The Orchid Tender:
An Appreciation of the Life and Ministry of
The Reverend Donald E. Abell (1938-2011)
The Most Reverend Edward K. Braxton, Ph.D., S.T.D.
Bishop of Belleville
On Saturday, March 26, 2011, many members of the Church of Belleville gathered in the Church of St. Joseph in Ridgway to give thanks to God for the life and ministry of the Reverend Donald E. Abell and to pray for him during the celebration of the Liturgy of Christian Burial. We brought him back to the very sanctuary in which The Most Reverend Albert R. Zuroweste ordained him on May 1, 1976.
Father Abell was the eldest of seven children and so I took the opportunity to express to his sisters and brothers the prayerful support and profound sympathy of all the priests and Christian Faithful of the Diocese upon the death of their dear brother on March 24, the Vigil of the Annunciation of the Lord.
I also expressed the great gratitude of our Local Church for his nearly thirty-five years of service in the Priesthood of Jesus Christ. At the same time, I called upon everyone in the church to be mindful of Father Abell’s mother, Louise, who in her ninety-fourth year was too ill to participate in the Funeral Mass. She, like her son, lives under the shadows of forgetfulness and lost memories.
On Friday, March 25, I had occasion to speak with Dr. Brian O’Neill, a physician who has cared for many priests in our Diocese over the years. When I told him that I would preside over the funeral of Father Abell the next day, the doctor was quite saddened and somewhat distressed. He had known nothing of Father Abell’s long, difficult illness or of his death. He spoke movingly of his memories and those of his family of the years during which Father Abell served as Associate Pastor at the Cathedral of St. Peter. He recalled Father’s kindness, his gentleness, and his helpful homilies. Dr. O’Neill’s words surely echo the sentiments of hundreds, perhaps thousands of individuals and families who have been enriched by Father Abell’s quiet, forthright pastoral care. As they learn of his death, I hope that they, like Dr. O’Neill will ponder their memories of his goodness and commend him to God with their prayer.
The first time I met Father Abell we had lunch together. He and a group of priests came to my residence for lunch during my first year of service as Bishop of Belleville. My conversation with him during lunch was comfortable. While he was soft-spoken, Father Abell seemed to participate in the conversation with ease. When lunch ended, he asked to speak to me privately. It was then that he shared with me the disquieting reality that he had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He stressed that his symptoms were very mild, but he was fully aware of the dreaded course of this incurable illness. He was quick to tell me of the wonderful support and assistance he was receiving from the parishioners at his three parishes – St. Mary in Eldorado, St. Joseph in Elizabethtown, and St. Mary in Harrisburg. He stressed that there was no need for me to be concerned at this point. He simply wanted me to be aware of this extraordinary challenge in his life.
As Father Abell left my residence, he admired the many green plants in the house. He showed a particular interest in the flowers outside of the residence, especially the roses. It became immediately evident that he knew a great deal about gardening and flowers. He then told me that he was indeed a gardener and that he had a greenhouse in which he cultivated many kinds of plants, ferns, flowers and especially orchids. I told him how much I liked orchids, but I hastened to note that they are very sensitive and require a great deal of care, even more than roses. His face brightened as he told me of some of the things he did to keep his delicate orchids healthy and beautiful in spite of their delicacy and sensitivity. His knowledge of orchids was quite amazing. He said many orchids are attacked by parasites during their first year. They soon wither, fade, and die. However, he had found a way with certain orchids to rid them of parasites. With careful cultivation they would bloom the next year transformed, more beautiful and more wondrous than ever.
As I learned more and more about Father Abell’s tireless service to the People of God in his parishes, I realized that he was indeed the Orchid Tender. But the orchids on whom he showered his greatest concern and care were not the magnificent flowers he cultivated in his green house. The orchids that he tended with the greatest constancy were his parishioners. He poured himself out in their service. He had a special concern for families in need and for the poor and the sick. As the years passed and the symptoms of his illness became more apparent, he realized that he had taught his parishioners to be orchid tenders. They creatively found ways to assist Father Abell in every way necessary so that he could continue his ministry for as long as possible. When I visited the parishes or talked with the parishioners, it was obvious that they loved him as much as he loved them. As faithful orchid tenders, they hoped against hope that their loving care might rid him of the “parasite” of his unrelenting illness.
I knew that Father Abell dreaded the thought of retirement. So when even the Christian Faithful realized that he needed more assistance than they could provide, I sent them Father Ignatius Okonkwo, a Fidei Donum missionary from the Archdiocese of Onitsha, Nigeria, so that he could assist the Pastor and learn from him how to be a good Orchid Tender. I believe they both benefited from each other’s Priesthood. Sometime after Father Abell’s early retirement, I met a priest whose vocation had been carefully nurtured and cultivated by Father Abell, the Orchid Tender. The priest told me that on one occasion Father Abell told him that on the road to the Priesthood and in the Priesthood itself he will meet individuals and have experiences that will make it very difficult for him to persevere in his vocation. He will be discouraged and tempted to give up. But Father Abell told him to keep his heart focused on the Lord Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and persevere towards his goal with confidence. He followed Father Abell’s sage advice and he is a confident dedicated priest to this day because of the Orchid Tender. I am told that when The Most Reverend John N. Wurm died, Father Abell prepared a beautiful floral cross made entirely of orchids. Throughout the three days of the Visitation in the Cathedral, this beautiful expression of a priest’s love for his Bishop stood at the foot of the coffin.
The last time I visited Father Abell was several months ago. Father Okonkwo and I went to see him after my Pastoral Visitation to his former parishes, where the people spoke of him with such deep affection and appreciation. During this last visit, he did not seem to recognize me though there was a trace of a smile on his face. We prayed for him, I gave him Holy Communion and I blessed him. I departed in silence in the face of the inscrutable reality of innocent suffering. While it is caught up in the paradox of the cross of Christ, it remains a great mystery. During the Visitation before Father’s Funeral Mass, I heard someone observe, “What a shame. What a waste. During these last years, he was not himself. He was not able to dedicate himself to the priesthood he loved so much. He was not able to be with his parishioners to whom he was so devoted.” Humanly speaking this is very true. But perhaps at a far deeper level, a level we cannot comprehend, perhaps, overshadowed by memory loss and the inability to be active in parish ministry, perhaps he was still serving, still being a priest to his people. Perhaps he had become like the rarest of orchids afflicted with a terrible “parasite.” And finally, in the hands of the Divine Orchid Tender he has bloomed and been “transformed, more beautiful and more wondrous than ever!” Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord. And let Perpetual Light shine upon him. AMEN!