Visit to Monasteries of the USA
August – September, 2015
Dom Jean-Pierre Longeat, OSB
President of the AIM
From 24th August till 11th September, 2015, Dom Mark Butlin and I, encouraged by the Secretariat of the AIM-USA, visited several monasteries in the United States to deepen our knowledge of one another and to secure collaboration for new foundations on all continents. Here is a brief record of the meetings.
Abbey of St John’s, Collegeville
Our first visit was to St John’s, Collegeville. It is an imposing monastery, housing about 140 monks and 2,500 students, of whom some are secondary school students. The church is vast. At one time there were as many as four hundred monks, and at that time they had some hundred parishes as well as the school in which many of the monks taught. Currently the number of parishes has considerably lessened and there are only about 15 of the monks engaged in school work. Their Divine Office is very recollected and prayerful, even if its structure corresponds little to the schemas generally in use.
The church is built of a magnificent amount of concrete of the highest quality, built during the 1950 by the same architect as the House of UNESCO in Paris: it has the same aery lines, the same fineness of structure, most harmonious. We also went into the previous church; in fact the monastery of St John was founded by St Vincent’s Abbey, Latrobe, in the nineteenth century, and the buildings of that time still exist. The church now functions mostly as a concert hall, and is used by the College. The monks have new quarters, and the guesthouse is totally new; it has 32 bedrooms. The ground floor comprises the public rooms; the dining-room looks out on the lake (as indeed do the bedrooms); two employees look after the kitchen; there is a little library, parlours, and one or two meeting-rooms in the best taste as well as a very sober chapel.
The library of the monastery and College together includes a unique section for manuscripts, called the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library. Its mission is to find, identify, number, catalogue and archive manuscripts endangered by the fact that they belong to threatened communities all over the world. They have made a partnership with 560 libraries and archives, and have succeeded in photographing nearly 140,000 manuscripts in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and India. Currently work is in progress in the Lebanon, Iraq, Jerusalem, Egypt, Mali and Malta. These new resources, which will soon be available for consultation on the on-line catalogue (HMML.org), will enable many students to be initiated into working on manuscripts and will make it easy for researchers to consult them. Of course all this costs a fortune, but important donations are made regularly to the monastery for this exceptional work. The work-places are of high quality and the large staff sparklingly competent. Everything combines the atmosphere of a great achievement with simplicity and humility. The Director is Dom Columba Stewart.
We visited the publishing facilities of the abbey, which concentrate on works on the liturgy, the Bible and spirituality. This too is on a grand scale, and occupies some forty employees. The Abbey of St John is one of the publishing-houses of the Missal and official texts of Catholic liturgy in the USA.
Visit to the Benedictine Sisters in the nearby town of St Joseph
This is the largest Benedictine Congregation in the USA. In the 1950s there were 1,500 professed sisters, who played their part in some 83 schools and health facilities or other pastoral activities. They are now active in a number of places in the United States, but also in Japan, Taiwan, Bahamas and Puerto Rico. Throughout their history they have cultivated the arts, intellectual work and spirituality.
Currently they number 240 sisters, and they own a college at St Joseph of about 2,000 students. However the average age of the community is over 70, and many of the sisters live in the care-home.
Assumption Abbey, North Dakota
About seven hours drive away is Assumption Abbey, on the outskirts of the town of Richardson, on the by-pass. The foundation of the abbey dates from 1893. They arrived after the community of Einsiedeln had founded a community in the north-west of Arkansas. At that time a young postulant at the abbey, Jean-Baptiste Wehrle, was dreaming of mission. He was sent to America in 1882 after his final profession and ordination. He filled several posts both in the young foundation and in pastoral tasks serving the diocese of Dakota, under the direction of the vicar apostolic of the time, a former abbot of Einsiedeln. He it was who finally commissioned him to found a priory in the new diocese of Jamestown which had just been founded in consequence of the division of the State of Dakota into two parts. Dom Jean-Baptiste was sent to Richardson, and thus began the monastery of the Assumption.
At the present time the community comprises about 40 monks, of whom a certain number are on mission outside the monastery.
Formerly the monastery had a college, as did practically all the Benedictine monasteries in the United States, but this closed in the 1970s. Many of the monks thought that this meant the end of the community. However, forty years later the community is in good health, with a regular influx of novices and a fine monastic life. There are plenty of activities, conferences, a welcome to many kinds of church groups. The abbey shop sells all kinds of products, including the wine of the monastery. A number of monks work as priests on parishes or chaplains to hospitals, universities or convents. Some of them teach at universities or seminaries, some work as pastoral assistants. Currently 14 monks work outside the monastery. Part of the vast land of the monastery is rented out for farming.
We met Dom Terence Kardong, editor of the American Benedictine Review, and talked at length about his work, the state of the Review, and the future of monastic communities today. He insists on young monks acquiring the bases of the monastic tradition. He is the author of an audio-visual distance-learning monastic course, though he regrets that few of the students follow it to the end, and he notes that the practice of reading is compromised by a lack of concentration. He wishes that this were the subject of a course to deepen monastic values. In his opinion the practice of silence is similarly threatened, and relationships with family and friends play too large a part, threatening the necessary value of withdrawal from the world. He also thinks that relationships between monasteries are too weak, and that isolation is a real threat in the contemporary world, despite the advance of communications. He is convinced of the usefulness of the work of the AIM, and encourages us to further formation. He says that the American Benedictine Review should really give an emphasis to monastic studies, and he would welcome contributions from anywhere in the world.
The American monasteries are unmistakably marked by their missionary origin. The monks were originally sent from Europe to evangelize the local population or provide spiritual assistance to resident foreigners, and this is still evident in the monastic life. It is a monasticism where the pastoral dimension is very present – as it already was in their founder-monasteries of Germany, Switzerland and Great Britain. For the most part their resources are linked to the external ministries of the monks. In addition, there are in the United States ‘charitable foundations’ which have no difficulty in supporting monastic life, and regard this as part of their mission.
Abbey of New Melleray
After returning to Collegeville, we went to the Trappist monastery of New Melleray. The abbot met us at Dubuque airport, and we went immediately to his abbey, founded by monks of Mount Melleray, Ireland, in 1849 at the request of the bishop. All the names are reminiscent of the great French monastery of Melleraye, which had founded Mount Melleray and other communities in the United States. After Vespers, Abbot Mark and the Prior shared a very simple and fraternal supper with us. The next day the Abbot took us on a detailed tour of the monastery: refectory, chapter house, church, infirmary, cells – all remarkably well kept. More remarkable still was the workshop, which ensures a good economy for the monastery. The monastery has developed a very successful fabrication of coffins. This is directed by a layman and employs a staff of some 50 persons as well as 10 monks. It takes place entirely within the monastery, and a blessing accompanies the final product to the families! The community rents out agricultural land, but the monks maintain their own property.
Trappistine Abbey of Our Lady of Mississipi
We visited the neighbouring Trappistine monastery of Our Lady of Mississipi, named after the great river which flows nearby. We received a specially warm welcome from the 15 nuns. At our arrival we attended the Office of None, followed by a long discussion with the Abbess, Mother Rebecca, and the retired abbess. They took us round the monastery, which is based on a large family house with many extensions and a splendid view. We visited the well-maintained library, the guesthouse and the principal activity of the sisters, the manufacture of caramels. Each of these visits helped us to strengthen links with all these communities, which was the purpose of our journey.
From New Melleray we flew to Kansas City, via Chicago, arriving at Conception just in time for Mass at 11.45. The church is spacious and decorated in the German Beuronese style. Abbot Gregory Polan led us to the refectory, whose ritual is as well organized as the liturgy itself. The Abbey of Conception was founded in 1877 by monks of the Swiss abbey of Einsiedeln at the request of the local bishop, to serve the spiritual needs of the Irish and German farm-workers, established in the region since 1858. The monks founded the College of New Engelberg in 1886 as a secondary school. In 1942 it was changed into a seminary and divided into two parts, minor and major seminary, for a course over 12 years. Today only the major seminary continues and welcomes some hundred seminarians for the 20 dioceses of this part of the United States. The monastery also receives a large number of guests.
The buildings of the seminary are especially impressive. About 20 of the monks work there in various capacities including teaching the seminarians, in which they are joined by lay teachers and diocesan priests. The huge library is shared by monastery and seminary. This organization is the more unexpected in that the monastery gives priority to prayer and contemplation. The rule of silence is rigorously observed within the monastery. For Europeans it was interesting to see the partnership between monks and the dioceses, and there is a good deal of coming and going between the two vocations of priest and monk. After a time some seminarians decide to join the community and some of the young monks join a diocese. The community has a holding of one thousand hectares around the monastery, and all the ground is well used, let out for farming and forest.
Benedictine Sisters of Clyde
We visited the neighbouring sisters at Clyde. Their congregation is named ‘of perpetual adoration’. They were founded in 1874 for the same reason as the monks, for the sake of local Christians of German and Irish origin. They soon opened a school and an orphanage and developed a farm. They still make liturgical vestments, altar breads and some other edible products. But their principal activity is prayer, and particularly continual prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.
This congregation of perpetual adoration has been extremely numerous – up to 400 sisters – but at present it numbers only some 140, mostly rather elderly, but full of vitality. One of them was the first link-point for the AIM in the United States, Sister Mary Tharsilla Noser (see Bulletin 71 in 2001 for her story and an appreciation of her devoted work). The church is an impressive monument in the Beuronese style, with frescoes covering almost all the walls. We were struck by the number of choir-stalls which leave hardly any spare space in the building, although the healthy sisters of the community fill only 40 of them.
Abbey of St Benedict of Atchison
Two hours drive from Conception is the Abbey of Atchison. At our arrival we were struck by the size of the place. The abbey has a college of about 2,000 students, spread over several acres and many buildings. There are students everywhere, and a joyful atmosphere. Campus and abbey are located on the edge of the town. The monks number 45, but only about 30 live on site, of whom several are in the infirmary, the rest being on various missions. The college and the high school belong to the monastery – a considerable patrimony.
Entering the church for the evening Mass, I was struck by the large number of young people. They are students of the college who want to nourish their faith and who regularly take part in the monastic liturgy, even morning prayer and Vigils at 6am. There were about one hundred of them, both recollected and active. Religion plays an important part in American society. There is of course some degree of reaction against religious and monastic life, but a relationship to the transcendent remains very present in the life of society; this is the greatest of all differences between American and European culture.
Benedictine Sisters of St Scholastica
The next day the Guestmaster took us to the town of Atchison and the neighbouring convent of Benedictine sisters of St Scholastica. This convent was founded 150 years ago by sisters from Switzerland to open a girls’ school, and the request of the Benedictine monastery. They also work in parishes, and hospitals and for the elderly. From the end of the nineteenth and throughout the twentieth centuries they gave themselves to a thousand activities; they numbered up to 500 sisters. In 1970 they joined the monks to form a single educational activity and adapted their buildings to receive retreatants and various guests. At the same time there remain active in various tasks of education in the College and other places, as well as parishes. At the present time they number only 150, and the sisters remain open to do whatever the will of God indicates for the future.
Abbey of St Meinrad
The next day we left for Kansas City airport to travel to Louisville via Chicago to reach the monastery of St Meinrad of the Swiss Congregation – like Conception. It was founded in 1854 by the Abbey of Einsiedeln for the same reason, to cater for the significant number of Catholics of German origin in the area. The community prospered and the 90 monks which made up the community in the twentieth century developed a seminary for priestly formation, a school of theology, a publishing house and – just as New Melleray – a business for making coffins (since 1999), and of course a guesthouse, running retreats throughout the year. At present the seminary forms priests, permanent deacons and lay people for a pastoral mission.
The community is made up of 45 monks, of whom a dozen live outside the monastery. It has several novices and postulants and young professed monks, who balance out the large number of elderly monks for whom every possible adaptation is made to enable them to participate in the liturgy. The community includes four former abbots, who – each in his own way – give a noble witness.
Benedictine Sisters of St Ferdinand
Next we visited the neighbouring Benedictine sisters of St Ferdinand. They are in the same situation as many other congregations of the same type: huge buildings in a property of 500 hectares. In this situation the community which must have consisted of several hundred in the past, now numbers no more than 140. Nevertheless, their works are still manifold. We visited the house, admired the church, attended the Office of Vespers with the sisters and ate with them in the refectory. This was a chance to get to know them better.
The Abbey of Gethsemani
Next we went to the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani, well known for having included Dom Louis or Thomas Merton. The community of Gethsemani was founded in 1848 by the Abbey of Melleraye in France. A group of about 20 monks settled here with the encouragement of the Bishop of Louisville, originally from France. The monastery prospered rapidly and had several remarkable abbots and other monks. In the middle of the twentieth century the community numbers 140 monks, the most numerous of the whole Order. For this reason it swarmed and made foundations at Conyers (Georgia), Ogden Valley (Utah), then in South Carolina, the New York State, Our Lady of Genesee, and later in Chile at Dehesa near Santiago – no less than six foundations between 1943 and 1966.
The brick buildings have been entirely renovated in recent years. Forty monks live there, including some young monks. Their lucrative work consists especially in cheese-making and well-known fruitcakes, excellent dry cakes with fruit. The abbey welcomes many guests and has also a centre for presenting monastic life. During the afternoon the Prior gave us a tour of the house. At the end of the afternoon we were invited to join a service of Benediction in the workshops for a celebration of the USA Labor Day. This session, followed by a procession from one workshop to another replaced Vespers and was followed by a festive meal. The following day the Prior took us to the hermitage of Thomas Merton, a lovely moment of presence in this place. After this we drove through the monastery grounds which are let out for farming. We passed through tall grass, near two other hermitages in the property of a thousand hectares and returned to the monastery, dazzled by the rich spectacle of nature.
Abbey of Marmion
The last stage of our journey took us to the Abbey of Marmion, near Chicago, founded by the Abbey of St Meinrad in 1943, in the midst of a vast campus. The monastery is made up of the foundation buildings, dating from the 1950s and others from the 1980s, very functional and well ordered. The church is particularly harmonious. This abbey belongs to the Swiss Benedictine Congregation and is dedicated above all to education, though it also helps neighbouring parishes. It has also launched a flourishing business in Christmas trees. The community consists of 30 monks, and the liturgy is sober and beautiful.
In each of these places we were able to meet the communities and explain to them the purposes and methods of the AIM. We spent some time with the superiors to explain to them a number of points which would further a greater collaboration of the efforts already conducted by the AIM-USA. It is an issue important for the future of monasticism that there should be a better understanding between the monasteries of Europe and those of the United States. Certainly there are major differences, but the family resemblances are also there, and these complementarities can only advance the spread of the Gospel in the monastic world. Between us, the monasteries of Europe and of the United States are called to support foundations on other continents.