A tremor of shock and sadness spread through the monastic and academic community at Collegeville at the news of the sudden death of our confrere, Father Paul. He had collapsed after a morning workout, preliminary efforts to revive him had been made, and Abbot Timothy had anointed him. He suffered cardiac arrest, however, in the ambulance on the way to the St. Cloud Hospital. Two weeks earlier an angiogram had revealed no blockage but only the presence of a smaller than normal artery. He was told he would have to learn to live with it. He died with it.
Paul was the third of eight children born to Lawrence and Marilyn (Neilsen) Schwietz in St. Paul. Two other sons and five daughters completed the family which soon moved to Omaha. After completing grade and high school there he returned to Minnesota and entered the alma mater of his father, St. John's University. Not a happy camper during the fall/winter semester at a school that was not his personal choice, he began making friends and took a liking to the woods and lakes that surrounded the campus. Since he initially wanted to be a veterinarian he transferred to Kansas State and quickly discovered in a poultry science course that his preference was with wild birds rather than domesticated ones. He returned to St. John's and began to focus on biology.
But the thought of joining the monastery entered his mind. "It was a cold, rainy night in April," he recalled, "and I was walking out to the abbey cemetery when I had an experience of God who was very present, very real to me. It was that night when I started thinking about being a monk." His thoughts materialized when he entered the novitiate after his graduation in 1976. He made his initial commitment to the monastic way of life in 1977. In 1982 he completed his seminary studies and was ordained.
After a brief assignment to a Benedictine parish Father Paul began work on a master's degree in silviculture (forestry) at the University of Minnesota. As partial fulfillment of his degree he proposed a ten-year forest management plan for St. John's. Upon his graduation in 1985 he was able to put his plan into action as the land manager of the 2400 acres of forests, lakes, and land of St. John's Abbey. Under his direction 1300 acres of hardwood trees were inventoried, and the watersheds, including 500 acres of lakes, were studied and documented. He planned and supervised the planting of 30,000 conifers and the thinning of 30 acres of pine plantations which were the oldest in Minnesota, having been seeded by the monks in 1894. He well deserved the title of "The Padre of the Pines."
He turned his considerable talent to the restoration of a 150-acre habitat involving 6o acres of wetlands, 50 acres of prairie, and 40 acres of oak savanna. He was convinced that land is a gift of God that should be used to benefit the larger community and be protected for enjoyment for future generations. His wetland's project took a lowland area that had been drained a century ago to provide hay for the monastery's dairy herd and then abandoned when the cattle were sold, and turned it into a 50-acre pool and a 10-acre marsh. The project has brought to the area a variety of wild life including more than 45 species of waterfowls, songbirds and furbearers. The prairie restoration project helped reintroduce hundreds of different wild flowers and native grass species to the Collegeville area. He also landscaped and beautified the inner St. John's campus with a creative mixture of shade trees and flower gardens that provide brilliant splashes of color throughout the spring and summer. He promoted educational opportunities for classes that have lab components such as plant taxonomy, botany, bird identification, ecology, and aquatic biology. No group was too small or too young for Father Paul to take on a walking tour through the St. John's Arboretum and point out the wonders of wildlife.
In 1996 Father Paul received the Bronze Medal award from the Minnesota Horticultural Society in recognition for his prairie and wetlands restoration and his dedicated stewardship. In accepting the award he said, "This award represents to me a recognition of the value of creation and human efforts to be good stewards of this precious gift. I have worked to promote a wider appreciation of the biodiversity we find in our local landscape, both of the flora and fauna. The Habitat Restoration Project is a key example of our efforts. The award is also a recognition of St. John's, a very special place in Minnesota. I take pride in being at St. John's and building on the heritage of our abbey." In 1998 he began the publication of Sagatagan Seasons, the quarterly newsletter of the St. John's Arboretum. He initiated a membership drive to attract sponsors and participants in an ongoing calendar of activities including seasonal hikes through the St. John's woods and visits to other wildlife centers in Minnesota.
Father Paul's energy, enthusiasm and efforts were as long and as wide as the original prairie he envisioned. Since 1983 he was a faculty moderator of college student housing at St. John's University. In a heartfelt tribute to Father Paul during a memorial service the night of his death, his three student assistants testified to the passion that he demonstrated in all that he did. His love for the land was matched by his love for the students with whom he lived. One of his special passions was his involvement in the To Encounter Christ (TEC) retreats. He helped make these weekend spiritual renewals a personal and communal experience for participants. The reality of God's unconditional love for them is a new "burning bush" that catches their attention and leaves their hearts and minds touched and changed. He also served on the chaplains' team for St. Benedict's Monastery, St. Joseph, MN. For seven summers he assisted on weekends at lake resort area churches in the Minnesota towns of Nisswa and Pequot Lakes. His caring and sensitive presence contributed to the unity of these parishes during a time of pastoral reassignments.
It was no accident that at Noon Prayer shortly after the announcement of his death one of the psalms prayed that day was surely a favorite of Father Paul, namely, Psalm 1. With his passion for growing things, with his projects of reforestation, with his penchant for planting another tree wherever there was a significant space and place, how he must have rejoiced over the comparison of God's people as "a tree planted near streams of water, that yields its fruit in season; its leaves never wither..." His death was God's way of transplanting this good and faithful servant to that new creation where there grows "the tree of life that produces fruit twelve times a year, once each month; the leaves of the tree serve as medicine for the nations" (Revelation 22:2).
Father Paul is survived by his parents, five sisters, and two brothers. The Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated for Father Paul at St. John s Abbey on May 8 with burial in the abbey cemetery. The chief concelebrant of the Funeral Mass was the cousin of Father Paul, Archbishop Roger Schwietz, O.M.I., the Coadjutor Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska.
We commend our brother Paul to your prayers.
Abbot Timothy Kelly, O.S.B.,
and the monastic community