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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Arms and the Monk!
The Trappist Saga in Mid‑America

M. M. Hoffman

published by
Wm. C. Brown Company
Dubuque, Iowa, 1952

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 2

 p1  I

Dramatis Personae

This is the story of New Melleray, a cloister of contemplative life in middle America. The monks of this house lead silent existences based on a philosophy of life and eternity which is being examined with a new, an awakened, interest in every part of the United States.

This story started in Iowa in 1849. It had a long introduction in Europe, Canada, and eastern United States before that. Its American chapter is now well over a century in length.

Ten miles from Dubuque over a concrete stretch of the Old Military Road and two miles through a beautiful forest that has been set apart for a State game preserve, pious monks live in seclusion. A building of mediaeval Gothic — white stone walls, a gleaming slate roof, arched windows, and spires — crowning a hill backed by trees and green fields: such today is the Iowa monastery of Our Lady of New Melleray. Within yonder walls men are living in 1952 by the old sixth century Rule of St. Benedict.

New Melleray is but one of the flowers in the blossoming Cistercian garden in the United States. A little over a hundred and twenty  p2 years ago a brilliant Frenchman visited this country and wrote his findings in a famous book that is still studied today, La démocratie en Amérique. Baron Charles-Alexis de Tocqueville held that democracy could exist only by seeking a moral support in religion. He saw the Catholic immigration from Europe beginning to arrive on the western continent. He asked, somewhat fearfully: 'Can the Catholic Church, accustomed to exist under royal European auspices, prosper or even survive in the free atmosphere of the young American republic?"

Would that de Tocqueville could behold the answer today: the healthy growth of Catholicity and the efflorescence in this last cycle of time of its spiritual and mystical orders. The astonishing growth of the Cistercian order in America in the last score of years is part of that answer. In the nation which has the highest standard of living in the world, where comfort and even luxury abound on every side, where education and science and progress flourish as nowhere else on the globe, the austere orders like the Trappists, — like the brethren of New Melleray —, grow with an ever more irresistible appeal to the gallant youth of the land.

The truth of the words written by the Pope of Catholic Action, Pius XI, less than thirty years ago has finally been reaching the hearts of men. Speaking of the contemplative monks he said:

From the earliest times this mode of life, most perfect and most useful and more fruitful for the whole of Christendom than anyone can conceive, took root in the Church and spread on all sides . . . Since the whole object of this institution lay in this — that the monks, each in the privacy of his own cell . . . should fix their thoughts exclusively on the things of heaven — wonderful was the benefit that accrued from it to Christian society.

This story starts, as we said, in 1849. A small company of Irish Trappist monks, assiduously fulfilling the duties of prayer and penance for the benefit of Christian society, entered the upper Mississippi valley in that year. Other groups of Europeans were welcomed here contemporaneously with the monks. There was a cluster of Hungarian followers of the liberal aristocrat, Louis Kossuth, who opened up a farm colony in the youthful state of Iowa. Farther south from New Melleray and across the Mississippi on the Illinois shore came Étienne Cabet and his "Icarian" Utopians from France.a They, too, had communal ideals like the Cistercians to the north of them. They  p3 had ideals of equality and especially of equality of property. "Was not Jesus Himself an Equalitarian?" they asked. But they were materialistic communists, who did not try to dominate human passions and greeds. They came into Iowa and gradually disappeared, long after the earthly paradise of pressures and temporal riches at which they aimed had burst into thin air. The communal life founded at New Melleray in 1849, based on that of the first Christians who were of "one heart and one mind," had been the life of the Cross and the thorny Crown. It lasts today, and stronger than ever, it now buttresses the bastions of Western civilization against the news and far fiercer communism which is Sovietic and atheistic.

Shortly before the French Icarians there had been another semi-communal religious body located on the Mississippi shores opposite Iowa. It was that of the Mormons, calling themselves "Latter‑Day Saints," but its members had already left for the Salt Lake of Utah.

Yet strangely, long before all these, there had been Trappist monks in the Mississippi valley. Most of them were Frenchmen who had fled from Emperor Napoleon's persecution in Europe, and after tarrying in Pennsylvania and Kentucky, had settled at Cahokia, Illinois, near St. Louis. Here in 1809 they erected with patience and toil their monastery near a cluster of huge Indian burial mounds. This site of their long vanished, log‑cabin cloister is known today as Monks' Mound. Here they starved and worked and built and prayed for four long years and finally began to flourish. Here, among the Indians, they wanted to build an Indian school, and one of the brothers, the intrepid Dom Urban Guillet, went to Washington to confer with a senatorial committee about it and to obtain title to lands for its support.

These monks of Our Lady of Good Counsel monastery among the Indian graves and mounds, were edifying the white settlers and the red savages by their lives of privation and penance. Then their crops failed; then the War of 1812 with England broke out, and their own Trappist oblates and their helpers were seemed to defend the border from British‑led Indian attacks by way of the great river; and then, worst of all, the dread cholera struck them, and poor and emaciated by their previous sufferings, many of them were laid low by death. And finally in 1813 their illustrious leader, a great Trappist name in Europe as well as in America, Dom Augustin de Lestrange, asked them to close their brave little foundation, and those who were left of the community ultimately returned to France.b

 p4  For a decade previous to 1849 there resided in Iowa as bishop of the Dubuque diocese — an immense diocese that stretched all the way north to the Canadian border and all the way west from the Mississippi river to what is today Montana — a saintly man with a Cistercian soul. One of his books printed in Paris and donated by him to the New Melleray monastery library a hundred years ago today, shows on its musty title-page: "The Monasteries of the Order of La Trappe, by Clement Tallon." Clement Tallon, the author and an official of the French government, had two brothers who were eminent Trappist monks, and all three were nephews of the Iowa bishop. Related by close ties of blood to the Trappist brotherhood, the bishop was far more closely allied to it in spirit. It was his fond prayer all during that decade that his diocese should some day be blessed with a monastery of that holy and penitential order.

Bishop Mathias Loras had been born at Lyons just as the Revolution in France was rushing to its climax. He was but an infant in his mother's arms when she pleaded with the tyrant Couthon for the life of her husband, a wealthy aristocrat and counsellor of Lyons. But Loras père was in the very first group to be guillotined in the Square des Terreaux, and a few days later the same fate overtook two of his sisters and two brothers, one of the latter being mayor of St. Cyr.c In all, seventeen persons of the Loras family lost their lives for their political and religious convictions.

Classmate and close friend of Jean Baptiste Vianney, the canonized Curé d'Ars, in his youth, Loras became after his ordination a professor and then the president of the large diocesan seminary of Lyons. Abandoning what promised to be a brilliant church career in France, he came to America to labor as a missioner in the forests and everglades of Alabama and Florida. Now, working heroically on the prairies and the rivers of his far‑flung northwestern diocese, he intensified his anchoritic life of sacrifice and lonely poverty until his very soul was become that of a Cistercian monastic.

On a hot July afternoon in 1849 Bishop Loras' cup of spiritual joy was filled to overflowing. In his modest brick house, the "episcopal mansion" of Dubuque, he was entertaining four Trappist brothers, travel-stained and weary from long, arduous journeys. Next to him sat his vicar-general, a successful missioner among the Iowa Winnebagoes, the Abbé Joseph Cretin, — also an illustrious exile from France. Cretin's uncle had been guillotined in 1793 on the same platform  p5 that received the blood of Loras' father, and a year later his mother had been imprisoned by the revolutionists.

Opposite the purple-soutaned bishop sat the bearded and white-robed abbot of Mount Melleray Abbey in Ireland. Dom Bruno Fitzpatrick was a young man still for he was only thirty‑six years of age. The son of a successful Irish physician, he had been educated in France, and after his ordination to the priesthood he had entered the Trappist order in Mount Melleray. His great talents as well as his zeal and holiness were so marked that in the spring of 1848 he had been elected by the community to become the third abbot of their foundation. Until his death in his eighty-first year, he was to be the leader of both these Cistercian communities, the one in Ireland, the other in Iowa; he was to bring them up the mountain of toil to success only to go down with them into the forlorn valleys of vicissitude. But always he emerged the victor — the victor over famine, impoverishment, disaster and the evils of a sinful world.
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Founders of Our Lady of New Melleray Abbey

Mathias Loras
First Bishop of Dubuque

Bruno Fitzpatrick
Lord Abbot of Mount Melleray

Dom Bruno was flanked by two remarkable monks of his order. Father Clement Smyth and Father James Myles O'Gorman had both been educated by Protestant — principally Anglican — teachers, because the prescriptive laws of England made it penal for a Catholic to teach school. Both men were graduates of famed Trinity College in Dublin. Father Clement Smyth had been president of the Mount Melleray Seminary and was now selected by Abbot Bruno as the prior of the new American venture. Father James Myles O'Gorman was a bit of a blue-blood, of "Castle Irish" extraction. His mother, Alicia Myles of Tipperary, was a daughter of Major Myles and was a convert to the Catholic faith. Her brother had become a man of some military renown, the Major-General Sir Edward Myles of the British army, and it was he who had arranged for his nephew's complete education at Trinity College.

Behind this trio of choir brothers sat the brown-clad lay brother, Ambrose Byrne, referred to repeatedly by his prior as a "man of judgment and prudence." Brother Ambrose was an agriculturist and a geologist, and because of his knowledge and wide experience in these capacities his advice was relied on in the selection of land and water sites for a Trappist institution in the new and strange American wilds.

On that July afternoon of 1849 the plans for the foundation of the new monastery were discussed and the terms agreed upon in the  p6 unpretentious mansion of the bishop of Dubuque. These were the founders of the New Melleray Trappist institution: these tonsured Cistercian monks with the bishop and his vicar. The bishop's dreams for his diocese and the abbot's hopes for his monks were at last to be blended. Smiles were on their faces and their hearts sang happily the praise of God. The fertile land of Iowa so generously donated by Mathias Loras was to be tilled by the horny hands of pious Trappists, and on this rolling prairie lands was to be erected the Iowa Trappist house of God. And out from the ancient Scriptures seemed to come the words that day to these Cistercians newly arrived in the Mississippi valley:

For the Land, which thou goest to possess, is not like the land of Egypt . . .

But it is a land of hills and plains, expecting rain from heaven.

And the Lord thy God doth always visit it, and His eyes are on it from the beginning of the year to the end thereof.

If then you obey my commandments, which I command you this day, that you love the Lord your God, and serve Him with all your heart, and with all your soul:

He will give your land the early rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your corn, and your wine, and your oil,

And your hay out of your fields to feed your cattle, and that you may eat and be filled.

Beware lest perhaps your heart be deceived, and you depart from the Lord, and serve strange gods and adore them;

And the Lord being angry shut up heaven, that the rain come not down, nor the earth yield her fruit, and you perish quickly from the excellent land, which the Lord will give you.1

At the end of this signal meeting Bishop Loras tendered to the monks his hand and his heart as simple and Cistercian as their own. Simple Trappists! They were to live with other simple brethren in a secluded Iowa monastery, in silence and solitude, and every day they were to pray and to meditate and to work with their hands in Iowa soil. Yet they knew they were rich for they all possessed Christ and they understood the depth of His Love and the infinity of His Mercy.

 p7  Not so did the world understand it.

Exactly seven years before this meeting at Dubuque, the Englishman, Charles Dickens, stood on the bank of the Mississippi river at Cahokia, Illinois, three hundred miles to the south. It was a muggy day in July, 1842, as he gazed across the scrub-studded prairies at the Indian burial mounds. He asked the meaning of the name, "Monks' Mound." Then the world renowned but still young novelist listened with contemptuous curiosity to the tale of the Trappist monks from whom Monks' Mound took its name just as it has been here recounted: how there in the lonely wilderness some thirty years before, the sons of La Trappe had painfully built their log monastery and had spent their time in prayer and in silence and in labor for the Lord; a number had died of the disease called the cholera and the remaining members had later returned to France. Dickens' reaction was that of the coldly fashionable and unbelieving world expressed in his ill‑tempered remarks: "What fanatics! What gloomy madmen!" Nearby in the Mississippi was Bloody Island, so called because hot‑blooded duellists had sought its wooded shade to shoot each other to death. Coupling the passing of these young blades of St. Louis with the deaths of the monks, Dickens sneeringly announced to the world of his day that there was no great loss to the community and no "very severe deprivation" was wrought to society.

The Trappist brethren at Dubuque would have been the first to admit that they were peculiar. For the same book of Deuteronomy quoted before gave the divine answer for them:

Because thou art a holy people to the Lord thy God. The Lord thy God hath chosen thee, to be his peculiar people of all the peoples that are upon the earth.

Not because you surpass all nations in number, is the Lord joined unto you, and hath chosen you, for you are the fewest of any people:

But because the Lord hath loved you and has kept his oath . . .

What a muster of souls with significance fraught for the future was this meeting of 1849, attended by four of these Dickensian "gloomy madmen!" Probably nowhere else at that period of the American Catholic Church could be found a group of six churchmen more able, more cultured and, above all, more courageous. A remarkable fact that should not be overlooked is that five of these gentlemen, — then or later of prelatial or episcopal rank — were destined  p8 to play an active part in and leave an important impress on American history and American Catholicity in the Northwest. Loras, the intimate friend and counsellor of the two United States senators from the young state of Iowa — Generals George Wallace Jones and Augustus Caesar Dodge — was the only one at the time of this meeting who already reigned over a diocese as its episcopal shepherd. Just a year later Joseph Cretin, the Dubuque vicar-general, was to be appointed by Rome as the first bishop of Minnesota with his see city at St. Paul. Dom Bruno Fitzpatrick was a mitred abbot and for many future years his sparks of zeal and wisdom were to fly from Ireland's Mount Melleray to bishops, abbots and monks in America. And within a decade Father Clement Smyth was to become the second bishop of Iowa, and Father James Myles O'Gorman was to go to Omaha as a bishop, to be the Vicar-Apostolic of Nebraska, the only instances in history where Trappist monks became bishops of American dioceses.
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Clement Smyth
Second Bishop of Dubuque
Prior of New Melleray

James Myles O'Gorman
First Bishop of Omaha
Prior of New Melleray

The story of the Iowa monastery of the poor men who labor in New Melleray started in 1849. This Iowa start, however, was only a milestone along their dauntless march of achievement. Of the previous milestones that led up to 1849 we must record a few words, for the graphic background of these Cistercian Bayards — truly, chevaliers sans peur et sans reproche — will illuminate the thrilling events that, decade after decade, were to follow.

The Author's Note:

1 Deuteronomy, Chap. 11.º

Thayer's Notes:

a For a good summary, see "Icaria and the Icarians" (The Palimpsest, II.97‑112).

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b For a detailed look at the Trappists of Monks' Mound and their peregrinations, see "The Trappists of Monks Mound", Illinois Catholic Historical Review, VIII.106‑136 (a reprint from Records of the American Catholic Historical Society, March, 1925).

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c Several places by that name in France; here, the little town of St‑Cyr-au‑Mont-d'Or near Lyon is meant.

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Page updated: 15 May 13