The Right Reverend Gabriel Gibbs, O.S.B., first abbot of Saint Benedict Abbey in Still River, died on Saturday, March 27, after a long bout with cancer.
Joseph William “Bill” Gibbs, the eldest of four children of Sidney and Margaret (Gleason) Gibbs, was born on May 19, 1926 in the city of Hornell, in western New York, the city where he also spent his formative years and for which he retained a deep affection. After graduating as valedictorian of the 1944 class of Hornell High School, Bill entered Harvard College. His studies there were interrupted after his freshman year when he enlisted in the Navy, and after intense study served as the first radio technician on the USS Passumpsic, AO-107, both in the Atlantic and the Pacific. Returning to Harvard, Bill discovered Saint Benedict Center, a Catholic student center in Cambridge, run by Catherine Goddard Clarke and noted for the lectures of Fr. Leonard Feeney, whch was attracting many veterans and college students in the area. Inspired by the Center, Bill left Harvard before his senior year to enter Saint Andrew Minor Seminary in Rochester, N.Y.; graduating there he went on to Saint Bernard Seminary. Just a year after entering, in November of 1949, he was dismissed from the seminary for upholding the Catholic doctrine Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus (Outside the Church there is no salvation), and returned to Saint Benedict, where other defenders of the same doctrine were also being harassed for their belief. A group of these had just a couple of months earlier taken religious vows as Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Bill joined the new community, eventually receiving the name Brother Gabriel.
Brother Gabriel’s leadership abilities were quickly recognized; in January 1950, just two months after his taking vows, he was assigned to the post of prior, beginning a full 60 years of his serving in the capacity of superior, eight in Cambridge and the remainder in the rural environs of Still River. With the death of Catherine Goddard Clarke (Sister Catherine) in 1968, and the subsequent illness and death of Father Leonard Feeney (who died in 1978), Brother Gabriel assumed a greater leadership role. In 1976, he finally was ordained priest, becoming Father Gabriel, and in 1993 was elected as the first abbot of the community, which had just been established as Saint Benedict Abbey. Neither his ordination nor subsequent ordinations in the community, nor the elevation of the community to abbatial status, would have been possible except for the pivotal leadership role he had played both in reconciling the community with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and in incorporating the community within the Benedictine Confederation.
Among the honors he has received, in October 2005 Abbot Gabriel was inducted into the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre with the title of Knight Commander with Star. In 2006, he authored with Owen Murphy memoirs of his experience of the previous sixty years, Harvard to Harvard, The Story of Saint Benedict Center’s Becoming Saint Benedict Abbey.
Abbot Gabriel was predeceased by his parents, and his brothers Thomas and James. He is survived by his sister Mary Margaret Doran and her husband Kevin of Hornell, his sister-in-law Kathleen of Hornell, his sister-in-law Mary Catherine of Oxford, Mich. and Citra, Fla., many loving nieces and nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews, several great-grandnieces and great-grandnephews, and his monastic community.
Visiting hours will be at Saint Benedict Abbey, 252 Still River Road (Route 110), Still River (Harvard), on Thursday, April 8, from 7 to 9 p.m., and on Friday, April 9, from 2 to 4 p.m. and from 7 to 9 p.m.. A funeral Mass will follow on Saturday, April 10, at 10:30 a.m. in Saint Cecilia Church, 180 Mechanic Street, Leominster. The interment will occur at a later date. Anyone who wishes to make a memorial donation in honor of Abbot Gabriel may send it to Saint Benedict Abbey, Post Office Box 67, Still River, MA 01467. The funeral arrangements are being made by Hamilton-McGaffigan Funeral Home, 37 Main Street, Pepperell, Mass. Please see www.mcgaffiganfuneral.com.