Benedictine Abbot Oscar Burnett passes away peacefully November 21

Originally Appeared in : 9725-12/7/17

The Right Reverend Oscar C. Burnett, seventh abbot of Belmont Abbey, died peacefully in the Lord, on Tuesday evening, November 21, 2017.


His body was received at 7 p.m. Friday evening, November 24, 2017, at Vespers in the Basilica of Our Lady, Help of Christians at Belmont Abbey in Belmont. The public funeral Mass was celebrated in the basilica at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, November 25, with interment following in the Abbey cemetery.


A native of Savannah,  he was the third of five children of the late Oscar Caldwell Burnett and Ellen Nell (née Wheeler) Burnett. Throughout his life, he was devoted to and proud of his family and native city. After graduating from Benedictine Military School in 1944, he served in the U.S. Army Air Force during the closing months of World War II. He earned an A.A. degree from Armstrong State College, and a law degree from the Lamar School of Law at Emory University.


He practiced law in Savannah for six years before entering the novitiate at Belmont Abbey, professing his vows in 1958. He completed his seminary studies at Belmont Abbey and was ordained a priest in 1962.


At Belmont Abbey College he held a number of positions over time, including associate professor, chair of the Social Sciences Division, campus minister, member of the Board of Trustees, president and chancellor. Known by the students as “the Big O,” his career as dean of students was legendary for swift discipline. He also served on two different occasions as associate pastor of St. Benedict Church and teacher at Benedictine High School in Richmond, Virginia..


As executive director of the Ecumenical Institute of Wake Forest University and Belmont Abbey College from 1984 to 1990, he earned wide respect and made significant contributions to ecumenical and interfaith relations in North Carolina and the Southeast.


His service to the monastic community over the years included the offices of subprior, procurator, pastor of the abbey parish, novice master and prior.


In December 1991, at age 65, when most men enter retirement, he was elected abbot for an eight-year term. At a critical time in the Benedictine community’s history, he completed a full term of office, the first abbot in 40 years to do so. As abbot, there was no detail of community life too insignificant for his exacting attention. He intervened decisively in the administration of Belmont Abbey College and served for a year as interim president at no small personal cost, likely saving the college.


He will be remembered with special gratitude for his kindness in bringing his boyhood pastor and mentor, Benedictine Father Bede Lightner, back to Belmont Abbey for the final years of his life and having him reinstated in his monastic vows and priesthood. 


After his retirement from the office of abbot in 1999, he remained at Belmont Abbey, taking the title of abbot emeritus and continuing to direct his life and activities. He served again for nearly two years as prior, and continued his service as mentor and spiritual guide for countless friends and alumni, exercising his kindness particularly through much-appreciated letters and notes.


Abbot Oscar is survived by the monks of Belmont Abbey, by his sister, Margaret Burnett of Savannah, and numerous nieces and nephews.


Each monk of the community will offer three Masses for Abbot Oscar, and the community commends him to the monks of its congregation for the customary suffrages for their deceased confreres. 

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