SJU President Emeritus Fr. Hilary Thimmesh, OSB, dies at 91
August 14, 2019
Saint John’s University notes with sympathy the passing of Fr. Hilary Thimmesh, OSB, whose tenure as the 10th president of SJU highlighted a career of service to the institution that spanned more than seven decades.
Fr. Hilary, 91, died unexpectedly Aug. 11, 2019 in the retirement center at Saint John’s Abbey. He is survived by his brother, Ronald, Monticello, and sisters, Carolyn, Osakis, and Margaret McWilliams, Grand Junction, Colorado, and the community at Saint John’s Abbey.
Monks, family and friends will celebrate the Eucharist of Christian Burial for Fr. Hilary at 3:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 16 in Saint John’s Abbey and University Church, with interment in Saint John’s Cemetery following the service.
Donald Merlin Thimmesh was the oldest of seven children born to Theodore Pierre and Frances Esther (Schmidtke) Thimmesh in Osakis, Minnesota, on March 2, 1928. Donald attended a rural elementary school near Osakis from 1933–41 and graduated from Osakis High School in 1945.
Growing up on a farm, Donald developed an early love for nature’s cycles and gifts. “I learned the seasons well, and I gained a great love of the out-of-doors,” he said, “particularly in the autumn when the harvest of corn and vegetables took the whole family into the fields and the garden.”
In 1945 Donald began his undergraduate studies at SJU. In July 1947, he entered the novitiate at Saint John’s Abbey and took the name Hilary. The following July 11 he made his simple vows and continued his undergraduate studies, earning a B.A. in philosophy in 1950.
Immediately after graduation, he pursued priesthood studies at Saint John’s Seminary and completed this program in 1954, with ordination in June of that year. He pursued graduate education in English at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, receiving a master’s degree in 1956 and a doctorate in 1963.
Although Chaucer became one of Fr. Hilary’s academic specialization, he taught many Shakespeare courses at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. But Father Hilary noted that “a monk is a man with a book” and he fell in love with all kinds of literature and had a broad and deep interest in most everything of the mind and heart and nature.
Fr. Hilary, always the monk, identified himself professionally first and foremost as a faculty member — he always considered teaching an eminently monastic work.
Fr. Hilary began his teaching career in English after his ordination to the priesthood during the years 1954 and 1955 at Saint John’s Preparatory School. These were also the years he began his long service to SJU as a faculty resident, first in Saint Benet Hall (1954–55) and then in Saint Anselm Hall (1956–61), and finally in Saint Thomas Hall (1963–2019).
Fr. Hilary enjoyed living and working with students and remained a faculty resident even as a nonagenarian on a first-year floor in Saint Thomas Hall until his retirement in 2019. The last 17 years were spent with first-year students who benefitted from Fr. Hilary’s warm, open approach to them. In particular, he developed a strategy of doing a 20-minute interview with each student, asking those basic questions that help a person become a part of the place. Generations of Johnnies have been nurtured by his gracious, pastoral presence.
Fr. Hilary served as director of oblates for Saint John’s Abbey from 1954–61. He was appointed the university’s assistant academic dean from 1965 through 1967, and then as academic dean from 1967–69. Beginning in 1971, he became director of the Hill Individual Learning Program and continued in this capacity until 1974. He served as chair of the SJU English Department from 1976 through 1978.
From 1978–80 he served as apostolic administrator for Saint Martin’s Abbey and chair of the board of Saint Martin’s College in Lacey, Washington. Upon his return to Saint John’s Abbey in 1980, he was appointed prior for a two-year stint, immediately after which he took over as president of SJU in 1982, a position he held until 1991.
Fr. Hilary worked with faculty on both campuses to forge the first joint core curriculum between CSB and SJU, a transformative curricular initiative. He oversaw and brought the transformation of the old auditorium into the Stephen B. Humphrey Theater and the construction of the choral rehearsal/Gertgen Organ Studio; the renovation of the Simons Hall and construction of the Art Center and the Rogers Gallery; construction of Virgil Michel student apartment building and the initial planning of the campus center. He was a major force in the creation of a new master plan for the campus.
Fr. Hilary loved the outdoors both for its natural beauty and for its opportunities for vigorous physical activity. He once commented that Saint John’s was one of those rare places where you could be in a classroom or office all day and, upon exiting, enter into the heart of the woodlands within minutes.
In the spring and summer, Fr. Hilary took great pleasure in cultivating a small flower garden not far from his monastery room. If one happened to pass by while he was at work, he would regale you with the glory of the seasonal blossoms.
Fr. Hilary’s career was crowned with several awards, including a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for advanced studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1973; an honorary degree from Saint Thomas University, Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 1989; the Saint John’s Alumni Achievement Award in 1995; and the title of professor emeritus of English from SJU in 2008.
Fr. Hilary was named the first director of the Benedictine Institute in 2009. Originally established by Saint John’s University Board of Regents in 2008 to honor former president Br. Dietrich Reinhart, OSB, its purpose is to strengthen the Catholic and Benedictine character of SJU. Fr. Hilary’s background and temperament made him a perfect fit.
Fr. Hilary edited a sesquicentennial volume of Saint John’s, titled Saint John's at 150: A Portrait of This Place Called Collegeville in 2006. Five years later, the Liturgical Press published his Marcel Breuer and a Committee of Twelve Plan a Church: A Monastic Memoir in which he described in vivid detail—thanks in large part to his being the youngest member of that committee in the 1950s—the people and politics surrounding the construction of the Abbey Church.