Brother Stephen Cardinal, O.S.B

Brother Stephen Cardinal, O.S.B

Tuesday morning, 11 September 2018, between the Offices of Vigils and Lauds, the monastic community of Conception Abbey was informed of the unexpected death of our beloved confrere, Brother Stephen Cardinal, O.S.B.

Late the night before, Brother Stephen had suffered a fall in his room in the monastery. Through the evening he had been present at community functions, conversing normally and showing no undue signs of fatigue or discomfort. But in recent years, evincing a certain physical unsteadiness at the best of times, he had found it necessary to make use of a cane when walking. The specific cause of the fall remains unknown. It caused a painful fracture of his hip, but the more serious injury proved to be a blow to the back of his head. In spite of physical distress, he remained composed and never lost consciousness. He was able to reach his phone and summon assistance. He was anointed by Abbot Benedict and taken by ambulance to Mosaic Hospital in Saint Joseph, Missouri, but emergency personnel were unable to stop internal bleeding in his brain. Brother Stephen expired at 4:50 a.m.; Abbot Benedict was with him at the time of death. The shock of the events was made more poignant in that the offices being celebrated that morning were those for the Faithful Departed; another confrere had died only six days before. Brother Stephen was a Silver Jubilarian of profession, and had resided at Conception since his arrival here from St. Benedict’s Abbey in Benet Lake, Wisconsin in 2018, when the latter community was reunited to Conception Abbey.

Stephen Francis Cardinal was born in Jersey City, New Jersey on 5 August 1940 to Joseph Dorigo and Sophie Just Cardinal, the fourth of seven siblings. He was baptized at Immaculate Conception Church in Secaucus, and later received First Communion and Confirmation at the same parish. He attended public primary schools; his first years of high school education were undertaken at Holy Family Catholic High School in Union City, New Jersey, and he completed high school at Weehawken High.

In his youth, Stephen became an altar server at his local parish. During that time he developed what he later called an “idealized vision” of what a priest should be, but he also acquired a taste for the ironic and the comic. One of his fondest memories as an altar server was an occasion when he and his brother were both serving at Mass. It was prior to the reforms of Vatican II, and altar servers were expected to remain constantly alert so as to take necessary cues from the presider to carry out the complex ritual properly. Perhaps overcome by the solemnity of the situation, both Stephen and his brother found themselves overtaken by sleep at almost the same moment; the priest was hard pressed to bring the two of them back to consciousness without disturbing the flow of the liturgy. The potential for humor in religious life never left him.

His own vocation he described in terms of being “drawn to religious life.” Not having what he considered an academic inclination, the young Stephen felt deterred from pursuing holy orders by the long hours of study required of candidates for ordination. Yet as time went on he continued to feel an attraction to religious life. He became a Third Order Franciscan in 1967 and was elected General Director for the New York province in 1973. During this period (1963 to 1972) he worked in data processing for the Equitable Life Assurance Company and then for RKO General. The attraction to a fuller form of religious life endured, however, and Stephen began to pray more fervently to find the joy of his true vocation. In 1975 he happened to receive a mailing from Saint Benedict’s Abbey at Benet Lake, Wisconsin. At first, he was reluctant to consider monasticism as the answer to his vocational quest, but he eventually found himself growing more receptive to the possibility. He visited Benet Lake in early in 1976, and his mind was quickly made up. He became a postulant in June of that year, entered the novitiate in August, and professed first monastic vows on 15 August 1977.

During his time at Benet Lake, Brother Stephen fulfilled a variety of work assignments, but his principal roles were as Bookkeeper (1977–94) and Sacristan (1979–91). He also worked when needed as a dishwasher for the retreat center at Benet Lake, and helped to fill mail orders for thousands of Benedictine crosses and medals. His final assignment was as Administrative Assistant, which lasted from 1994 until his transfer to Conception Abbey in 2018.

Being more inclined to visual than literary culture, Brother Stephen was an avid viewer of films, preferring realism and drama over fantasy or more light-hearted fare. This taste may have had a connection to Brother Stephen’s friendship with the well-known actor Martin Sheen; prior to his entry into monastic life, he had even stood as godfather to one of Sheen’s sons.

When asked if he had any advice for people discerning monastic life, Brother Stephen joyfully recalled his first day at Benet Lake where he was unpacking his belongings and settling in. He knew intuitively that this was home. His word to young men discerning a monastic vocation was “Whatever you do, stick to it.” Quoting Luke 9:62, he reminded them that Jesus had said that anyone who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is unfit for the Kingdom of God. “‘Don’t look back’ in monastic life. What you have started is a new life. Live it sincerely and always pray ‘Thy Will Be Done.’” Having lived this precept himself, Brother Stephen, we can be confident, was ready for Christ’s welcome to the realms of light.

Brother Stephen is survived by his sisters Juliet Spreen (Boerne, Texas) and Barbara Materia (Deerfield, Florida), his brothers Anthony Cardinal (Miami, Florida) and Fred Cardinal (Marietta, Georgia); by numerous nieces and nephews, and by his monastic confreres.

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Tuesday
October 16, 2018
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph