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Chapter 11

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 13

 p121  XII

Another Crisis and a Few Letters Thereon

Upon the departure of James Myles O'Gorman, nominated to the bishopric of the Nebraska Vicariate, Dom Bruno appointed Father Bernard McCaffrey as the superior of the Dubuque monastery, but not with the powers of a Titular Prior. Father Bernard, it will be recalled, had been the emissary sent by the abbot of Mount Melleray back in 1848 to find the site of an American Trappist foundation; he had favored settling at Bedford, Pennsylvania, at the invitation of Dr. Thomas Heyden; and after a six months' stay at Gethsemani monastery he had come to Dubuque in 1849. Since then most of his duties had been those of the acting pastor of the Trappist's secular church, and having been quite successful in this task and being now forty-five years of age, he was judged to be sufficiently capable and mature to take over the office of superior until Dom Bruno should select a prior.

The abbot certainly showed no haste in choosing a new prior. During his recent fourteen months' stay in America he had seen how smoothly monastic affairs had been running at New Melleray, and when he had made his formal visitation of the monastery on that occasion he had written a flattering report on the visitation card;  p122 this is the document containing the impressions and advisory suggestions of the abbot or other official person who makes the formal inspection of the community and which is usually read to all the monks assembled in chapter. Herein he had stated his hope that on his next visitation, believing that Father James would then still be the prior, there would be a new guest house with a reception room, if not completed, at least commenced; and then after a fervent plea to the brothers to continue their pious and austere living, he made an exhortation so eloquent that it bears quoting:

"But if on the other hand, there be in this monastery, even one, whether Choir or Lay brother, whose conscience tells him, in a deep and thundering voice, that he is not the charitable, obedient, silent Monk whom we have described, we could not but feel sad. And yet our sadness would be mingled with joy; for to that Brother if such there be in the Community, we would say in the spirit of the most tender paternal charity, 'Lose not courage, dear Brother. This is the day of your visitation; now is the time to begin a new life, a life of prayer, of silence, of obedience, and more than all and above all, a life of perfect, fraternal Charity.'

"We have already communicated, and we shall continue most unreservedly to communicate to the very Reverend Father Prior, our views, our hopes and our wishes concerning the spiritual and temporal well being of this Community. The Brethren may rest satisfied that we shall make known to him every remark of importance, every useful suggestion that we have heard in private since our arrival in this monastery."

In concluding, after asking for prayers for Pope Pius IX, he also pleaded: "Pray in a most special manner for the Right Reverend Dr. Smyth, your late Superior and now the Bishop of this important Diocese . . . Pray that in him may be revived the ancient glories of the venerable Order of Citeaux, which in former ages gave illustrious Popes and Princes and Prelates to the Church of God."

When the General Chapter abbots met in France in the fall of 1858, their minutes recorded the receipt of a letter from Prior James O'Gorman explaining his inability to attend the sessions that year, and which then recounted certain difficulties which had sprung up between him and his Father Immediate, Dom Bruno. And these difficulties explain further why the abbot of Mount Melleray chose to remain in Ireland in 1859 instead of attending Prior James' episcopal  p123 consecration, although he had gladly come two years previously when Prior Clement was elevated. It was unfortunate, however, that he had not come because beyond any doubt he would have noticed the idiosyncrasies which Father Bernard, the superior he had selected, was already displaying. This priest, a good theologian, a clever controversialist and a profound classical scholar was nevertheless a pronounced eccentric.

While Father-Master of novices, and even as superior, he would read on Sundays to the monks the revelations and meditations of Anne Catherine Emmerich, the stigmatic and ecstatic German nun, and at the secular church while seated in a chair before the altar he would continue reading these revelations until the congregation fell asleep. The rich hills about Dubuque made lead-mining a profitable industry, and Father Bernard allowed himself to be imposed upon in these operations by a Dutch sailor who came to the monastery as a postulant, and posed as a chemical expert. Their prospecting led to large monetary losses. But this was as nothing compared to the jobbing in cattle and the land speculating business, a traffic of which he and Brother Mary Bernard, the housekeeper, were the chief organizers at this time, and which, increasing during the succeeding years, finally ended most disastrously for the community. Slightly inflated with his honors as superior he wrote Bishop O'Gorman at Omaha, proposing the erection of a Trappist filiation in Nebraska should the bishop be good enough to secure a few sections of land for him. Knowing that the former prior was anxious for news of the monastery he mentioned among other items:

"Our community is increasing. We received 4 postulant priests & 2 laymen for the choir & 6 lay novices since you left. 12 in 3 months! I take everyone that comes. If they stand, well & good. If they go, there is the door for them." And influenced probably by his love of the "revelation" he recited to the amazed bishop: "All here are well & in peace, profound peace, nothing but peace. When vested with the dignity [of superior], I planted a cherub with a two‑edged sword at the gate, & behind him a seraph with a four-edged sword, cutting east, west, north and south at every blow. And fearing that would not do, I erected a battery tremendously high, and on it I placed (what think you? not a cannon, nor a mortar, nor a howitzer nor even a blunder-buss, but, as Irish Pat would say) a Blundergun to shoot the D__l a mile off. So no D__l has entered here since, nor can he as long as the Blundergun is kept ready  p124 for action. Indeed there is now but one heart & one soul at New Melleray. Not the shadow of anything but profound peace. Esto perpetuo."

Father Bernard's term of office ran almost a year and a half, "without doing anything very remarkable," Brother Kieran hastened to explain, "excepting this buying and selling of pigs and cattle," when on October 2nd, 1860, Abbot Bruno arrived and introduced to the community the thirty‑six year old Titular Prior Ignatius Foley whom he had brought with him from Mount Melleray. With them and also from Ireland were Father Emmanuel French, Brother Patrick Corbett, a choir monk and cantor, and Brother Michael Keegan, a lay brother. Dom Bruno used this occasion for a formal visitation. The year before — in 1859 — Dom Eutrope of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky had made the visitation of New Melleray. Unfortunately, his visitation card is unavailable, but that of Abbot Bruno in 1860 is before us and throws light on some hitherto shadowy corners of the monastery scene. Apparently he had been immediately apprised of the business dealings of Father Bernard and Brother Mary Bernard, and in the very beginning of his remarks he alludes to the matter: "All circumstances being taken into account, we feel justified in advising the Superior to tolerate, for a limited time, a certain kind of traffic, which, as might be expected, has produced feelings of uneasiness in the minds of some members of the Community." And although he spoke of the "consoling fact" that from the private interviews with the monks he had learned that "charity, peace and happiness are enthroned in this Monastery," he paid no flattering compliments in this report but flung out his verbal castigations where he hoped they would do the most good.

"Is it or is it not the fact, that the Spirit of the world is encroaching gradually upon the hearts that should be full of the Spirit of God; that loud shouting is heard in the fields; that money and money engages habitually and unnecessarily the attention of men, who have solemnly renounced all to follow Christ, who are bound by their vow of poverty, and who, after a few years, perhaps much sooner, will find themselves in the presence of that terrible judge, Who has said: 'No one can serve two Masters. No one can serve God and mammon?' "

So much for the traffic and business; and then he thundered at other abuses: "Is it or is it not the fact, that Newspapers are purchased and introduced into the Monastery, without the permission  p125 of the Superior, and read even on Sundays; that, notwithstanding the shortness of life, and the value of time, and the absorbing duties of the Monastic State, some few members of this Community make Politics a study, and a favorite topic of conversation?"

Concluding, he urges with holy vigor: "If these abuses, or any of them, do really exist, we cry out against them, and with all the weight of our authority, and in the name of Our Holy Order, and in the name of the Holy See, which has united us in one body under one head, and in the name of the Adorable Trinity, we command their correction, and we forbid their reintroduction into this Community."

Even the practicing Catholics seldom see the interior of a monastery, and few of the millions in the United States today have been inside a Trappist cloister. They read and hear of the austere piety of these monks and accept it as natural that these cenobites should live a life of the Rule. They forget that it is a supernatural life of grace. The visitation card of a visitating abbot lets us peer not only within the monastic halls, but beneath the corporal surface that surrounds the soul of a monk. These words of Dom Bruno were addressed to sixty brawny Christian men, muscular, intelligent, witty, all human, accustomed to severe labor in the fields and long hours of prayer and meditation in the New Melleray monastery church; they received his words with a welcome humility, a soldierly submission to the great Rule of St. Benedict. And who would not be edified when he continues reading the little personal notes that accompany the visiting card and show the intense and tender humanness of the tiny favors sought and the peccadilloes hinted at:

"Father Patrick begs permission to lie down in the Couch for less than an hour, after the Distribution of Work." (Father Patrick was now in his sixty-second year.)

"Brother Daniel wishes to go to Tracadie [monastery]. He must wait until spring; in the meantime I can consult the Vicar General, and Rome also, if necessary.

"Brother Jerome begs to be allowed to have a lock and key for the Woodroom.

"Brother Mary Joseph, it is said by a competent judge, would make a good Farmer, that is an Under-housekeeper. The office is held at present by Brother Barnaby. A very grave question.

"Father John the Baptist wants a Stove in the Library, s. v. p.

"Father Emmanuel might begin to teach Singing.

 p126  "Brother Mary Augustin sings at Salve & Benediction: he is not in his place in the Stalls. He takes Potatoes for himself.

"Brother Paul gave money for Masses.

"Is it right to leave Brother Peter, the Cook, in charge of the Fowl?

"Could Brother Athanasius manage to prevent so many from assembling in the Wardrobe?

"Can Father Robert be bound to observe stricter silence?"

These are taken verbatim from the 1860 card of the Iowa Trappist monastery. In this more modern day, against our casually accepted background of Hollywood adulteries and other vices, of Communist enslavements, of political and commercial corruption, these monkish peccadilloes seem like scintillating virtues and Abbot Bruno's castigations sound like vile slanders of the Galahads of the cross.

But — let us dip our pen in the ink of dispassionate history and recount the almost humorous affair of the new Titular Prior, Father Ignatius Foley. The latter, a pious and highly cultured gentleman from the collegiate halls of Mount Melleray seminary, was a bit of a monastic snob and it could have been predicted that the course of his career would be a rough one among the hardy and witty sons of St. Bernard at the still frontier-like Cistercian institution at Dubuque. Because of Father Bernard's peculiar administration, it was suggested by the abbot to Father Ignatius that he might attempt some sort of a "reform" of the community. As for Abbot Bruno himself, his visit in Iowa lasted little more than a month when he departed for Louisville and Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky where he conducted the visitation. As Abbot Eutropius of Gethsemani, the proto-abbot of America, had resigned some months previously Dom Bruno presided at the election of the new abbot, Dom Benedict Berger, and then returned to Europe.

Prior Ignatius found the United States inhospitable, American life strange and the pioneer Iowa conditions hard. Winter set in soon after his arrival, and it was a severe winter, far fiercer than anything he had ever faced in Ireland. He already hoped that he would never have to live through a second such terrible season. And his disgust was brought to a climax when the spring brought heat and towards the end of May and the beginning of June of that year of 1861 the thermometer sky‑rocketed to above ninety degrees in the shade. There was something wrong with the country and he even declared that the spring flowers of Iowa had no fragrance and the birds had no  p127 music. He was most discouraged by his inability to understand the manners and activities of some of the Iowa means; and Brother Kieran explained: "It was the noise and perpetual bustle, even on Sundays, of those bought pigs and cattle and Brother Mary Bernard, or better known as Brother Murphy, shouting louder than any or all of his bought stock put together. Then to see so many of the brothers going at all hours both of day and night scouring the country far and near for Brother Murphy's purchase" — all this coupled with the airy and eccentric behavior of Father Bernard, who had been officiating as subprior, was more than poor Father Ignatius could tolerate.

On the 15th of June, 1861, he left with the announced intention of attending the General Chapter at La Grande Trappe, but when he was followed in his departure by Father Emmanuel and Brother Patrick, the two choir brothers who had arrived with him the previous October, it was evident to the community that he hoped his separation would be permanent. Because of his absence Father Bernard McCaffrey again became superior.

Thus the agitated affairs of the Iowa Trappist house and even the grave question of its very continuance became the matter of prime importance at the opening sessions of the General Chapter in France that early autumn of 1861. For the first time in its history New Melleray monastery was represented by its own superior at the capitular meeting, namely by Prior Ignatius, and also by its Father Immediate, Dom Bruno. The seriousness of the issue before the assembled fathers may well be understood from the wording of the minutes of the sessions. After an entire afternoon was devoted to the deliberations on "the house of New Melleray in America" it was finally decided that "as a result of an attentive examination of this delicate question, it has been agreed that there will be one more attempt made in order to save this community."

The minutes would further lead one to believe that the sympathetic capitular fathers regarded Father Ignatius as having almost been forced into exile by his community. He had been installed as Titular Prior by his Father Immediate, and here he was having left it discouraged and pleading not to return to that desolate and unfriendly land. If they were to believe a letter which had come from the Dubuque monastery, his community itself had actually consented willingly to his departure.

 p128  However: upon the entreaties of the General Chapter the Very Reverend Father Ignatius has graciously yielded; he will go back again to New Melleray; he will exert all his efforts in order to carry out for the good of religion what he had already commenced, so as to overcome misfortunes and prevent the monastery from perishing. Furthermore, the Reverendissimus Pater, Dom Bruno, will continue to do all in his power in order to accomplish the same end; notably, he will recall to Mount Melleray in Ireland the Reverend Father Bernard "who seems" [!] "to be an obstacle."

And further: two letters were ordered to be written, one to the Right Reverend Bishop of Dubuque, the former Titular Prior Clement Smyth of New Melleray; the other to the Iowa Trappist community. These letters are still extant today, brief and sincere, showing the affectionate solicitude of the capitular fathers over the fate of the struggling little Cistercian house, so remote from Europe and so far west, out beyond the storied Mississippi river. At these capitular meetings practically all the abbots were French, with an occasional Belgian or German present and one was English; to them, with no personal knowledge of America, the young republic was a strange land to be viewed if not with suspicion at least with diffidence. The Irish abbot, Dom Bruno, was up to this time the best authority they had on monastic matters in the United States, and to his advice they perforce compelled to yield. And so to Bishop Smyth they wrote:


"The General Chapter of our Congregation has ever been very preoccupied with this dear House of New Melleray, to which, we are well aware, your Grace continues to bear always a lively interest.

"Some letters have come to us from this monastery; two religious, including the Reverend Father Ignatius whom we have sent there as Prior, have come to us; we have various sorts of information; we desire again to make an effort in the hopeful view of saving this community which to us seems so menaced. We shall send anew the Reverend Father Ignatius who began to do some good and will still continue to do it, and we recall, at least temporarily, the Father Bernard who might indeed prove an embarrassing stumbling-block.

"Permit us, Monseigneur, of counting upon your indispensable cooperation, be it either to make a try of the measure, or to encompass our Father Ignatius with your solicitude and your good counsels.

 p129  "The Religious of New Melleray have been your children, Monseigneur, they still are, and they always will be.

of your Grace

"The very humble and very devoted servants and Brethren in Jesus Christ, the members of the General Chapter" with their signatures.

And in equally stately Latin ran the letter to the Iowa community:

"The General Chapter of the Congregation of La Trappe, to our very dear brothers, the religious of Our Lady of New Melleray.

"Our very dear brothers,

"We have read your letters with attention and interest.

"We have also taken into consideration all the information we could otherwise obtain.

"Thus having examined everything well before God and having invoked the Holy Spirit, we send you again the Reverend Father Ignatius. Receive him as an envoy from God.

"The Reverend Father Ignatius is already favorably known to you; he is sweet, conciliating, charitable; he will not impose upon you heavy burdens; and he will help you to save your souls. We count up you to aid him yourselves, so that in fulfilling his mission, you will render his task easy.

"We have confidence, you yourselves have confidence, and the good God will accomplish upon your dear house of New Melleray His designs of mercy.

"We are in the bosom of the Savior,

"Your very affectionate brothers in Jesus Christ."

As another indication of the profoundly serious view the capitular fathers took of this crisis in the life of the Iowa Cistercian institution, the fifth session of this convocation of 1861 was given over to the discussion of New Melleray and to Dom Bruno's proposals. It was decided that in agreement to Abbot Bruno's "wisdom for the directing of all things to the good" he should be empowered "to translate into Ireland the religious of New Melleray, if he can accomplish it." But a few years before Dom Bruno was solemnly planning to move the Irish abbacy to Iowa, and now he was faced with the possible necessity of transferring the Iowa colony back to Mount Melleray.

After all, however, the Dubuque monastery again safely weathered this crisis. At the Grand Chapter meetings in France the next year — in 1862 — the matter was briefly and soberly disposed of with the  p130 explanation that the letters which the General Chapter of 1861 had addressed to America to "our Fathers of New Melleray" and to the bishop of Dubuque had produced excellent results, and that "the Father Bernard of whom it was complained, followed the counsels which we gave him, and went to strengthen himself for a time at the Abbey of Mount Melleray." A far more interesting account of the effect of these missives comes in a letter from none other than the frank and incisive Brother Kieran to Bishop O'Gorman of Omaha who naturally was intensely interested in the successful emergence of his former priory from the turbulent and distressing circumstances in which it found itself. Writing on December 1st, 1861, from "Brother Francis Shop," Brother Kieran related:

"There is neither abbot, Prior or Subprior here today. Poor Fr. Bernard, his blunder‑gun blew him out of this monastery on Monday morning last, the 25th of Nov. The abbot of Mt. Melleray commanded him to report with speed to that monastery. So he is gone with the blessing of many. May he arrive there in safety. It is thought here that Fr. Ignatius now the Titular will again reach this monastery about Christmas.

"He was appointed last year and in coming to reform us he was accompanied by two choir monks, but in less than a year all of them had their backs to New Melleray, but the general chapter in its Paternal Solicitude for our double welfare condescends to inform us in their letter to the Bishop of Dubuque that they will make one effort more to save New Melleray so they are sending Father Ignatius back to us more encumbered now with authority than ever. We will wait and see . . .

"Dear Bishop, the community are well in health — only three in the infirmary — not very sick . . . Brother Ambrose is well — he has charge of the beer and gives us a fair measure daily for dinner. Br. Timothy is just the usual size if not fatter . . . Bro. Mary Bernard, housekeeper and co‑jobber — the Bishop has put a final stop to his jobbing and all here are rejoiced at it.

"And we pray for you,

Your obedient and Humble Servant."

Father Ignatius did not return despite the deliberations and letters of the chapter and the fathers. It would be an understatement to describe the sentiments of the community as merely surprise when on February 25th, 1862, a new Titular Prior, Father Ephrem,  p131 appeared at New Melleray, and with him was none other than Father Bernard. Prior Ephrem had been Charles Joseph McDonnell, a native of County Mayo, who had entered the Mount Melleray Trappist house shortly before the death of its first abbot, Dom Vincent, in 1845. Now forty years of age, he was spoken of by the General Chapter in its reference to his appointment as superior of the Iowa foundation as "the best subject whom the Venerable Father Dom Bruno had." His incumbency of the superior's office was now the ninth in the twelve and a half years since New Melleray had been founded on that hot day of July of 1849. This incumbency was to last well over twenty‑one years and was to occupy a significant niche in the historic structure of the Iowa cloister, not so much for its weal as for its woe. Brother Kieran testified fearlessly: "Many in the community (if not all) regret that he ever came. Though a more pious man was not, and could not be found in the whole Order, yet he suffered himself to be duped by designing men in this 'Traffic' business to such an extent as to ruin almost irretrievably our community."

Father Bernard was the new prior's friend, adviser and defender. Yet Father Bernard's activities from now on were to be centered mostly about the secular church; it had prospered under him before, and it was to continue growing and prospering under him for years in the future.

Each crisis of the many that occurred in the Iowa Trappist story had its own particular dramatic flavor and hue, and now an intriguing postscript must be added to the recital of the one in this chapter from which New Melleray had again successfully emerged. Another perplexity from the American Cistercians flustered the venerable capitular fathers at La Grande Trappe in 1862, but the threat this time came from Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky and the Dubuque monastery was only indirectly involved. Abbot Benedict Berger proposed that a new province — the American Cistercian Province — should be erected, embracing the four houses in the United States and Canada: Gethsemani, New Melleray, Tracadie in Nova Scotia, and an expected affiliate of this latter house which was to be established near Quebec, Canada.1

 p132  The reasons behind this proposal, then considered a quite radical one and which really startled the members of the General Chapter, were the inconveniences of time, travel and money facing the American superiors wishing to attend the La Grande Trappe convocations, the difficulties of European abbots — and now the American Civil War was on — of making annual visitations of American Trappist houses, and the advisability for American Trappist communities to meet together in order to discuss their own peculiar problems.

The deliberations and discussions of the Grand Chapter led to the following decision: the erection of an American Province should not be permitted as this would be contrary to the Constitution of the Cistercian Order, and as a consequence of this, the annual gathering of the four American superiors in a Provincial Chapter should likewise be prohibited. Bishop Clement Smyth of Dubuque, who discussed this matter personally with some of the abbots whom he met in Europe in 1862, joined in the opposition to the Gethsemani proposal, stating his firm conviction that a separation from the jurisdiction of the General Chapter would lead to the ruin of the New Melleray house of Iowa. However, the General Chapter granted a modification of the rules which had hitherto required the frequent attendance of American superiors at the La Grande Trappe meetings and also changed the rules affecting the visitation of American monasteries, but maintained that these latter, remaining in "the limits of the Chart of Charity" should constitute "the filiation of America united to the Congregation of La Trappe by their Father Immediate" of Europe.

In 1863 the capitular fathers noted with relief that Dom Benedict Berger had decided not to re‑open the discussion of this embarrassingly delicate subject.

The Author's Note:

1 This was the short-lived Holy Ghost monastery, founded in 1862, closed in 1872. Today there is a Trappist monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Ghost, founded 1944, in the state of Georgia.

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