The document appointing Father Smyth as prior differs little from all such formal records. Its smooth and sonorous Latin phrases seem to come gently, rolling along through the decades and centuries from the old turreted cloisters of Citeaux and Clairvaux. It meticulously enunciates the powers and prerogatives, the censures and penances, connected with monastic life from the days of St. Bernard down to modern times with few changes; it appeals to all subjects for obedience and acknowledgment of legitimate authority. Its perusal gives one an intelligent insight into the fundamentals of conventual discipline. As it is a document that can well be read with easy effort and to great advantage even by one who is only slightly interested in monastic history, this hundred year old scroll is given here in its English translation:
Brother Bruno, Abbot of Our Lady of Mount Melleray, of the Order of Citeaux, diocese of Waterford and Lismore; Father Immediate of the Monastery of New Melleray likewise of the Order of Citeaux, diocese of Dubuque:
p98 To our well-beloved and Christ's venerable priest, Clement Smyth, monk likewise of Mount Melleray, and professed specially therefor, the spirit of counsel and fortitude!
The above named monastery of New Melleray being without a Prior and we having the right to name the superior, since the worthy Father Francis, formerly Prior of that monastery, has resigned, it belongs to our office in zeal for the salvation of souls and for the divine worship's furtherance, when we had consulted the General Chapter as to your merits and your good character, zeal, knowledge and ability to administer affairs (this has come to our knowledge from others too,) we decide that you should be named and installed Prior of the above mentioned monastery (New Melleray), according to the tenor of these presents, by our authority as Father Immediate. This gives you all such power in spirituals and temporals as ought to belong to you, according to the Constitution of our Order, i.e., as to all persons therein, the power to teach, rule, correct, absolve and bind, even by the ecclesiastical censures, customary in our Order to punish those rebellious or stubborn, to appoint or designate a subprior, confessors and all officers, to examine, approve or disapprove all books of accounts, finally, of performing all things which priors in our Order by law and approved custom, usually perform.
So we command each and all persons of the monastery, New Melleray, our subjects and living at present, even by virtue of obedience and salvation, and under the censures of the Order — to acknowledge you true and lawful superior and to respect you as such and obey you even as ourselves, until we order otherwise: to make this worthy of confidence we subscribe these present letters and affix our seal, with the added subscription of our secretary too, today October 22, the year of our salvation 1852.
Abbot, Our Lady of Mount Melleray
By order of my Rev. Lord Abbot,
Brother Placid, Secretary.
Almost from the start God blessed the efforts of Prior Clement as superior of the Iowa foundation, and whatever one may mean by p99Fortune smiled indulgently upon him. Through the four and a half years of his benign but careful rule the Trappist house prospered, the fields annually yielded their crops without failure, the herds of cattle and sheep increased. The spiritual life of the institution rose to a high level. The brothers had confidence in Prior Clement and entertained respectful affection for him — such is the influence of some personalities on others.
Father Clement was a vigilant superior especially in the field of the financial affairs of the monastery. He had a horror of being in debt. "He kept a close watch on our housekeeper," remarked Brother Kieran, "which if another Superior who came after him had done, things would be different here today from what they are." Shortly before Prior Clement's reappointment, Brother Ambrose, the agriculturalist, was sent to Kingston, Canada, to dispose of some of the properties there which after the death of Brother Macarius were left in the name of the Iowa Trappists. In this business journey of a little over a month, he succeeded in selling the various items — one of them a large church bell — and the sum he brought back with him was applied to the monastery debt. This left still between eleven and twelve hundred dollars in obligations but the entire deficit was wiped out by Father Clement in a little more than a year. The prior was ably assisted in these matters by Father James who continued as subprior of the house.
The courage and mettle of Prior Clement were shown in his spirited reply to Bishop Loras who in one of the earlier Lenten seasons of the prior's tenure had expressed some criticism of the monks for partaking of a full breakfast in Lent:
"Theologians agree that Collation may be taken in the morning, justa cum causa. If ever a just cause existed it must be where men have of necessity to endure severe manual labour and cannot partake of one good substantial meal. There is no community in the world that has to undergo such severe labour as ours and has such very wretched food. Our meal or dinner is turnip-water with milk, potatoes and bread. Does the Church of God, that most tender Mother, consider this a good or substantial meal? Do our Rules and Constitutions oblige us to such meagre and unsubstantial food? No. Both our Rules and Constitutions have been dictated by the Spirit of God, which is ever a Spirit of Charity and prudence, equally remote from both extremes, either of ordinary indulgence or too much severity.
p100 "Our Constitutions allow us for meals, besides soup, bread and potatoes, a portion of cheese, rice or beans, beer, cider, or wine as table drink, baked apples, peaches, grapes, etc., as a 'dessert,' and a third portion of legumes. We have not even any one of these. Our portion is poverty in the extreme without any present hopes relief or remedy. We are observing a rule of life which no legislator ever yet dreamed of framing for a Community of men whose sole and only hopes of subsistence depend on their own individual exertions and on their constant attention to severe manual labour."
And then the monk declared to the bishop: "It would be my greatest wish to conform both to the spirit and letter of Church discipline regarding the hour for dinner and Collation, but when such comes in direct opposition to the Rule of our Order I shall not be the first to introduce such an innovation. I am not one to act according to caprice or fancy. I am determined to walk straight forward and to be guided in all essentials as the General Chapter may decide or the Abbot of Mount Melleray may sanction."
A glimpse of the prior's temper is obtained, when on a later occasion he again addressed Bishop Loras, from his use of Celtic invective:
"On yesterday I was pained to learn from a certain layman that some angel of discord, some agent of hell, told you that I blessed clay or earth for the burial of Mrs. Logan. This, beloved Bishop, is as gross and foul a calumny as ever yet emanated from the lips of man. I do most solemnly declare to you, on the word of a Priest and a Religious, that I neither blessed clay for her funeral nor gave permission to any priest to do so. This I trust will be sufficient to refute such vile slander. If you be so kind as to give me the name of that whispering fiend, I shall compel him to go to you and restrict his hellish calumny."1
p101 A singular piece of good fortune for the monks through the striking benevolence of Father Thomas Hore of Wexford, Iowa, came their way in September of 1853. This priest had developed his farm and erected a commodious two‑story house •about one hundred rods distant from the chapel of St. George which he had erected earlier for his people. He stocked his farm with a herd of cattle and with some horses and sheep of the best breeds in the West. He made overtures to the Dubuque Trappists about its disposal and finally invited Prior Smyth for a visit on the occasion of which he made a present by actual deed of sale of his entire tract to the Cistercian monks of New Melleray. When Father Clement returned to Dubuque by the steamboat West Newton and went to the monastery he immediately wrote a happy note to Father Donaghoe at St. Joseph's Convent in which he related: "I secured all at Father Hore's by a new deed signed and stamped with the seal of the Notary for Allamakee County. He was most happy to see me and was more anxious to secure his property for us than I was to have it placed beyond the power of his heirs to recover it after his death. Deo gratias! On my return the Bishop expressed his great satisfaction at having the property secured for religion." However, Father Hore continued to remain in possession of his Wexford holdings for the time being, not being quite prepared as yet to retire to Ireland.
The establishment of a Trappist house in what was still regarded as a wilderness west of the Mississippi was no longer merely a news item of interest in Catholic and secular circles by now; it had also aroused hopes in the minds of the struggling bishops of the contiguous new dioceses for securing pastors and missionaries in their vineyards. The first bishop to have these hopes dashed was, as we have seen, Mathias Loras of Dubuque, whose request had been refused by the General Chapter of La Grande Trappe. In 1852 Bishop Martin Henni of Milwaukee arrived one day on the grounds of New Melleray monastery accompanied by that missionary par excellence whose dramatic exploits and spiritual conquests among savages and whites in Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois fill one of the most thrilling pages in the missionary annals of all Christian history from St. Paul the Apostle to the latest Chinese martyr, — the Italian Dominican, Samuel Charles Mazzuchelli. But the appeal of the Wisconsin bishop abetted as it was by the arguments of the illustrious missioner proved as fruitless as that of Bishop Loras.
p102 However, the effort of Joseph Cretin, who had now become the first bishop of St. Paul, turned out to be a more lasting and a more stubborn attempt. As Abbé Cretin and vicar-general of the Iowa diocese he had done considerable missionary work among the Indians, especially among the Winnebagoes, and with this tribe he had remarkable success. No sooner had Bishop Cretin entered upon the work of his newly constituted diocese than the federal government moved the Winnebagoes en masse from Iowa to Minnesota. The bishop immediately began his exertions to secure missionary priests for them as well as for the Sioux and Chippewa tribes. He applied to the Jesuits, to the Oblates of Marseilles in France and to the Marists, but all in vain. When he learned that the government would gladly give him financial aid if he would take over the schools among these tribes he doubled his efforts and directed his attention to the Trappist monks of New Melleray. Not only their friend had he always been but also a sincere admirer of them and their work. He had one missionary, Canon de Vivaldi, among the Winnebagoes already but he also wanted an agricultural school conducted by the Trappists for the Indians, as he considered these monks ideal for such work.
Apparently he had received some affirmative assurances from Father Francis Walsh on this proposal for in September of 1852 he informed Governor Alexander Ramsey of the Minnesota Territory that the Trappists intended to assume the responsibility of a mission and school, and the governor had indicated his satisfaction in the matter. A yearly sum of six thousand dollars was to be paid for conducting the school and for the clothing and daily rations of the Indians. Cretin carried on much correspondence with Washington on the matter of educating the Indians and also wrote to Archbishop Hughes of New York. On January 15, 1853, he wrote to the archbishop's secretary, Father James Roosevelt Bayley, the distinguished convert and nephew of the saintly Mother Seton, who was later to become Archbishop of Baltimore:
As these Indians wish more to be instructed in the cultivation of their lands than in reading, I intend to establish among them a branch of the Trappists who succeed so well everywhere in founding fine farms. The French Government could not find better teachers of agriculture for the young Arabians of Algiers.
p103 Evidently anticipating the objection made to Bishop Loras on this score by the General Chapter Bishop Cretin asserted:
Some priors and abbots will object that the life of a missionary is incompatible with the life of a Trappist. But I will write to Rome on that subject.
The Cistercian order will acquire a great name among even the Protestants in this country if they can be induced to devote themselves to the conversion and temporal salvation of so many poor beings who otherwise inevitably will starve. They want Missionaries who give them the example of cultivating and farming for these forlorn people. When the Trappists of this country will be known to embrace such a Mission they will find plenty of applicants to join their order. If the Government truly intends to civilize these Indians a little money given to these Religious would do more than forts and soldiers to maintain these Tribes in Peace and live in settled places.
But Cretin, too, was disappointed in his quest of Trappists for missioners, apparently meeting a final refusal from Prior Clement Smyth, and on March 10, 1853, he wrote sadly and rather bitterly to Loras:
The Trappists would have acquired more of a reputation and of glory in their monastery in devoting four or five of their subjects to the savage missions. I still cannot understand the reason of their refusal. I have at last at my disposal since the 1st of January $6500 for this mission on the part of the government. This sum, well managed by the monks, would have been very useful. They would receive more novices. I am going to address the Trappist house of Kentucky. The savages have more need to know how to cultivate the soil than of learning how to read; and the Trappists are the only religious body remarkable for their success and ability in such work. The community in Dubuque, having a branch of their order in this diocese, would easily be able to erect their monastery into an abbey.
The attempt to secure the monks of Gethsemani Abbey referred to above — if such an attempt was made — manifestly failed also. It is strange that the bishops did not understand the true object of cenobitic life, and this fact makes more comprehensible the lack p104of knowledge on the part of the general public, including Catholics, about the prayerful and contemplative work of those holy solitaries who follow the strict Rule of St. Benedict.
Due to the now prosperous condition of New Melleray Prior Clement was able to buy land not merely equal in extent to what had been sold by Prior Francis but many hundreds of acres more. He also purchased a sand‑pit for a term of twenty‑one years. "It was Father Clement," boasted Brother Kieran, "that made the farm reach up to be •one thousand eight hundred and forty acres of land, or •ten and a half miles walk all around it." Yet the prior was quite modest about it all. "Well," he explained to Father Donaghoe to whose St. Joseph's Convent he and Father James were often called to conduct retreats, preach to the nuns and give instructions to the novices and postulants, "thanks to a merciful God, it is really a moral miracle how we have been blessed the last two years."
Bishop Loras in his 1854 report to the Propagation of the Faith Society in Lyons from whom he received much aid for his missionary diocese and to whom at the urging of his friend, Abbot Bruno Fitzpatrick, he made a strong appeal in behalf of New Melleray, painted a glowing picture of the Iowa Trappist foundation:
May I speak now of our monastery of Cenobites, of our venerable disciples of St. Bernard, of our holy Trappists. In 1848 (sic) I gave them a piece of ground of •450 acres, •40 of which were cultivated, and a small farm. They were at first a little number. I went over to Ireland, visited their primitive monastery and obtained from their Abbé a new colony of these admirable monks. Today they have erected a vast building, bought new lands, which are cultivated by 40 Trappists, 12 of them saying divine office night and day, and 6 of them are priests. This was a strange spectacle for our Protestants; some of them criticized them in an impious manner, but the holiness, the penance and the spirituality of these good monks shut their mouths, and the Catholics can enjoy in peace the good fortune of possessing among them a living picture of the religious and Christian perfection.
Encouraged by these reports from New Melleray Dom Bruno decided that there was no pressing need for him to make a visitation to his American affiliate at this time. Instead, he required all the choir religious to write to him confidentially, this action supplying p105the place of a visit. The operations of Prior Clement during the next couple of years continued to show his wisdom and progressiveness, as for instance, his insistence that the various members of the community secure their papers of American citizenship, and his prudent course of obtaining legal incorporation of the institution and its properties. This line of action he also urged on Father Donaghoe in regard to the Sisters and their St. Joseph Convent property. Said Brother Kieran of him succinctly: "He governed well and wisely, be his counselors whom they may."
It was only in growth of numbers of members that the Iowa monastery showed no distinctive success. When Prior Clement left its cloistered halls in 1857 there were forty-seven monks including choir religious, lay brothers and novices. It was true that postulants had entered but postulants had also left. Even some novices lost heart and departed. One year Father Rensen, a Dubuque diocesan priest, was received; three years later in the same month a sub‑deacon from the Benedictine Abbey near Pittsburgh and a secular priest, Father Hamilton, the nephew of the bishop of Louisville, sought membership. But there were annual defections: some lost their health, others lost their courage; some were given dispensations and others requested to be sent back home to Ireland's Mount Melleray. Yet the great silent majority remained firm, hearty and happy.
And now must be recounted an episode which really should be referred to as an epic tragi-comedy and should be given the horrendous title of "The Battle of the Bishops versus the Abbot." It was of epic stature indeed for it involved all the archbishops of the United States, and many of the bishops, it had touched on part of France, it hovered about Rome and was finally settled — no, it was not even settled, it was "deferred" — by a commission of grave and wise, old Italian cardinals. The poor, struggling Dubuque priory was the cause of it all and the abbot whose word plunged this great fraction of the world's Catholic hierarchy into the controversy was Dom Bruno Fitzpatrick himself.
It will be recalled that Bishop Cretin of St. Paul had stated that if the Iowa Cistercian community had opened up an affiliate in his Minnesota diocese it would more easily have become an abbey, and it is apparent that he knew of some such movement being contemplated. Among the Trappists, the abbey has the supreme rank among the three kinds of monastic houses — the foundation, the priory p106and the abbey. When a monastery is granted this honor its members elect as their superior the abbot whose duties and privileges lift him to prominence among Church dignitaries. Naturally Dom Bruno wanted this very laudable distinction for his beloved Iowa affiliate, and having doubtlessly noticed how quickly the Gethsemani Abbey of Kentucky had been erected, he addressed an application for this dignity to the General Chapter of La Grande Trappe. The capitular fathers in one of their later sessions of 1851 granted this petition, stating that Dom Bruno of Ireland "Father Immediate of New Melleray recently founded in America asks permission to write to Rome to ask the erection into an Abbey of his Daughter-House, already sufficiently well established in order to obtain this favor . . . The Chapter permits it."
Sanguine Christian optimist that he was, Abbot Bruno could not believe that the malignant fates which had already apportioned so many bitter shocks and blows to the American colony would continue the series of disappointments; so he hopefully wrote to Dr. D. Bernard Smith, vice-president of the Irish College in Rome, in October of 1851 commissioning him to push the matter along, and Dr. Smith sent back the answer of Cardinal Fransoni, the Prefect of Propaganda, that the consent of Dr. Loras, the local bishop, was required in writing. Dom Bruno then turned to Loras who immediately wrote the Cardinal — on November 30th — urging the erection of the abbey, and seven months later, in August of 1852, having received no answer, he repeated his petition with vehemence.
And here is where the amazing series of events started. The delay in answering Bishop Loras' request was due to the fact that the cardinals were puzzled: they discovered while comparing this request with that of the only other Trappist house in the United States, Gethsemani in Kentucky, that this was now qualified as an abbey and that the superior in the capacity of an abbot had even been admitted to the "Synod" of Baltimore, but that there was nothing in the records of the Sacred Congregation of the Propaganda, granting approval to Gethsemani for the erection of an abbey.2 Thereupon, p107on September 6, 1852, they wrote to Dom Thomas Mossi, the President General of the Cistercians, requesting information on Gethsemani abbey as well as on "the rights and privileges and distinctions" granted Cistercian abbots according to the observance of La Trappe. Dom Thomas in his reply seemed equally puzzled and somewhat embarrassed: he knew something about the Trappist abbeys in France who had relations with the Father President General who resided in Rome, but unfortunately he knew little or nothing about Gethsemani in America. He could, however, supply information on abbatial distinctions, and among other things he stressed the fact that the cross and staff of a Trappist abbot are of wood, with at most some gold ornamentation; this practice of using wood is well followed "although experience shows its non‑observance in the monasteries has its beginning in the violation of the vow of poverty." He added also that the abbot's every day distinguishing mark is the use of a ring with a small jewel.
So the cardinals were back again where they started. But happily for them, or so they thought at the moment, it was learned that two American bishops were in Rome at this time, and to them, of course, would they direct their inquiries about the Dubuque Trappists and particularly about the privileges that should be granted to Trappist abbots. These two prelates were Bishop John MacGill of Richmond, Virginia, and Bishop Bernard O'Reilly of Hartford, Connecticut. Remembering the views of the then Bishop, but later Archbishop, Hughes of New York and other Atlantic seaboard prelates a few years before this time, it will prove no surprise to anyone to discover these two eastern Bishops repeating the same indictments and complaints against the Cistercian monks in America. Bishop MacGill admitted that he knew nothing about the New Melleray priory in Iowa but he had "some knowledge" of the Gethsemani abbey in Kentucky. "Such an austere community is not altogether suitable in our country and already various monks have left the monastery and wander here and there seeking to sustain life in various ways and some have returned to France." He granted, however, that monasteries "as focal points of religion and prayer are of the greatest utility in every region," but as to the New Melleray community if the monks are few and "the hope of new ones is very slight, and if as happened once in the province of Kentucky" — referring to Charles Dickens' "Mad monks" who had gone from Kentucky to Monks' Mound in Illinois — "when p108they tried in vain to erect a Trappist monastery, then this one also in a few years must perish, and so without doubt it will be better not to create an abbot there."
Both bishops evidenced in their replies strong episcopal suspicion of encroachments by abbots on their prelatial privileges. The bishop of Richmond maintained that the poverty of American bishops did not permit them to enjoy many distinctions and "therefore insignia, which in the eyes of the faithful indicate and illustrate episcopal dignity," should be reserved for them.
Bishop O'Reilly of Hartford intensified, if anything, the views of his colleague. "As far as the use of the mitre is concerned," he wrote, "and the pectoral cross and the pontificals in general, it seems to me that in our country it would not be a good thing for the abbots to enjoy the use of these things. The faithful in our country are accustomed to see only Bishops with a mitre and other pontificals and it is evident to me that since reverence toward the episcopal character is not very great, it will be much decreased by the extension of the use of pontificals to Abbots." And pointing out that episcopal embarrassment might increase with the growth of the number of abbeys and abbots in the United States, he concluded: "Since you can give most ample power to an abbot to govern his religious without the right to pontificals, it seems to me better to reserve to Bishops alone in our country all such insignia."
The wise old cardinals must have shaken their respective white-haired or bald heads in doubt. Certainly, they were not convinced. They observed firstly, that as far as Trappist abbots and their privileges are concerned they are very different from those of bishops, and secondly, that just as in the case of the abbot of Gethsemani who was already in possession of such honors, these are restricted to the abbey church. Furthermore, there were other angles to the matter and they asked among themselves: "Will such concessions in favor of the Cistercian monks of the more strict observance established in the diocese of Dubuque incite the non‑Trappists to ask for them, and especially, for instance, Father Wimmer and his venerable Benedictine monks in the monastery of St. Vincent of the diocese of Pittsburgh, the elevation of which to an abbey remains suspended?"
Prudent and cautious, they therefore instructed the Prefect of the Propaganda, Cardinal Fransoni, to write to Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick of St. Louis and request him to sound out all the archbishops p109of the United States and all the suffragan bishops of the St. Louis province on the matter. The cardinals made the point of inquiry very succinct with their statement: "There would not be any difficulty certainly if through abbatial rank of this kind there were question merely of securing the greater stability of the foundation; but having to mind the circumstances of that Territory, doubt arises whether it is proper to grant those privileges that are customary for Abbots." This letter of inquiry was sent out from Rome in the beginning of January, 1853.
Naturally, it took Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick a long time to obtain the views of so many churchmen and he sent the consensus of their replies to the Roman Propaganda six months after his receipt of the Roman letter. All had answered except one, Archbishop John Hughes of New York. All had combined in their opinions against Abbot Bruno's petition except one, and he was Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick's own brother, Francis P. Kenrick, archbishop of Baltimore. The latter favored the elevation of the Iowa priory to an abbey provided no territorial jurisdiction would be given to the abbot. The opposition maintained that it was hardly expeditious to raise New Melleray monastery to higher rank because it was a new foundation and because of the poverty of the monks. Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick of St. Louis went so far, indeed, as to claim that "should the Sacred Congregation agree" the bishops should have a right to vote in the election of an abbot!
And so what Dom Bruno probably imagined at the outset was a simple request, a request which Bishop Loras firmly supported, became suddenly a momentous ecclesiastical problem. Today in our nation we have abbeys and abbeys, and abbots and abbots, and we wonder what all the discussion was about. But the wise old cardinals took it all in their stride; they gave neither affirmation nor negation. Among the minutes of the meetings of the Sacred Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith for the year 1853 we find a long summary of the discussions on the matter with this final paragraph:
25. At a general meeting of the S. C. Propaganda de Fide held on June 20, 1853, there were present the Most Reverend and Most Eminent Lords
Brignole, Patrizi, Fransoni, Barberini, Altieri, Fornari, Recanati, Marini.
p110 To the proposed doubts on the new position of ecclesiastical matters of the federated States of North America the most Eminent Fathers by the undersigned Relator replied
To 25. [Should the Monastery of New Melleray be raised to the rank of an Abbey?]
Ita est. So it is.
Rev. Card. Fornari, Relator.
1 What this letter referred to may be gleaned from the enlightening paragraph by Brother Kieran in his Annals:
"At this period there was no burying ground for seculars at or near our monastery. Bishop Loras desired that all the Catholics who died in this neighborhood should be interred in the Catholic cemetery he established on the hill west of the cathedral in Dubuque. One of our near neighbors, John McLaughlin died. His funeral proceeded on to Father Bernard's little church to bury him near it. They were met by Fr. Clement who told them in a menacing manner that he would not permit the interment on any part of the Monastery lands. There was much excitement. Finally they turned into the prairie where our cattle-yard is now; the land belonged to John Quinn. There they made a grave and buried John McLaughlin, about 150 yards from the church. Mrs. Logan was buried before this near the church. So the Bishop had to yield, and at last consented to a burying place at the monastery. The first body laid to rest in the new burying was that of Patrick McCarthy in August 1854."
2 This privilege was granted directly by the Holy Father. On July 21, 1850, Father Eutropius of Gethsemani received a Rescript issued by , Secretary of the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda, announcing that Pope Pius IX, "after reading the petition from Dom Hercelin [Abbot of the monastery of La Grande Trappe, Vicar-General of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance] and the letter of recommendation from Bishop Chabrat," had granted the Trappist petition for abbatial status.
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