Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Monastery Pioneer Father Charles Zell Dies

Published June 23, 2005

Father Charles Zell, OCSO, one of the pioneers of the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit, died in the monastery infirmary June 16. He was 92.

The body of Father Charles was received in the monastery church on Friday, June 17, and the Mass of Resurrection and burial were held June 18 with Abbot Francis Michael Stiteler, OCSO, presiding.

For two days before his death, a monk had been praying beside Father Charles. On Tuesday afternoon before vespers, the abbot administered the sacrament of anointing of the sick and dying with the monks gathered around Father Charles. On Wednesday for the midday Divine Office, the monks once again gathered around Father Charles to pray the Office for the Dying.

The morning of his death, Brother Guerric said he was praying the glorious mysteries of the rosary beside Father Charles’ bed when, during the fourth decade remembering the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin into heaven, Father Charles took his last breath.

Born on Nov. 7, 1912, in Mecca, Ind., Charles Zelipka (later changed to Zell), was the fifth of 11 children. The family was living in East St. Louis, Ill., when his mother died when Charles was 10 years old. Soon his father moved the family to Cudahy, Wis., where Charles was charged with helping to support the family first with household chores and then employment at George J. Meyer Manufacturing Company.

On July 2, 1938, before a statue of St. Anne in St. Louis Cathedral, Charles felt the call to Religious life.

“I never had any special devotion to St. Anne, but was this time drawn to the statue by some supernatural power,” he wrote in a booklet of reflections on his life published in the early 1980s. “I knelt down to say the prayer on the plaque of the kneeler and immediately felt a great peace and strength of soul. All certainty vanished from my mind. As I left the church, I knew what I had to do.”

Charles first felt called to become a Passionist brother but was told by a superior that the Passionists were not his vocation. After hearing of the Trappists, Charles wrote to them and after receiving a reply, he arrived at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky on Sept. 8, 1941.

Being raised on a farm and accustomed to simple living with few comforts, the strict ascetical aspects of monastic life at Gethsemani Abbey were not new to Charles. “We were raised on a farm. We were poor and worked hard. A lot of times we would go to bed hungry,” Charles reflected. “I fell into the life at Gethsemani in stride. I felt sorry for some of those people who came from a city. Growing up, we had to get up early in the morning and didn’t have any warm water to wash ourselves, just cold water. At Gethsemani, it was the same. Up early and cold water. Sleeping on a straw mattress and boards at Gethsemani was not a trial for me.”

Charles made simple profession of the monastic vows on April 13, 1944. A week later Dom Frederic Dunne, abbot of Gethsemani Abbey, accompanied Brother Charles to Georgia, just a month after the founding monks had arrived at the new Conyers monastery.

“Before leaving, Dom Frederic told me to go into the oratory, make a bow, and ask for prayers,” Father Charles wrote. “I didn’t sleep all night. I was wondering how Georgia would look.”

In addition to work on the building of a pineboard monastery in Conyers to accommodate new vocations, Charles was in charge of the cows. No sooner was the pineboard monastery finished, when work began on a permanent monastery (the current structure of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery). Brother Charles was assigned to the carpentry shop to make forms for the concrete work. Once the basic structure was in place, Brother Charles made doors, desks, closets, and tables to furnish the rooms throughout the large monastery.

On May 1, 1980, Brother Charles was ordained into the priesthood. For the past several years, Father Charles has welcomed visitors to the monastery. He made history “come alive” through the stories told to visitors from grade-school children to senior citizen groups.