Fr. Joel Derks, OSB

Father Joel Derks, OSB

On Wednesday, 27 December 2017, at 2:07 in the afternoon, our beloved confrere, Father Joel Derks, O.S.B., having received the Apostolic Pardon, set aside the cares of this life so as to cross over unburdened to the joys of heaven. Father Joel was a Jubilarian of both priesthood and monastic profession. Having long suffered the lasting effects of a bout of polio in childhood, Father Joel’s health had always been precarious. He struggled with this aspect of his life, and in spite of the many difficulties it generated, he constantly maintained a cheerful and friendly attitude even when physical conditions were bad. He had been anointed by Abbot Benedict during the week before Christmas, along with several senior monks of our community. At the time of his death, the abbot was at his bedside, along with our Infirmary monks and nursing staff.

Lawrence Andrew Derks was born on 23 July 1937, the seventh of fourteen children of Lawrence and Gertrude (Walter) Derks, on their farm just four miles east of Conception. He was raised in Clyde, Missouri, within sight of the Basilica where his parents had been married in 1925. In a short personal memoir, Father Joel recalled his early life as one of “learning to live with and enjoy many siblings.” His family never failed to pray the daily Rosary, “like it or not,” and never failed to attend Sunday Mass, “even when roads were muddy.” Farm life taught the young “Snip” the value of both land and work, but he also learned to have fun with his brothers and sisters under the benign guidance and love of his exemplary parents. “We raised all we ate,” he recalled: “cattle, hogs, sheep, chickens, a large garden; milk, cream and butter from our cows. We lived close to the land.”

The young Larry attended grade school at St. Benedict’s School at Clyde, and Jefferson Public High School near Conception Junction from 1951–55. Though constantly aware of the Abbey and its works from his earliest days, Father Joel had not considered a monastic vocation until his junior year of high school, when Father Andrew Kunkel, a priest of the Abbey and long-time pastor of the parish at Clyde, suggested to the young Lawrence that he might give his attention to the possibility of such a calling. “I had doubts about this,” Father Joel recalled, “but respected his views and knew these views were not to be taken lightly.” Upon graduation from high school in 1955, Lawrence entered Conception Seminary College. He was, in his own words, “never a superb student,” but he did well enough to be accepted by the Chapter of Conception Abbey to enter the novitiate in 1957. He professed vows on September 12, 1958, receiving the religious name Joel. He completed philosophical studies with a bachelor’s degree in 1960, and made profession of solemn vows in 1961, during his own father’s last illness.

Upon completion of theological studies, Father Joel was ordained priest on September 21, 1963, by Bishop Charles Helmsing of Kansas City-St. Joseph. As the parish church at Clyde was so small, Abbot Anselm gave permission for his First Solemn Mass to be held in the Abbey Basilica the next day. Father Joel proudly recalled that with his large family and so many local friends and relatives, the Basilica was full to overflowing for the event.

A long and varied career of service then began for Father Joel. His earliest assignments were as Vestiarius and assistant Procurator/Business Manager and Supervisor of Grounds. Looking “for a change” during those tumultuous years, he approached Abbot Anselm, who gave him an opportunity to explore his pastoral gifts with “temporary assignments”: as substitute Chaplain of Sisters’ Hospital in St. Joseph and later assisting at the Cathedral Parish in Rapid City SD in the summer of 1969. That fall he did a course in Clinical Pastoral Education at Bethany Hospital in Kansas City KS. He was then given the “temporary” assignment as Chaplain at Sacred Heart Hospital in Yankton SD, but the new superior, Abbot Kevin McGonigle, recognized Father Joel’s effectiveness in this position, and let him remain there for nearly five years. In the fall of 1974 Father Joel became Seminary Chaplain and Director of Student Financial Aid in the seminary college, positions he held for more than ten years. In 1983 he was named Subprior and Vocation Director by Abbot Jerome Hanus. In 1988 he became Oblate Director while continuing to direct the Financial Aid Office. After heart surgery the spring of 1992, he became pastor of St. Peter’s Parish in nearby Stanberry, with its mission at St. Patrick’s in Ford City.

Father Joel enjoyed his tenure at Stanberry, but after only 15 months was assigned to the greater responsibility of serving as pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Springfield MO. From there he moved in 1999 to Norfolk NE as Chaplain for the Missionary Benedictine Sisters and St. Joseph’s Nursing Home, then in 2007 to St. Bernard’s Medical Center in Jonesboro AR. A recurrence of his cardio-vascular troubles necessitated his return to the Abbey in 2009.

His latest assignments reflected his advancing age and diminishing health, but these did not lessen his enthusiasm and joy in working. He became Director of Automobile Maintenance and Chaplain for St. Stephen Infirmary in 2009, and in 2017 was named the abbey’s Almoner. In recent weeks his condition began to deteriorate visibly, but only days before his final illness he was still able to get around, moving among us with the help of a wheelchair that he seldom actually sat in, but used rather as a support and aid for walking, as he made the rounds to chat with confreres, friends and co-workers from the Infirmary to the Library and the Kitchen. His unique sloping gait and friendly drawled greetings always drew forth a correspondingly delighted and friendly response. No one knew better the complicated familial relationships and connections of Nodaway County than Father Joel, who was not just an acquaintance of nearly everyone in a fifty-mile radius, but also a genuine and caring friend. He was one of those rare souls who loved everyone unaffectedly—his expansive family, his monastic confreres, his friends and neighbors, and anyone he might have the pleasure to meet. Though he will be missed, it is good to imagine his reception at the Pearly Gates, where he will renew many old acquaintances and surely begin to make new ones.

Father Joel is survived by his siblings Mary Ann (Meyer), Christopher, Dianne (Wilmes), Irvin, Alfred, Rita (Wallace), and Christina (Wendle), and by his many nieces and nephews, as well as by his monastic confreres.

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Tuesday
May 22, 2018
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph