Published September 29, 2005
Father Lawrence Swartz, OCSO, who spent 60 years of monastic life at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, died Sept. 26. He was 98.
Father Lawrence, a native of Falls City, Texas, was known for his keen sense of humor and joke-telling abilities. Born Thomas Swierc on April 30, 1907, he changed his name to Swartz in 1963. He entered the Cistercian order at Gethsemani in Kentucky in 1926 at the age of 19. Father Lawrence lived under nine abbots during his 79 years in monastic life and is believed to have lived the longest in the United States as a Trappist monk. He was ordained a priest in 1931.
However, his vocation did not come without effort.
In an interview with Drs. Dewey and Victor Kramer on March 5, 1983, Father Lawrence described how he came to the then 68-year-old Gethsemani Abbey. “I wrote the letter about vocation at 17 and went to the post office with it. I did not have the nerve to mail it for a year and a half. Finally, I mailed it and received a favorable response, and I kept putting it off for six months. I started out, got as far as St. Louis, Missouri, got cold feet and came back. And I reached home. I said that’s a defeat. I’ll try it again. Next morning, I took another train and made it.”
He entered Gethsemani Abbey at a time when the Cistercian-Trappist life was defined by a strict and rigorous penitential aspect of monasticism, with little food, no meat, hard manual labor, and strict silence. His life as a young monk was mostly filled with farming, gardening and building.
Father Lawrence eventually became sub-master of the novices, helping those coming to the monastery learn the monastic way of life. His most famous novice was Thomas Merton, who entered on December 10, 1941.
“I used to take him to work, show him how to work, teach him the sign language, and how to serve Mass, things like that. I had no idea we had a famous man until I read ‘The Seven Storey Mountain’” (first published in 1948, by which time Father Lawrence was at the Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers).
After an increase of vocations, several of the monks founded the new monastery in Conyers. Father Swartz arrived at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in 1945, and in earlier writings, said that coming to Georgia was like “entering paradise, the healthiest days in my life.”
At the time, the monks were living in a temporary monastery called the Pineboard Monastery. It would house the monks until 1960 when a permanent structure was ready for occupancy. Besides helping with the construction of the new monastery, Father Lawrence was novice master for two years.
Father Lawrence’s work details after the current monastery was complete were representative of the monastic life of work and prayer. Father Lawrence worked in the bakery and greenhouse. He arrived at work promptly and left the same, so he could arrive at church early for vespers. His prayer life was regular and exemplary, and the importance of the Divine Office evident in his expressed concern that the chanting of Psalms be done correctly.
The story is told of Father Lawrence working in the bonsai greenhouse when two visitors approached him and asked how long he had been a monk. He replied, “One day.” Such was his approach of focusing on today and his daily walk with the Lord.
A funeral Mass for Father Lawrence was celebrated Sept. 28 at the Monastery at 7 a.m.