Health Care Center, where he completed his ministerial life in ongoing prayer for the Church and the world. Fr. Richard leaves his brother monks with memories of the erudition and vast historical knowledge that informed both his life and his ministry.
James Andrew Cleary was born on 31 July 1929 in Wichita, Kansas, to James A. and Katherine (née Polk) Cleary. He was baptized at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Wichita on 18 August of that year, and confirmed in the same church on 5 May 1940, taking St. Patrick as his patron. His elementary education was undertaken at the parochial school of Blessed Sacrament Parish, his secondary education at Cathedral High School in Wichita. From his earliest years, the young James was conscious of a priestly vocation; the fervent faith of his family and his parochial upbringing served to foster this inclination, and upon graduation from high school, he entered Conception Seminary as a diocesan seminarian in 1947. After two years of philosophical studies, during which he closely observed the beauty of tradition in which the lives of the monks were rooted, he began to discern a further element in his calling. He humbly requested and was granted permission by his bishop to petition for entrance into the monastic community; he professed monastic vows on 3 September 1951, and was placed under the patronage of Blessed Richard Langley, an English layman martyred for harboring priests during the persecution under Elizabeth I, beatified in 1929, the year of Frater Richard’s birth.
Upon completion of theological studies in 1955, Frater Richard was ordained to the sacred priesthood on 28 May. His priesthood became the focus of his life, informing both his academic and his pastoral labors. He was sent to St. Paul University in Ottawa where he received the S.T.L. in Church History in 1956; he taught in that field at Conception Seminary from 1956–1958. He then undertook teaching duties in the same field at Christ the King Seminary in Vancouver, British Columbia (1958–60). He had a year’s study in archeology and theology in Athens (1960–61), followed by studies at Sant’ Anselmo in Rome for the S.T.D. (1961–64). Having thus enhanced both his knowledge and his pedagogy, he returned to teaching at Conception from 1965–69. During this period he also became Director of Public Relations (1969–72).
At this point in his life, Father Richard’s assignments began to give more direct expression to the pastoral character of his priesthood. He took up the pastorate of St. Columba Parish, Conception Junction, Missouri (1969–73). When Conception’s daughterhouse, St. Pius X Monastery (Pevely, Missouri) was elevated to the status of an abbey, Fr. Richard determined that the outreach of that house might give wider expression to his pastoral zeal; he transferred his stability to Pius X Abbey in 1973. During his time there, Fr. Richard engaged in several wide-ranging assignments: parochial minister in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles (1975–81); Librarian at Sant’ Anselmo (1981–84); and Chaplain to the Pink Sisters at the Convent of Divine Love in Philadelphia (1984–92). He spent a year at Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside, California from 1992–93.
While engaged in a third term at Sant’Anselmo (as Treasurer, Guestmaster and Archivist, 1993–97), Fr. Richard came into contact with Conception’s Fr. Marcel Rooney, who was at the time an instructor at the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy. During this period, Pius X Abbey was in the process of closing. When Fr. Marcel was elected abbot of Conception in 1993, he took in hand the process of returning Fr. Richard’s vows to Conception Abbey in 1994. Father Richard then took on a series of associate pastorates: St. Gabriel Parish, Kansas City, Missouri (1997–98), St. Mary Cathedral in Wichita, Kansas (1998–2000), and his natal parish of Blessed Sacrament in Wichita (2000–01). He acted briefly as Guestmaster at Conception (2001–02) before serving as Chaplain at St. Bernard Medical Center (2002–03) and Holy Angels Convent (2003–2010) in Jonesboro, Arkansas. When declining health necessitated his retirement from active ministry, he returned to Conception in 2010, serving as Monastery Porter until 2014.
Fr. Richard’s independence of mind sometimes opened creative avenues of expression for his personal understanding and interpretation of monastic vows of stability and obedience. He knew that wide experience of the Church and the world could only enhance his appreciation for traditions both ecclesiastical and monastic, and would thus make him at the same time, to his own way of thinking, a better monk. His abbots were perhaps more inclined to a strict interpretation of the law. In any case, Fr. Richard never consciously sought to violate the spirit of monasticism by allowing himself a wider scope for travel than his superiors were likely to bestow, but he did on some occasions unintentionally move them to spell out with a higher degree of specificity the limitations that they understood monastic life to place on his personal liberty of movement. No one could doubt that Fr. Richard loved monastic life in both theory and practice; and though it sometimes became necessary to curb the idiosyncrasies of his peculiar practice, he never ceased to be a giving member of the community.
Father Richard is survived by his monastic confreres and by two natural sisters: Katherine Nugent (Everett, Washington) and Mary Oeff (husband J. Warren Oeff; Indianapolis, Indiana); by brother-in-law Gerald Pittenridge (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma); by sister-in-law Betty Cleary (Wichita); as well as by many cousins, nieces and nephews.
Vespers of the Faithful Departed will be prayed at 7:15 p.m. on Monday, 24 July 2023, and Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 11:00 a.m. on Tuesday, 25 July 2023. We commend our beloved confrere to your prayerful remembrance. May he rest in the peace of Christ!
Abbot Benedict and Community