Benedictine Father Hilary Donald Thimmesh, 91, died Aug. 11 in the retirement center at St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville. The Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated Friday, Aug. 16 at 3:30 p.m. in St. John’s Abbey and University Church with interment in the St. John’s Cemetery following the service.
Donald Merlin Thimmesh was the oldest of seven children born to Theodore Pierre and Frances Esther (Schmidtke) Thimmesh in Osakis on March 2, 1928. He began his undergraduate studies at St. John’s University in 1945 and entered the novitiate at St. John’s Abbey in 1947, taking the name Hilary.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1950 and completed priesthood studies at St. John’s Seminary in 1954, with ordination that year. He pursued graduate education in English at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, receiving a master’s degree in 1956 and a doctorate in 1963.
Father Thimmesh began his teaching career in English following his ordination to the priesthood at St. John’s Preparatory School and shortly after began his long service to St. John’s University as a faculty resident, the university’s academic dean, director of the Hill Individual Learning Program and chair of the English Department. From 1978 to 1980 he served as apostolic administrator for St. Martin’s Abbey and chair of the board of St. Martin’s College in Lacey, Washington.
Upon his return to St. John’s Abbey in 1980, he was appointed prior for a two-year stint, immediately after which he took over as president of St. John’s University in 1982, a position he held until 1991. During his presidency, the Auditorium/Music Building was completely renovated at Father Thimmesh’s initiative. The auditorium became the Stephen B. Humphrey Theater. The Gertken Organ Studio and the Choral Rehearsal Room were constructed as additions to the building, and studios, offices, classrooms and music practice rooms were renovated, enlarged and reconfigured.
He also oversaw the renovation of Simons Hall and construction of the Art Center and the Rogers Gallery. He was a major force in the creation of a new master plan for the campus. He worked with faculty and administrators to forge the first joint core curriculum between the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph and St. John’s University, a transformative curricular move.
His career was crowned with several awards, including a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for advanced studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1973; an honorary degree from St. Thomas University, St. Paul, in 1989; and the title of professor emeritus of English from St. John’s University in 2008.
He was named the first director of the Benedictine Institute in 2009. Father Thimmesh edited a sesquicentennial volume of St. John’s titled “Saint John’s at 150: A Portrait of This Place Called Collegeville” in 2006. Five years later, Liturgical Press published his “Marcel Breuer and a Committee of Twelve Plan a Church: A Monastic Memoir.”
He is survived by his brother, Ronald, Monticello, and sisters, Carolyn, Osakis, and Margaret McWilliams, Grand Junction, Colorado, and the community at St. John’s Abbey.