Published March 10, 2017
CONYERS—Dom Bernard Johnson, fifth abbot of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, died Feb. 21 at the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, California. He was 91.
Named Henry Albin Johnson, he was born on July 15, 1925 at Fort Lyon, a military facility in Las Animas, Colorado. His parents were in the military during World War I. His father was in the cavalry; his mother was an army nurse.
After graduating from high school, he joined the U.S. Navy on July 1, 1943 and was honorably discharged in May 1946, eight months after the end of World War II. For his military service, he was awarded the American Area Campaign Medal, Victory Medal and Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal.
He became acquainted with monastic life after his stepbrother, Neal, entered Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky in September 1937. During family visits, Henry became familiar with Dom Frederic Dunne, abbot of Gethsemani Abbey at the time. Later in his monastic life, Dom Bernard told of how Dom Frederic had encouraged his vocation.
After his discharge from the Navy, he entered Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery on July 11, 1946 at the age of 21. The Conyers monastery was a foundation of Gethsemani Abbey, which had been made in 1944.
He was given the religious name Bernard and professed solemn monastic vows on Oct. 7, 1951. Three years later, he was ordained a priest, on Nov. 28, 1954, by Archbishop Gerald P. O’Hara of Savannah. The Diocese of Atlanta had not yet been established.
From 1958 to 1960 Father Bernard studied canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He received a licentiate of canon law in 1960 and returned to Conyers, where he was appointed dean of studies and interior cellarer.
In March 1967, Father Bernard went to New Clairvaux Abbey to teach a course on canon law. He was later elected as second abbot there on Feb. 25, 1968 and served through 1970.
He was elected as the representative, or definitor, for the English-speaking monasteries of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance at the order’s headquarters in Rome, Italy, in 1971. Then he was elected procurator general of the order in 1977.
He was elected the fifth abbot of Conyers on July 12, 1990, where he served until 2000. During his service as abbot, the Conyers monastery marked its 50th jubilee. Following his term, Dom Bernard returned his stability—a monk’s lifelong commitment to a particular monastic community—to Vina, where he lived for 17 years until his death.
Highly respected for his knowledge of canon law, Dom Bernard was asked to assist with the updating of the order’s constitutions, which were approved by the Holy See in 1990. In the subsequent years as abbot, he would enjoy telling of the many intriguing discussions that went into revising the constitutions. Generous, original and an endearing personality, he left many memories in all the communities that he visited.
The funeral Mass of the Resurrection and the burial took place on Feb. 24 at the Abbey of New Clairvaux. The brothers at Holy Spirit celebrated a special Mass in his honor on the day of his burial.
A remembrance of Dom Bernard Johnson, OCSO, by Brother Mark Dohle, OCSO, of the Conyers monastery is posted at www.trappist.net/remembering-old-friend.