Rest in Peace, Abbot Thomas Joseph Confroy, OSB

Fr. Benet Caffrey

Posted August 24, 2010

The monastic community of St. Mary’s Abbey mourns the passing of Abbot Thomas J. Confroy on the night of August 23, 2010 in the Abbey Health Care Center in Morristown, New Jersey after a long illness. At the same time we rejoice in the homecoming to the Lord of a man who in the course of his almost eighty years shared in the prayer life of the community, in its educational work, its leadership, and, for thirty years, in pastoral care of service men and women and their loved ones, in peace and war, at home and abroad, as a Chaplain in the United States Army. (Lynn O'Gorman Latchford, a PhD candidate in the School of Religions, Theology and Ecumenics at Trinity College, Dublin, has written the story of Abbot Thomas's life based on 50 hours of taped imterviews and many converations with him. Read Lynn's wonderful tribute to Abbot Thomas here.)

Thomas Joseph Confroy was born on March 4, 1931 in Newark, New Jersey, the second youngest of the eleven children of Edward Aloysius Confroy, Jr and Jessie Gebhard. Abbot’s Thomas’ links to St. Mary’s Abbey began early since his parents were married in the Abbey Church on High Street in Newark, with a Benedictine priest, Father Paul Keegan, presiding.

The Confroys grew up in the largely Catholic Vailsburg section of Newark, in a staunchly Catholic family which gave two sons to St. Mary’s Abbey, Thomas, and his older brother William, and, a daughter, Theresa, to the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth. Thomas attended Sacred Heart Church, was active as an altar server in the great church that dominated that section of the city, and in 1945, graduated from Sacred Heart School taught by the Sisters of Charity.

Elder brothers had attended St. Benedict’s Prep, one, in fact, Father Mark William Confroy, was already a monk and priest of the Benedictine community which directed St. Benedict’s, so it was natural that Thomas would matriculate there. Little did he know in 1945, as Thomas found himself seated in Freshman A along with Caffrey, Clarke and Coughlin that he and they would eventually form of the four Cs, of the Benedict’s class of 1949 all of whom would eventually pursue parallel careers in college, novitiate, and in the monastery. Two of the four would have distinguished careers as military chaplains and two would become abbots of the community.

While at St. Benedict’s, Thomas distinguished himself both academically and athletically, playing football under the famous Coach Joe Kasberger and courageously helping to inaugurate the sport of wrestling at St. Benedict’s. Leadership came naturally to Thomas and he was elected to class office in each of his four years. While at St. Benedict’s, Thomas began to discern a calling to the monastic life and priesthood. He continued his education at St. Vincent College, the Benedictine college in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where, once again he distinguished himself academically and continued to grow in the life of the spirit. After his sophomore year of college Thomas entered the monastic novitiate at St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, Kansas taking the train from Newark to the wilds of the mid-west along with fellow novices from St. Mary’s Abbey. He professed simple vows on July 11, 1952 and completed undergraduate studies St. Vincent in 1954.

Frater Thomas now joined the young clerics of St. Mary’s Abbey in its School of Theology at Delbarton in Morristown, New Jersey. At the same time he began a career teaching Latin at Delbarton School. Following the profession of solemn vows in 1955, Frater Thomas began graduate studies in classics during summers at Notre Dame University, achieving the degree of Master of Arts in 1962. Anticipating a career devoted to education at either of the schools directed by St. Mary’s Abbey, St. Benedict’s or Delbarton, he continued his education, obtaining another Master of Arts degree in guidance from Long Island University in 1972. Later, while in the Army, Father Thomas would obtain a Master’s degree in religious education from Catholic University in 1977.

Theological studies completed, Father Thomas was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop McNulty on May 31, 1958 at St. John’s Cathedral in Paterson, New Jersey and presided at his first solemn Mass in his home church of the Sacred Heart the following day. This year of joy was marred, however, by the sudden death of his mother, Jessie, in January of 1958.

For the next six years, Father Thomas was focused on the routines of life at Delbarton School where he taught Latin, prefected boarding students, and was appointed dean of students, and assistant headmaster. A brilliant academic career seemed to lie before him. Events of the wider world, however, began to touch the peaceful campus of Delbarton. The early 1960s saw the increasing deployment of large units of the United States Armed Forces in the Vietnam Conflict and Father Thomas responded to another call to serve the nation and the men in harm’s way. Once again, as they had done in previous conflicts, monks of St. Mary’s Abbey served as chaplains in time of war. In October of 1964 Father Thomas entered the armed forces of the United States, choosing the Army because the need was greatest there. Around the same time, Father Thomas’ classmate, Father Conall Coughlin, also a monk of St. Mary’s Abbey and a teacher at Delbarton, began a distinguished career in the United States Navy.

Father Thomas’ ministry as an army chaplain took him to a long list of posts in the United States and abroad during the course of the next thirty years. The highlights of his career, however, were the two deployments to Vietnam in 1965-1966 and 1970.-1971. There he served the needs of troops in combat, and shared their experiences fully. An example of his courage under fire occurred when Thomas held a flashlight in the jungle darkness for a doctor to treat wounded men while an American helicopter gun ship, attracted by the light, and mistaking them for the enemy, fired at the ten from above. Father Thomas steadfastly held the light enabling the doctor to treat the wounded and all miraculously survived.

During the first of these Vietnam rotations he was the subject of a photo-essay in Look magazine, July 12, 1966, “Father Tom Confroy: Church is in His Combat Pack”, The faces of the troops and of Father Thomas himself are moving testimony to the impact of the presence of the Catholic priest in the lives of the men facing danger and death. The article recalls another incident when, toward the end of a Mass celebrated in the field, a Vietcong mortar began to target the “congregation.” Father Tom jumped into a fox hole, Mass vestments and all. His comment afterward: “One good thing about Vietnam is that nobody sleeps during Mass.” The article goes on to say that the hardest part comes after Mass when Father Tom waits at the medical aid station as some of the men who have shortly before shared in the Eucharist will receive the Sacrament of Anointing. Father Thomas said that he had derived great benefit from his experience of war in Vietnam. “The men I attended were each day faced with the …final physical reality of death. I know now what every priest must know: the full meaning of compassion.” Troops recall that he exerted a “towering moral presence on the battlefield.”

Father Thomas rose in rank and responsibility ultimately being promoted to full colonel in 1983. He was three times elected to the Advisory Council of the Military Archdiocese and received numerous military awards, among them the Army Commendation Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Joint Services Commendation Medal, the Legion of Merit and Bronze Star. No medal, however, can match the personal tributes from soldiers and fellow officers in the military.

Father Thomas retired from the uniformed military service in 1993 but, still eager to contribute to the spiritual life of military men and women at a crucial point in their lives, he received permission from his classmate, now Abbot Brian Clarke, to serve as a civilian chaplain at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana. With the closure of that base in 1995 Father Thomas concluded his distinguished career of pastoral care for military man and women.

Upon his return to the Abbey in 1995 he accepted the office of treasurer, until, on June 25, 1998, he was elected ninth abbot of St. Mary’s Abbey. He was blessed as abbot on the following 12 September by a good friend, Bishop Carlos Sevilla, S.J. of Yakima, Washington. He also found time to return to the Delbarton Latin classroom from 1998 until 2003. Abbot Thomas led the community until, on March 4, 2006, his seventy-fifth birthday mandated his retirement from the abbacy. Pope Benedict XVI recognized Abbot Thomas’ outstanding and zealous service to the church both in the military and the monastery, presenting him with the Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice.

Notable events and achievements during Abbot Thomas’ abbatial tenure include the appointment of Father Luke Travers as headmaster of Delbarton, the planning, ground- breaking, and construction of Delbarton School’s Fine Arts Center, and the years of arduous effort to plan and create the hoped-for Abbey Woods, the Continuing Care Retirement Community, which in the end was not built

Abbot Thomas continued to give of himself as a confrere and priest both to the community and as confessor to several convents of religious women until he was forced to retire to the St. Mary’s Abbey Health Care Center.

He is predeceased by his brothers Edward, Andrew, and Mark, and by his sisters, Jessie Coakley, Mildred Ehret, Cecilia Meringer, and Elizabeth Scheick. He is survived by his brother James of Locust Grove, Virginia, his sisters Mary Mayer of Fanwood, New Jersey, Sister Theresa, S.C. of Convent Station, New Jersey and by the grateful community of St. Mary’s Abbey.

The body of Abbot Thomas will be received in the Abbey Church at 4:30 PM on Thursday, with viewing from 7:00 to 9:00 PM on Thursday. Visitation will be on Friday from 2:00 PM to 4:00 PM, and from 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM. The office of the dead will be sung on Friday evening at 7:15 PM, and the funeral Mass celebrated on Saturday at 10:30 AM, followed by interment in the abbey cemetery.

The St. Mary's Abbey/Delbarton community mourns the loss of this very special man.

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