Abbot Gernot Wottawah OSB

First Abbot of Inkamana Abbey 1982–2002

12 February 1940 – 15 September 2007 

On Saturday, 15 September, the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, God unexpectedly called Abbot Gernot Wottawah into eternal glory. Death came while Abbot Gernot was staying in St. Ottilien Archabbey.
Abbot Gernot was born on 12 February 1940 to Hans and Rosa Wottawah in Seiffen, a mining village in the Sudetenland, and baptized with the name Roland. A year later a second son was born, Erich. The outbreak of the Second World War soon overshadowed the life of the young family. The father was called up for military service and went to the eastern front. Tens of thousands of soldiers fell on both sides in the heavy fighting. Many other thousands never returned home and were reported as missing after the end of the war. Hans Wottawah was one of them. After the war ended when Russian troops occupied Czechoslovakia, the Germans were expelled from the Sudetenland. Rosa Wottawah, too, had to flee from her home with her two small children, leave behind their belongings and make their way to the West. They found accommodations in Wellheim, in the vicinity of Eichstätt. Roland attended the primary school there along with his younger brother. When the local parish priest became aware of Roland’s vocation, he sent him to the seminary at St. Ottilien. Fr. Wolfram Gampl, a monk of the Archabbey of St. Ottilien, who came from Wellheim, mediated the transfer. A year later Roland’s younger brother Erich also came to the seminary. Like Roland he joined the monastery and as Fr. Herbert is active today as a missionary in South Korea.
In June 1960 Roland took his university entrance exams in which he received excellent results. A few months later he began his novitiate in the Archabbey as Frater Gernot. On 25 September 1961 he made his temporary profession. This was followed by preparation for priesthood that included two years of philosophy at the congregation’s college in St. Ottilien and then four years of theology at the Maximillian University in Munich. On 27 September 1964 he joined the missionary Benedictines of St. Ottilien by taking his solemn vows. Bishop Aurelian Bilgeri of Eshowe, Zululand, ordained him to the priesthood on 4 September 1966. Soon afterwards he began his studies in the Institute for Canon Law which he completed in 1972. Having returned to the Archabbey, he took over the post of a prefect in the seminary and a little later the office of secretary of the congregation. In this latter function he accompanied Archabbot Notker to South Africa in 1978 for the canonical visitation of the Conventual Priory of Inkamana. At the same time there was the election of a new prior following the resignation of Prior Elmar Kimmel. It did not take long for the monks to reach a decision. The choice fell on Fr. Gernot. He accepted it knowing quite well that his life would change decisively.
In January he took up his new office as conventual prior of Inkamana. At the time, fifty-four monks belonged to the priory. Fifty-two of them came from Europe and only two were Africans. Prior Gernot made it clear from the beginning that he considered the promotion of local vocations to be of top priority and called upon his monks to rise to this challenge. Zululand at the time was still largely a mission territory. In order to emphasize the roll of Inkamana as a Benedictine monastery in the essentially mission organized church of Zululand, Prior Gernot made all the necessary preparations for elevating the monastery to an abbey. This became a reality in 1982. When the community then elected him abbot, he was even more determined to make Inkamana into a monastery in which the local monks felt at home and the monastic tradition could be enriched with African elements. During his twenty years as abbot no less than 150 candidates entered the monastery. Among them were many from Malawi and Namibia and even some from Angloa. Even if by far not all persevered to solemn profession, just under half of the community (25 of 52 monks) consisted of Africans when Abbot Gernot resigned in 2002.
Another important concern of Abbot Gernot was the worthy celebration of the monastic liturgy. He spent countless hours collecting liturgical texts and melodies, choosing from them and arranging them for use in Inkamana. Right away in the first years, he put together a new series of Office books, in which he was especially concerned that a large part of the Office could be sung and not only recited.
With a great sense of duty, he guided the monastic community in the eighties and nineties of the last century through a phase of transitions as parishes developed from the mission stations and as the tasks of the missionaries were more and more taken over by the diocesan clergy. In this situation, Abbot Gernot stalwartly reminded his monks that it was now even more important to make Inkamana into a truly monastic centre. Between 1982 and 1993 he had the monastery enlarged several times. The crowning of all his initiatives in regard to construction was doubtless the very successful renovation of the monastery church which was completed in time for the silver jubilee of the abbey.
Abbot Gernot was a man who was richly blessed with gifts of the Spirit and who had a keen sense of law and justice. Especially when it was a matter of social justice, he let it be known, regardless of who or what, what was the current opinion. He made his decisions based on the principle: what is just is right. In harmony with his motto “Omnes unum in Christo,” he regularly called his monks’ attention to the fact that fidelity to the Rule is a prerequisite for unity and for a peaceful life together in a multicultural monastery. In conferences and in classes with the novices he was especially intent on making the young generation of monks familiar with the spirit of the Rule and with the well-tried principles of monastic life. He himself set a good example and was constantly keen on doing what would serve to build up and enhance his monastic community. This prompted him to open a study house in Cedara in 1992 and to venture a Benedictine foundation on the station of Waldfrieden in Namibia in 1998.
In everything that he undertook, Abbot Gernot was energetic and purposeful. He was a man who did not spare himself and whose workload was astonishing. He was often at his desk until late at night working on conferences or talks, writing letters and making plans. But he also knew how to enjoy the small things of life. He would be revived by celebrating a feast in the company of his confreres whether it was some liturgical feast or a names day or birthday of a confrere. On such occasions, he could relax and acquire new energy for everyday life.
Abbot Gernot directed the course of events of Inkamana for a total of twenty-four years. The office of leadership, with all the responsibility as well as the cares and occasional disappointments that come with it, took its toll on Abbot Gernot’s strength even if for many years he enjoyed robust health. Around the time of his retirement from office, he suffered several small strokes that restricted his movements so that in recent years he could no longer participate in all the community exercises. After his resignation, he spent quite sometime in St. Boniface Monastery in Waldfrieden, which was doubtless his favourite place to stay. In June of this year he travelled to Germany for medical treatment. During his stay in the Archabbey of St. Ottilien he died suddenly while he was sleeping.

May God richly reward Abbot Gernot for his faithful work in service to the community of Inkamana and the church in Zululand.

We will celebrate the requiem in the abbey church of St. Ottilien followed by burial in the monastery cemetery on Saturday, 22 September, at 10:30 a.m.

17 September 2007

Abbot Godfrey Sieber, Inkamana Abbey and Archabbot Jeremias Schroeder, St. Ottilien Archabbey

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