Fr. David Wolf died on July 2, 2008 at St. Joseph’s Hospital, Dickinson, ND,
after a long struggle against kidney failure. Joseph Wolf was born and raised on
a farm near the little German village of Hague, ND, on the South Dakota border south
of Bismarck. He was the youngest of thirteen children, eight of whom were girls.
Joe Wolf came to the Abbey in 1940 as a high school freshman and he stayed here
most of his life. He entered the novitiate in 1945, made vows in 1946 and was ordained
in 1952. During those war years, the education of seminarians was necessarily abbreviated
because of World War II. But Fr. David made up for it later by obtaining degrees
from De Paul in Chicago (BS physics, 1956) and the University of North Dakota (MS
mathematics, 1975). He also studied three summers at Texas A&M, where he found time
to minister to a black parish called Washington on the Brazos.
The first half of Fr. David’s working life was spent as a school man. He taught
math and physics in the Abbey High School and Assumption College from 1952 to their
closing in 1971. During the 1960s he also served as registrar in the college. During
the 1970s, Fr. David taught at the University of Mary in Bismarck, with two years
out for graduate work at UND. In all this time he was recognized as an inspired classroom
lecturer and a popular mentor for students. He was a vivacious lecturer, who would
put out as much energy for two students as for a hundred.
But in 1980 Fr. David was asked by Abbot Lawrence to make one of those basic
life-changes that obedience sometimes requires of a monk. He became the procurator
of Assumption Abbey, a post that he filled for a quarter of a century under Abbots
Lawrence and Patrick. For the past five years he has continued to assist the Business
Office as the manager of our investment portfolio.
As procurator, Fr. David initiated many significant changes into our economy.
For example, when it became clear that the bills for natural gas were becoming prohibitive,
he installed an automatic coal-fired system that saved us thousands of dollars. In
the early 1980s, he joined with several other procurators to form a system of self-insurance
for the Abbey. This last measure did not continue, but it worked for a while.
As anyone who has read Chapter 31 of the Rule of St. Benedict knows, the job
of the cellarer (procurator) is one of the most important roles in the monastery.
Besides managing the physical plant and the finances of all the departments, the
procurator must supply the physical wants of each individual monk. This requires
dealing with a great variety of personalities, not all of whom are easy to satisfy.
Fr. David found this aspect of his job harder than the material elements.
During his time as procurator the Abbey finances were generally healthy. After
many years of precarious economy until the closing of the school in 1971, the community
finally achieved some degree of economic health. Under Fr. David’s expert management,
the Abbey economy flourished for a couple of decades. When things became a bit less
rosy toward the end of his stewardship, he seemed to feel these problems as a personal
In retrospect, it would have to be said that Fr. David was one of the most significant
leaders in the history of Assumption Abbey. His accomplishments were partly due to
natural brilliance but also to sheer hard work. He was also a perfectionist who did
a first-class job at whatever he set himself. The procurator’s job here really needs
more than one person, but like many of us, Fr. David did not find it easy to delegate
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and David was not a dull boy. He
took a special delight in nature, and especially in bird-watching. A familiar sight
on a fine Sunday afternoon hereabouts was his old brown jalopy making the rounds
of the bluebird houses he stationed all over our property. He took a hands-on approach
to these nests, caring for them like a mother bird for her young ones.
Another one of Fr. David’s many talents lay in the area of music. As a young
man, he was a good trumpeter in the Abbey band and orchestra. But most of all he
had a beautiful singing voice that was clear as a bell. Someone once remarked that
he seemed to be incapable of singing off-key. He was an important member of the Abbey
schola that performs special music at the Liturgy. He also served as a cantor at
vespers up until the last weeks of his life.
Fr. David was also a skilled electrician and general handyman. With no particular
training besides what he picked up in the community, he was able to function as the
electrical contractor for the construction of the classroom building in 1957. He
also worked as an inspector for the construction of our cafeteria and Schnell Hall
in 1961. He could fix all manner of gadgets, but his great project was to keep our
antiquated clock system going. Ironically, it seems that the old clock has now reached
its last days along with its patient attendant.
Another one of his projects was the tuck pointing of the power house. In the
1980s, he was a familiar sight along the south wall, removing the crumbling old bricks
and carefully cementing in new ones. Actually, in the old days of homemade buildings,
he was one of the monks who knew how to lay brick. There were not many manual arts
that David did not master.
Fr. David was a quiet, reserved personality who typically held back at meetings,
but who could be counted on to provide acute analysis when he thought it was called
for. He had a scientist’s mentality that did not appreciate loud, florid displays
by confreres with different temperaments. He was very precise and methodical in all
that he did. This still did not make him cold and impersonal. He was much appreciated
as a chaplain at our sister monastery of Sacred Heart, and also as a personal friend
to many people in the area.
His last days were exceptionally hard. Just as he began the difficult life of
dialysis, he had a fall in the garden that broke his neck. This fall came at a fitting
time, while he was filling a birdbath. He suffered excruciating pain for a few days
before returning his soul to God. His funeral was held on July 5, a beautiful summer
day when the large crowd could process to the cemetery. Most of them probably did
not realize that Fr. David was the custodian of the cemetery until the day he died,
and that the bird houses down there were still full of his bluebirds.