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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 12

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 14

 p133  XIII

Introducing Briefly — The Abbey!

The first years of Father Ephrem McDonnell's tenure of office as superior at New Melleray were auspicious and prosperous ones in almost every way, and this despite the fact of the ravaging Civil War and its aftermath.

The war had boomed the prices of all stocks and grains and other products, thus benefiting the monastery farms. New lands were purchased; a quarter section was bought from Lemuel Lytton, the owner of the Twelve Mile House, and another four hundred acres was secured from a New York land speculator. Another valuable purchase was the hundred and fifty acres of timber land known as "Langton's wood," purchased at an extremely low price by Brother Mary Bernard, the housekeeper. Langton and others in the vicinity who were anxious to escape the army draft disposed of their farms for any price and put out for parts unknown, most of them for Canada.

Needed improvements were made on the grounds. Brother Mark and a novice mason put up a splendid cut stone building, three stories high, for general utility purposes. Prior Ephrem saw the necessity  p134 for a large stable and farm, and under Brother Joseph's directions, stone was obtained from the monastery quarries, lumber was brought out from the city, a large group of monks and generously helpful neighbors swarmed about the building project, and a huge thirty‑six foot high structure finally rose up, over two hundred and thirty feet in length and fifty feet wide. The community in turn then assisted the farmers in erecting their new secular church.

As the war ran its course Brother Mary Bernard found more opportunities for his shrewdness in successful speculation and other business transactions. Shortly before the beginning of the year 1863 Dom Benedict of Gethsemani Abbey had made the visitation of New Melleray and although he found conditions both spiritually and materially very satisfactory he judged it necessary to express a word of caution about this vexatious activity. Yet the jobbing and the traffic, frowned on by all the superiors, continued with even greater vigor than before.

The war exercised some direct impact on the Dubuque Trappists. According to the laws prevailing at that time, the superior paid to the United States government five hundred dollars for each of those members of the community who were over twenty‑one years of age and under forty-five to secure their exemption from military service. In the very first year of the conflict there was a flurry of excitement among the brethren when a report reached the monastery that their former prior, Bishop James Myles O'Gorman, had been arrested by General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Nathaniel Lyon of the Union forces in Missouri. It was confirmed later that there was some basis to the rumor, but it was the Confederate forces who had held him prisoner. The steamboat on which he and other passengers were being carried on the Missouri river from St. Louis to Omaha reached Lexington, some forty miles east of Kansas City, just after General Sterling Price ordered all on board to be made prisoners of war. The bishop, as the most prominent of the passengers, was personally interviewed by the commanding officer; the grey-clad Confederate general questioned the Trappist monk concerning his political leanings, and Bishop O'Gorman explained that he had always prayed for peace, that he was a loyal citizen of the United States and that he had nothing to say regarding the Southern Confederacy. Later, after an officers' council was held, and after being detained twenty-four hours, the bishop and most of the  p135 passengers were permitted to return aboard their boat and proceed on their journey. A strange historical coincidence may be remarked here: General Price only a month before had won the battle of Wilson's Creek in the Ozark foothills some miles south of Springfield, Missouri, — the battle in which the gallant Union leader, General Nathaniel Lyon, was killed; today, the brothers of the monastery, once presided over by the prior whom General Price had arrested, have established an affiliate in that very Ozark district but a few miles distant from the scene of the battle.

Now that the Iowa Trappist house was resting on a more secure financial foundation, plans for a new and beautiful stone monastery began to be discussed and even actively visualized. Already in the years of 1855 and 1856 preparations had been made toward the day when this building should be erected. Stones for that purpose were cut and hauled from the quarries; in the following years some funds were set aside from time to time in anticipation of the building of this structure. But before that day was to arrive, the older frame building was to have the grandeur of the status of an abbey thrust upon it.

Bishop Smyth of Dubuque in order to make his first ad limina visit to Rome left America about the middle of May, 1862, for Europe. He first stopped at his old Trappist home of Mount Melleray in Ireland for a short visit, but a few months later on his return voyage he spent a fortnight there with Bishop James Duggan of Chicago who had also just completed his first ad limina visit. The former Prior Clement of the Irish monastery who had been the first president of its famous seminary was entertained with enthusiastic affection by the abbot, the brethren and the students. The latter, in response to the bishop's address to them, presented him with a beautiful testimonial of compliments among which they stated: "We feel that the spectacle which greets your eyes today will be as gratifying to you as it is to the illustrious abbot of Melleray. You behold what colossal proportions this institution, which owes its origin to the generous impulse of your noble heart, has assumed . . . We freely and heartily offer the tribute of our reverent esteem and affectionate welcome to you as the reverend Founder of this Institution."

On the earlier part of this European voyage, when the bishop had travelled across the Continent and gone to Rome, he had addressed an entreaty to the General Chapter of La Grande Trappe for the erection of New Melleray monastery into an abbey. The  p136 day had passed when the now flourishing Iowa cloister could be in any way considered a precarious foundation tenanted by impoverished monks. No longer apparently was the consent of the American episcopacy required on this subject. The General Chapter declared that Dr. Smyth had given information on the community of New Melleray which was "so consoling that we do not hesitate to solicit the erection of the priory into an abbey. The Decree will be entrusted to the Very Reverend Visitor who will confer with the bishop for the opportunity either of its authoritative issuance, or the election of the abbot."

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The Chapter Room, La Grande Trappe Abbey, France

In Rome for the canonization of the twenty‑six Japanese martyrs on June 8th, and for the consistory which followed it, Bishop Smyth obtained the privilege of a private audience with the celebrated pontiff, Pope Pius IX. Receiving the Trappist bishop with even more than his usual hearty geniality, the Holy Father — so it is related on the authority of one historian — stared for a moment at the bishop's white Cistercian cassock so closely resembling his own white papal soutane, and then exclaimed with a smile and a twinkle in his eye: Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum habitare fratres in unum.1 It was on this occasion that Bishop Smyth received from the pope himself the brief which raised the Dubuque house to the rank of an abbey.

When Dom Benedict of Gethsemani made his visitation of New Melleray in December of 1862 he had already received the documents from the General Chapter of the Cistercians as well as the authorization of Dom Bruno, the Father Immediate of the Iowa foundation, to preside at the election of an abbot. So in the chapter room of the pine board monastery on the 22nd day of December the monks of this trans-Mississippi Trappist community met to cast their votes, and their choice fell on Prior Ephrem McDonnell. The date for the ceremony of conferring the abbatial blessing was set indefinitely for the following spring when Bishop Smyth's return from Europe was expected. The bishop did not arrive until April 30th, and on the second Sunday following, May 10th,a the solemnity was enacted in the Dubuque cathedral of St. Raphael's. The ceremony of the abbatial blessing differs very little from that of the consecration of a bishop, the only important change being the omission of the essentials of the episcopal order. Given here is a history description  p137 of this event — the first of its kind in the history of the western half of the American continent — from the diffident and bashful pen of a well-meaning Catholic writer in the Dubuque newspapers of that day:

As this ceremony is an unusual one for this country, it having taken place but once or twice before since the United States Government was organized, several Bishops and a number of clergymen were present and assisted at the ceremonies. Right Rev. Mr. Benedict, abbot of Gethsemani Monastery, Kentucky, was the special guest for that purpose . . . During the Middle Ages many abbots, especially in England, were powerful feudal barons. In modern times they are simply superiors of religious houses . . .

We cannot give in detail all the ceremonies of the occasion, because in the 1st place, we do not understand them, and in the 2nd place, no mere description could do them justice — the splendor of the robes, the solemn yet beautiful chants . . . the sincerely religious demeanor of bishops and priests, and a score of other impressive peculiarities connected with the consecration, we must not describe. There were present to assist Bishop Smyth in the ceremony, Bishop Duggan of Chicago, and the Rev. Frs. Clifford, Fendrick, Meis, McCabe and Cannon of Dubuque. The attendants of Rt. Rev. Benedict, the Kentucky abbot, were Fathers Robert and John of the monastery.

After the conclusion of the consecration ceremonies, Bishop Duggan entered the pulpit and preached one of the most eloquent sermons we have ever listened to. His subject was: "The Shame and the Glory of the Cross" . . . During the Mass of Mercadante a most elegant and difficult piece of vocalization was executed by Miss Linn Jones. Her voice is a beautiful, sweet, clear soprano, and no words of ours can pay her a higher compliment than did the immense audience in the painful stillness that reigned throughout the church during the time she was singing . . .

The name of Miss Linn Jones is an historic one both in its church and state connotations in Iowa. Two of the leading counties of the state were named after her. Her father, General George Wallace Jones, had been delegate to the United States Congress from both Iowa and Wisconsin Territories, and for many years senator from Iowa,  p138 and it was he who directed the naming of the counties of the new state. He had been an intimate friend of Bishop Loras, and now under Bishop Smyth he was the most prominent Catholic layman in Iowa. His daughter Linn, named after his affectionate colleague, United States Senator Linn of Missouri, had attended St. Joseph's Academy, the neighboring institution to New Melleray, and there she had become acquainted with the then Prior Smyth and later Prior O'Gorman, when they had frequently come to the convent to conduct retreats and other religious exercises.

Her father after his senatorial career had been appointed by President Buchanan as minister to Colombia, and now, but recently returned from South America, he listened with pride to his daughter's voice during the ceremonial blessing of the new Cistercian abbot of Dubuque; what added striking piquancy to his presence and Miss Linn's singing on this occasion was the fact that just two months previously he had been released from a short imprisonment in Fort Lafayette, New York, where he had been incarcerated by President Abraham Lincoln who suspected Jones of loyalty to the secessionist South as he had been a college mate and life-long friend of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jefferson Davis, its leader. And but a fortnight or so before the cathedral celebration of Abbot Ephrem's, General Jones had had the most unique celebration, in his honor, ever witnessed in Iowa. A tremendous crowd met him as he stepped off the steamboat in the harbor, the traces of his carriage horses were cut, and his enthusiastic admirers, welcoming back from "the American Bastile"º as the orators of the civic jubilation that day called his imprisonment, pulled his vehicle through the city's streets amidst the fireworks shot off on the Dubuque hills and the lusty ovations of the general public.

The first year of New Melleray's life as an abbey proved to be the last one on this side of heaven for five of the professed brothers, none of them old men; they were between the ages of forty-seven and fifty-five. Their deaths made more than a small breach in the ranks of the little more than sixty monks of the institution. Another year and a half passed and the news was brought to the abbey of the rather unexpected departure from this life of their first prior, Bishop Clement Smyth, at the age of fifty-seven years. The first Trappist bishop of the western world had never possessed a strong constitution and the war years had been hard on him. With his advance in age his illnesses had increased and a last arduous journey  p139 to Des Moines had planted in him the germs of the sickness which laid him low. His life had been quiet and saintly with little touch of the dramatic about it. And so was his death which occurred on September 23, 1865. At his solemn funeral Archbishop Kenrick of St. Louis was celebrant of the requiem mass, Bishop Henni of Milwaukee was in the sanctuary, and Bishop Duggan of Chicago preached the sermon.

The forthright scribe of the abbey annals, Brother Kieran, pronounced an epitaph that was somewhat bitterly worded: "He was twenty years and some months a member of our Order. As Bishop and [because] of his former connections with the Cistercian Order, he might have done something more than he did for his community. He had a good example set him by his predecessor, the Right Rev. Dr. Loras. What is here written of Bishop Smyth is applicable to Bishop O'Gorman — the difference being that the latter had a new diocese to form and was as poor as poverty itself could make it. Most likely each of them had plenty to do in their new mode of life without thinking of bestowing benefits on our community."

The Author's Note:

1 "Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity." Ps. 132.

Thayer's Note:

a So the printed text; but May 10, 1862 was a Saturday.

I computed the day of the week myself, counting on my fingers as it were — since online perpetual calendars cannot be trusted. While at least two of them (A • B) give the correct result; two others did not. Never believe a thing you see online! On the other hand, on checking these links in 2018, I found that these two good calendars were still online, but the bad ones were not — so there's hope yet.

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Page updated: 15 May 13