Saint Martin's monk and emeritus faculty member Father Richard Cebula dies

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Lacey - Father Richard Cebula, Order of St. Benedict, priest, professional engineer and “father” of the Saint Martin’s College School of Engineering, died May 11, 2004, at Mother Joseph Care Center of multiple causes. He was 87.

Father CebulaMembers of the Saint Martin’s College community join Saint Martin’s Abbey, where Father Richard had been a member since 1935, in honoring his life and many accomplishments.

A vigil service will be at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 14, at Saint Martin’s Abbey Church, 5300 Pacific Ave., Lacey. Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated for him at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 15, also at the church. Burial will follow at Saint Martin’s Abbey Cemetery.

Father Richard was born Sigmund “Sig” Cebula May 16, 1916, in Tacoma, Wash. He was the first of seven children born to Polish immigrants Jan Michal Cebula and Radzislawa Ciszewski. He was baptized June 14, 1916, at St. Joseph Church, Tacoma, and was confirmed April 15, 1929, at Holy Rosary Church, also in Tacoma.

After attending school at Tacoma’s John R. Rogers School and Holy Rosary School, Father Richard came to Saint Martin’s High School as a 13-year-old freshman. He graduated in 1932, then completed studies in 1934 at what was then Saint Martin’s Junior College. He entered the Benedictine Order at Saint Martin’s Abbey as a novice July 11, 1935, and in 1938, took his lifetime solemn vows.

In fall 1935, Father Richard traveled to Oregon’s Mount Angel College (now Mount Angel Seminary), where he completed a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy and mathematics, as well as four years of seminary training in theology. He was ordained to the priesthood on May 22, 1941, at St. James Cathedral in Seattle.

Two months later, he was appointed principal of Saint Martin’s High School. His other duties included teaching one college and three high school math courses. The talents of the gifted high school and college football player were also tapped for coaching.

During the academic lull caused by World War II, Father Richard was sent to the University of Michigan, where he earned his master of science degree in mathematics and completed coursework for a doctorate in 1947.

A four-year liberal arts college by that time, Saint Martin’s was planning to expand its curriculum into civil engineering, a move delayed by the war. When Father Richard returned, he taught math and engineering courses for the next five years while completing a master of science degree in structural engineering during summers at Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) in Ames.

In 1953, he became head of the college’s fledgling engineering department. During the next years, he used his characteristic ingenuity to devise solutions for the department’s many needs: laboratories, equipment, faculty, accreditation, student engineering chapters and more. At one point, he taught fallout shelter analysis courses for the Office of Civil Defense, using his paychecks for the college’s engineering needs.

An energetic self-starter with something of a reputation for intimidation, Father Richard’s gentler nature was soon discovered by generations of Saint Martin’s students. He was fierce in his dedication to them, and worked for their academic success by pushing, prodding and preaching at them, said Father John Scott, O.S.B., then a Saint Martin’s undergraduate student and later a faculty member.

“He was the barking dog who turned out to be a nice pet,” he laughed. “Behind that bark, there was a very brilliant and caring man.”

The engineering program continued to grow, as did Father Richard’s engineering education. The latter was done each summer at various universities at the expense of the National Science Foundation, whose worries about Russian supremacy after the launch of the Sputnik satellite spurred a series of educational programs for science, math and engineering educators. His achievements in establishing the engineering department were honored in 1969, when he was chosen as the college’s outstanding teacher of the year and in 1983, when the engineering building was named for him.

Father Richard was named academic vice president of the college in 1969, a position he held until 1974, when he officially retired from academia. A believer in the value of continuing education, he brought military students to the Lacey campus for a degree completion program and set up the college’s successful extension programs at Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base for military personnel and their families.

A longtime member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Father Richard became a fellow in 1960 and a life member in 1983. He also was a longtime member of the American Society for Engineering Education and served for three years on the National Society of Professional Engineers’ Student Professional Development Committee. When the City of Lacey was incorporated in the mid-1960s, he was appointed to the city’s planning commission, serving until 1973 and acting as chairman in 1968. His greatest relaxation and joy was playing golf, said Father John.

In 1992, Father Richard became pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in Tacoma, where he served until 2003.

Father Richard is survived by two sisters, Leona Kerilla and Helen Evans, both of Tacoma, a brother, Walter Cebula of Las Vegas, Nev., and numerous nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by a sister, Wanda Foss, of Tacoma, and by two brothers, Stanley Cebula of Tacoma and Anthony “Tony” Cebula of Yelm.

Memorial gifts can be made to the Father Richard Cebula Engineering Endowment Fund, Saint Martin's College Office of Development, 5300 Pacific Ave. SE, Lacey WA 98503-1297.

For more information:
Deanna Partlow, media relations coordinator
Saint Martin’s Office of Communication
360-438-4541 or