Father Damian Schmelz, OSB
Community: Saint Meinrad
Date of Birth:05/07/1932
First Profession: 07/31/1953
Date of Death: 06/12/2016
View Funeral Homily
On Sunday afternoon, June 12, 2016, Father Damian Schmelz, O.S.B., monk and priest of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, telephoned a friend to let her know he had finished the last of six articles on nature he had been writing for a newspaper.
Telling his friend goodbye, he said it was time for a nap. He lay back in his recliner in his infirmary room and peacefully entered eternal rest, thus ending quietly and simply a long period of declining health. Father Damian was a jubilarian both of profession and priesthood.
Born in Georgetown, Indiana, on May 7, 1932, Father Damian was the last of four boys of Aloysius William and Grace (Miller) Schmelz, and was given the name Vincent Eugene at his baptism.
After completing his elementary education at St. Mary School in Lanesville, Indiana, he entered the Minor Seminary at Saint Meinrad in 1950, and entered the novitiate two years later. He professed his simple vows on July 31, 1953, and was ordained to the priesthood on May 3, 1958.
Father Damian earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from our College, and then a baccalaureate in sacred theology from our theologate and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Father Damian began teaching biology at our High School Seminary immediately after his ordination.
During summers, he pursued graduate studies at Purdue University, earning a master's in plant ecology in 1964 and a doctorate in that field in 1969. He taught biology in our college until its close in 1998. Two generations of our collegians will remember both the passion and the precision with which he taught anatomy and physiology, genetics, embryology and, his favorites, ecology and the conservation of natural resources.
His science lab was less a classroom than it was a microcosm of God's creation. It served as storage and display space for fossils, Sarah-the-skeleton's bones, stuffed birds and animals, and trays of pinned butterflies and bugs. But the monkeys, hamsters, guineas and fish there were very much alive, assuring interesting and delightful interactions between students and specimens.
Father Damian also served our college as assistant dean of students for four years, as academic dean for 18, and as provost and vice rector for five years. He will also be remembered for his work as the manager of The UnStable, the campus pub, for over 25 years.
His work in our college was but one of Father Damian's careers. Well known in the Indiana Academy of Science, of which he was a member since 1966, he served twice as the chairman of the Academy's Plant Taxonomy Section. He also served terms as the Academy's treasurer and then president, was the Academy's representative to the Indiana Natural Resources Commission, and was the Academy's Speaker of the Year in 1979-1980.
Father Damian was named a fellow of the Academy in 1973, and received their Outstanding Service Award in 2003. Many of his publications in the scientific journals were also delivered as addresses to the Indiana Academy of Science.
Father Damian was especially known for his research in Indiana old-growth forests, and was chairman of a blue-ribbon committee assigned to study controlled deer hunts in Brown County State Park. He and a colleague specialized in the area of Donaldson's Woods, and in the year 2000 an addition to the Donaldson's Woods Nature Preserve was dedicated in his honor.
Father Damian also served for 33 years on the Indiana Natural Resources Commission and was co-author of Natural Areas of Indiana (1969), which served as a guide for the creation of Indiana's Natural Preserves.
In 2007, he was awarded a Lifetime Conservation Achievement Award by the Indiana Wildlife Federation. Two years later, he was a member of the inaugural class named to the Indiana Conservation Hall of Fame.
Most recently, in 2015, Father Damian was named a Sagamore of the Wabash, the highest honor bestowed by the Governor of Indiana, given by him as a personal tribute to those who have rendered a distinguished service to the state.
His membership in other professional organizations included Sigma XI, the Ecological Society of America, and the Indiana Natural Resources Commission.
A third career began in 2001, when he was appointed pastor of St. Henry Parish, St. Henry, Indiana. He served his parishioners faithfully and well until declining health led to his retirement in August 2015.
Parishioners welcomed his administrative abilities, his pastoral care and concern, and his homilies, which they would describe as being literally "down to earth" - understandable and filled with examples and images both preacher and parishioners knew firsthand from their life and work: sowers and seeds, rich and rocky ground, weeds and wheat, the birds of the air, the fish in the sea ….
Father Damian's decision to donate his body to science, while a first in our history, would not surprise anyone who knew him. He loved teaching. This most personal donation to a medical school would allow him to continue to teach a while longer the science of the human body he had taught for 40 years.
The Office of the Dead will be prayed at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, June 17, in the Archabbey Church. A Memorial Mass will be celebrated at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, June 18, in the Archabbey Church. Burial will be at a later date.