Death of Dom Bernard Johnson, fifth abbot of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery (1925 - 2017)

Wednesday, February 22, 2017 - 2:15pm
Category: Monastery News

Dom Bernard Johnson, OCSO
Dom Bernard Johnson, fifth abbot of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Georgia, died at the Abbey of New  Clairvaux, Vina, California on Tuesday, February 21, 2017. He was 91 years old.

Named Henry Albin Johnson, he was born on July 15, 1925 (St. Henry’s Day) 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.

Upon high school graduation, Henry joined the United States Navy on July 1, 1943. He attended Southeast Missouri State University. (In 1970, the university honored Dom Bernard with a distinguished service award.) He was honorably discharged from the Navy 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.

Henry’s step-brother Neal had entered Gethsemani Abbey in September 1937 and was given the religious name Placid. Henry became acquainted with the monastic life during the family’s visits to see Placid. During these 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, Henry entered Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery (Conyers) on July 11, 1946 at age 21. He was given the religious name Bernard. Brother Bernard professed solemn monastic vows on October 7, 1951 (Feast of the Holy Rosary) and was ordained a priest on November 28, 1954 by Archbishop Gerald P. O’Hara of Savannah.

From 1958 to 1960 Fr. Bernard studied canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He received a Licentiate of Canon Law in 1960. In July 1960, Fr. Bernard returned to Conyers and was appointed Dean of Studies and interior cellarer. 

In March 1967, Fr. Bernard went to New Clairvaux Abbey (Vina) to teach a course on canon law. He was later elected second abbot of Vina on February 25, 1968 and served through 1970. He was elected Definitor (representative) for the English-speaking monasteries at the Order’s headquarters (Generalate) in Rome 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. Dom Bernard returned his stability 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. The constitutions were approved by the Holy See in 1990. In the subsequent years as abbot, Dom Bernard would enjoy telling of the many intriguing discussions that went into revising the constitutions. Generous, original and 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 Friday, February 24th at the Abbey of New Clairvaux. The brothers at Holy Spirit celebrated a special Mass in his honor on the day of his burial.

Read: Remembering Dom Bernard by Brother Mark Dohle, OCSO