Father Owens' Eulogy

A Homily at the Funeral of the Rev. John Owens
At the Church of the Ascension and St. Agnes
By the Rev. Dr. D. Stuart Dunnan
4 May, 2013

And he said to me: “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night within his temple; and he who sits upon the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev.7.13-17)

In nomine . . .

On 26 March 1945, during the assault crossing of the Rhine River near Willmich, Germany, Captain Owens, Commanding Officer of Company “C”, 354th Infantry, saw one of the boats containing leading elements of his company capsize in midstream, leaving heavily laden men drifting helplessly downstream under heavy enemy fire. With utter disregard for his personal safety, Captain Owens went out in an engineer launch, and rescued every man that he could locate. Later, when engineers reported that six men were stranded on a sand bar, Captain Owens again went out in a launch, in the face of heavy hostile fire, and traveling approximately 400 yards downstream, brought the men to safety. After the bulk of his company had crossed the river, Captain Owens reorganized it and led his men in taking the town of Willmich, and the sheer cliff and castle behind it, without a casualty.

On 7 April 1945 near Thal, Germany when his company came under heavy enemy machine gun fire, Captain Owens aggressively moved to eliminate the hostile resistance. Promptly sending a messenger to the weapons platoon with directions for supporting fire, he personally moved across 50 yards of open terrain to the third platoon, whose position was most dangerous. Because of his personal direction and inspiring courage the third platoon was quickly removed from danger and the company combined its firepower to neutralize the enemy positions.

The above passages, the first from John Owens’ citation for the silver star, the second for his citation for the bronze star, describe two heroic and decisive actions by a young man of 26 who personally turned the tide in two battles and saved many lives. What is worth noting as a footnote to these narratives is that this young man was extraordinarily tall (I think 6’4”), so a particularly good target for enemy fire, as he crossed that river not once, but twice to save his stranded men, and then moved across open terrain for fifty yards again under enemy fire to save his platoon, so an extraordinarily brave, and I would say loving, leader of men, even in war, the true servant of the Good Shepherd, he so believed in.

Now, I did not know that young man. I did not meet him until he was 73, and I was 33. I had just come back to America from England and had just assumed the post of Headmaster of Saint James School, and the greatly admired, even revered former headmaster of Saint James invited me to lunch. If I recall correctly, it was in Catonsville, where he had been with the All Saints Sisters, whom he served as Visitor.

He was still very tall, and he carried naturally, but also humbly, the habit of command, and he wore now a different uniform, the same one I did, the black suit, black shirt, and broad white collar of a Catholic priest in the Episcopal Church.
Seeing him in person, I was awed, and I recognized immediately the “great Father Owens” I had heard so much about, “the legend” I would never be. And I think that I just proceeded to tell him all the problems I faced and all the challenges that confronted me, how impossible my job would be: the campus needed repair and rebuilding; the academic and social standards needed reasserting; the budget did not balance; there was debt on the new Field House; the endowment was too small; the alumni did not give enough, and so on. My list was a long one. And he listened patiently; bought me lunch; completely understood, although he had been retired for eight years; and kept offering the same words of assurance: “Don’t worry, Stuart; you’re young.” Frustrated that he offered no real solution, no hidden, generous donor or secret treasure hidden in a vault below the Bai Yuka, I finally asked if he had any advice. And this was his answer: “When you make a decision, don’t worry if it is popular or not; just worry whether it is right or wrong.”

And I have now had 21 years to live into Father Owens’ advice, and I think that I now better understand what he meant: not just “do the right thing,” but rather live into the purposes of God. Say your prayers and ask God; bring your problems and challenges to the altar and lead in the way of Christ. And so, that advice has proven to be the true treasure I needed to receive when I was a vain, arrogant and very young headmaster, not the cheap treasure that I was seeking, the “magic shortcut” to success that I so desperately wanted, but the “pearl of great price” formed by years of faithful leadership and service, sincere prayer and devotion, real courage and selfless sacrifice.

The end of a person’s time in this life gives us the occasion to celebrate that life as God’s gift and also to see in that life God’s good purpose for and through that particular human being. The challenge then for the preacher is that he did not know that person fully in the way that God does, but only partially in the way that we as human beings know each other.
I for instance did not know John Owens as his parents knew him or his siblings knew him, or his nieces and nephews knew him. I did not know him as his men knew him in the army or even as his students and colleagues knew him when he was Headmaster of Saint James School. I did not know him as his many friends and admirers knew him in Hagerstown, Washington, and Chicago. Most especially, I did not know him as Bishop Montgomery knew him, as his best friend and closest companion since seminary, with whom he shared many years of daily prayer, generous service, and an active, joyful retirement.

And yet, I am the one he wanted to preach at his Requiem. What is it about this man? Why does he always give me these impossible assignments? (He can’t say that I am young any more.) And why this assignment? There are many who could speak much more fully and eloquently about this truly extraordinary and admirable man than I can. I think the reason that I am speaking today is that I am the Priest Headmaster of Saint James School and that when John Owens looked back on his life, long, full, and heroic as it was, it was his work at Saint James which remained for him his greatest accomplishment and his most enduring statement.

And here let me just explain to those who may not know us that Saint James is not a very grand school. It is not one of those famous New England boarding schools or exclusive Washington day schools that pay their headmasters hundreds of thousands of dollars and grant them instant fame and glory. No, we are a little boarding school in western Maryland that not many people know about, “that high church school,” as I am sometimes told at conferences, a place perhaps better known for the strength of our community and the great love which so distinctly binds us. When our Senior Master, Chick Meehan, spoke to the students at lunch Thursday to give them something of a sense of who Father Owens was, he spoke about his war service and about his 29 years of service to the school, and he pointed out that in Father Owens’ time there was no Director of Development or Director of Admissions; he did all of that work himself. He ran the school with a bookkeeper and a secretary; that was his “administration.”

But then Chick got to the point of his talk and tried to express how important Father Owens was to him, as he knew him not just as his “boss” when he started teaching at Saint James, but as his headmaster when he came to Saint James as a boy of 13 in the second form. He said that Father Owens was really his second father and the man he admired the most in his life, and then he stopped speaking very abruptly because he had lost his voice to emotion.

I often tell the story of Father Owens coming back to my first Alumni Weekend to save me from a brewing coup attempt on the part of a teacher I had not renewed. He had not been back for several years, so his return was hugely symbolic. I have never seen the alumni more excited or more moved. He was like Moses with the Hebrews; they parted reverently to make way for him as he walked through the crowd, and their eyes filled with tears as he spoke to them, each by name. I could see this clearly, as I walked just a few steps behind him. And at dinner, he gave a very short speech, passing the school to me. I will never forget his ending: “I have told Father Dunnan that my boys will support him.” And with these words, Moses sat down, and I became his Joshua.

As Bishop Montgomery can tell you, Father Owens never stopped being the Headmaster of Saint James any more than he stopped being a priest of the Church when he retired; he just stopped running the school. He still celebrated his students’ marriages, baptized their children, corresponded with them, and prayed for them every day. He never stopped loving them, and they knew it. Indeed, as they grew older and gained more wisdom with experience in life, they came to admire him even more.

In the last few weeks of Father Owens’ life, Mike Lieberman, one of his own boys, whom Father Owens had personally rushed to the hospital when his appendix burst and stayed with in his hospital room, was his doctor. Mike was the one who called to tell me that this man whom he loved was dying, and then said that he was on his way to see him so that he could “give him a kiss goodbye.”

When we released word of his illness, the letters flowed in: loving and grateful, but shocked that this constant figure of spiritual confidence and strength was physically weak and fading. That was the first thing out of his mouth when I went to see him: he was so grateful and so moved by what his students had written. They mattered to him; they were and are his children.

Two Sundays ago was what is sometimes called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because of the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter. As we were not in session, I attended the local parish, and the rector preached a thoughtful sermon in which she said that she was not so much a shepherd as a “border collie, nipping at the heels” of her congregation.

Father Owens, on the other hand, was a shepherd: he was revered and followed, as he led and guarded his sheep. And even though it may seem remarkable that such a brave and celebrated war hero should have become such a devout and faithful priest, we can see in both roles his constant example of servant leadership and sacrificial devotion to those whom God had given him to serve.

And even though I knew the man and very much enjoyed his company as a friend, there was just something iconic about him, a unique combination of humility and courage, self-effacement and command, morality and compassion, which made so real and really immediate for us the loving fatherhood of God.

He was just one of those people who when he called you on the phone, you always stood up, and who when he came to the party, it was a tremendous honor to the host.

I remember when he and Bishop Montgomery drove out to Hagerstown for John and Peggy Waltersdorf’s wedding anniversary; I think it was their fiftieth. His arrival was the news of the evening: “Did you know that Father Owens is here?” I never saw Peggy happier; I never saw John more proud. And of course he left early. He always left early. I think that he was just too exhausted by the attention, and he thought it all too much fuss about someone very undeserving. He really was humble like that.

But now, he can’t leave, can he? He has to stay. And his host, of course, and all the other invited guests rejoice with him in heaven, for the Lamb indeed has been his shepherd, even through the greatest tribulation we have ever known, and he used him to be ours.

Great indeed is Our Lord Jesus Christ, and blessed are we who follow him.