The existence of a strict monastic outpost, of a flourishing Cistercian abbey, in mid-America seemed quite incredible to the people of the 1860s and even of the following decades, but remained an amazingly obstinate fact. Telegraph wires at last stretching out entirely across the continent began to carry news stories; the railroads, throwing out their ribbons of steel from the Great Lakes to the Rockies and the Pacific coast, were now transporting people into sights and scenes hitherto only dreamed of. The appearance of this semi-mysterious religious institution, of this resurgent relic of ancient and mediaeval centuries, in the hardy and practical American West, in the heart of the modern Mesopotamia — today the veritable breadbasket of the world — was and is a matter of ever recurring peculiar interest. Articles and pamphlets and bracelets have been written about New Melleray by Catholics and non‑Catholics alike; stories about this monastery and its monks have appeared at frequent intervals in the newspapers from Minneapolis to Des Moines and from Chicago across to Omaha, and the public always appears intrigued.
p141 One of the first articles — and one of the best — written about New Melleray Abbey was carried in the Chicago Tribune in October of 1863. The Chicago Tribune then as today was the principal vehicle of news and opinion in the central United States. This article from the pen of a cultured and broad-minded non‑Catholic journalist, January Searle, gives a picture of New Melleray Abbey during the Civil War years with fascinating and intimate detail. It should be mentioned here that Abraham Lincoln was a faithful subscriber to and reader of the Tribune and it is easily probable that the Great Emancipator read this article with his usual chuckle and more than a modicum of interest. This contemporary story of the Iowa Trappists is told so well and with such disarming charm that it bears recounting almost in its entire, even though it may be colored by the peculiar subjective dispositions of the writer.
Dubuque, Oct. 26, 1863
I left Chicago a day or two since, to pay a visit to the La Trappe Monastery, •ten miles over the river beyond Dubuque. As a preliminary to that visit, I called upon Clement Smyth, Bishop of Dubuque — a noble citizen and a most uncompromising Union man, and he was courteous enough to give a letter of introduction to the Abbot of the Monastery at New Melleray. I found him in the church grounds. He wore a mitre-shaped hat and the usual long robes of a priest in undress. He is a tall, handsome man, with an expression of great intelligence and general good humor in his face. His residence was the old house built for the Bishop of Dubuque, and was at that time the largest house in the city. It stands close to the new church, facing the mighty river, and backed by bluffs •two hundred feet high. The revenues of the bishoprick are said to be immense, and out of them the church and a magnificent palatial residence for the Bishops have just been built. The latter, indeed, is not yet completed.
The old cemetery is situated on the top of the bluffs, amongst the trees overlooking the church and the precincts below. The new cemetery is •three miles off, at Mount St. Bernard College.
After I had received my letter of introduction, I returned to the Julien Hotel where I put up — the most homely and hospitable of p142 all the inns where I have lodged in the West — and hiring a pair of horses and a buggy, drove straight over the crooked, jaggy, uphill and downdale road to the Monastery. It was in many respects a dangerous ride, especially that part of the road for •about two miles which led from the city to the wilderness of hills. To say that it was rough narrow and jagged would give no idea of its terror and unpleasantness. A false step would have sent the horses plunging, pell mell, down the precipice into the river — by no means a pleasant thought! But as soon as I arrived amongst the hills and far inland valleys all that trouble vanished and all looked new and pretty in the midst of the glorious enjoyment which these new aspects of nature brought me.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the effects of the autumnal tints of the woods in their comminglings with the landscape. Grey and dark were the distant woods, and dun and yellow the prairies and the intermediate valleys; and the great belts of woodland and the tiny patches, and here and there the solitary trees, and the thick undercover of hazels were illuminated with such intense and gorgeous colors as to give the idea of an Arabian Nights' vision, so Eastern it looked in its dreamy haze! Pale orange, russet, dark yellow, crimson, ruby pink and fiery vermillion — these were some of the pigments wherewith nature had painted her autumnal scenery in these parts amongst the highlands of Iowa!
We passed many houses on the road, many of them isolated, and here and there a house of entertainment for man and beast. At last when I had arrived within a couple of miles of the monastery I came up to one of the most respectable looking of these houses — the Twelve Mile House; and remembering that my friends, the Monks, had no relish for the flesh-pots of Egypt, and that their food consisted for the most part of roots and herbs such as hermits in the older time did eat and no more; it struck me that the rural hostel might possibly supply my own wants and those of the noble horses which I had brought with me. For the idea of roots and herbs (raw relishes, peradventure, and cabbage innocent of the cook pot) was not very savoury or tempting to a hungry stomach. So I pulled up and dined well there.
My route now, for •two miles, lay through some thick hilly woods where the path was execrable, having a water rut down the middle of it and large boulder stones down each side of it. For •about a p143 mile the road descended rather precipitately, and at the bottom of the hill I came to a stream of running water which I had to cross nearly axle deep. From this point the road ascends until on a sudden we came out of the woods, most of which belong to the Abbey; and the moment we were clear of them the broad, open farm lands of the Abbey spread before us in glorious upland sweeps, rising gradually from the well cultivated valleys. The whole appearance of these lands gave the impression of long culture and reminded me of some of the old Eastern farms. Good fences of solid rail enclosed these vast fields, many of which looked forlorn and desolate with the ragged and frost-bitten corn. Further on to the right were some fine pieces of prairie which had the appearance of old park lands belonging to some noble estate in Europe. Whilst I was looking over these fair landscapes, there came riding up to me on horseback a remarkable figure in a long woolen robe and a slouched hood on his head in the place of a cap. He pulled up on my whip hand and I saw clearly enough that he was a monk belonging to the Abbey at Melleray. I afterwards learned that he was the post‑man of the establishment. He inquired eagerly after the election news which I was the first to carry into that wilderness. He did not rejoice over the intelligence which I gave him, but muffled his speech as if he were going to a funeral. He departed on his way and my heart did not go with him.
•A quarter of a mile further to the left, on a gentle eminence, stood a large white-washed church built of wood, lighted up by four large windows, with a belfry and two crosses, one at each end of the building. It is a secular church built for the worship of the neighboring farmers and settlers. The ordinary attendance on Sunday is about 600; and during the festivals of the nation — the Thanksgiving Day and the 4th of July — the church is usually crowded. It stands a little off the main road and nearly opposite to it, on the right hand, are the entrance gates of the Abbey.
These are of simple wooden structure, altogether unlike the ruins of similar gateways which the traveller meets in Europe; but the fac‑similes of those which are first erected in every new country where Christianity obtains a foothold. It was only after religious fraternities had grown rich that they sought to beautify their houses and build them up in cultured stone. What is now going up in this Abbey at Melleray is precisely what transpired during the early history p144 of every European Abbey, and on going over it, one seems transported back fourteen hundred years and to be present at the founding of Christianity itself.
The gates are old and dilapidated and the carriage road leading to the Abbey is planted with five rows of poplars on each side of it. To the right running from the gates are the kitchen gardens; to the left open fields; the drive to the house is •about a quarter of a mile. It is fenced all round with a substantial railing and here I tied the horses whilst I went and announced myself.
The Abbey is a long wooden building containing all of the rooms and religious apartments necessary for the proper conduct of such an establishment. The lodge faces the second entrance gates and one ascends it on wooden steps. There is first of all a kind of stoop or porch, extending from the main building with several chairs in it for travellers to rest on. Beyond this is the Abbey Lodge kept by Brother Augustine, the porter. There was no one in it when I entered and I was profane enough to take stock of the apartment. It consisted of a table under the window, where without ceremony I ensconced my gun and travelling gear. A number of chairs — three or four — a stove, a clock on the wall and four or five pictures — The Marvellous Ascension, The Sacred Heart of Our Lord, Giving the Habit, Crucifixion of Our Lord — these were some of the subjects.
Presently Brother Augustine entered and I delivered to him my letter of introduction. He vanished out of a side door instanter and returned with the Prior of the house, Father Bernard, the Abbot being at his devotions. This good Father was a genuine, good-natured Irishman, a tall, stout man, a scholar of course as all such are, and a man of intelligence and ready wit with much simplicity of manner. He was very agreeable and very communicative and hospitable. He called upon Brother Augustine who was a short, round-bodied man with a remarkable, shrewd expression of face and genial withal, to bring me bread, cheese and ale; all of which after sufficient trial I found excellent food; especially the ale which had a rich flavor of the malt in it and not too much hop; nor was it too strong — a little flat, if it had a fault, but very welcome to thirsty lips.
I told Father Bernard that I had come all that long distance to see the Abbey and to make a report of what I saw in the Chicago Tribune, whereupon he went with me directly to the gardens which I found interesting enough. They occupied •ten acres. There were p145 upwards of 300 apple trees on the ground; above 100 pear trees; 7 or 8,000 plum trees; •an acre of strawberry plants from which last year they gathered nearly 100 wagon loads of fruit. The berries are nearly as large as a plum — their name "Wilson's Albany Seedling." The fault of them is that they are too acid. Hundreds of current and gooseberry bushes were ranged in rows all along the garden. The garden itself is surrounded by poplars •forty feet high most of which are four years old. The garden walk within the enclosure is walled also with poplars. At the top of the garden near the house is the Apiary containing about fifty hives — well sheltered.
The Abbot was making many improvements in the garden — and among them was the erection of a large garden house with a greenhouse attached, the foundations of which were dug and partly laid when I was there.
The nurseries were also large, mostly of poplars, with which they proposed to make fences all around the farm. At one time all the hedges on this vast estate were composed of Osage orange shrubs; they had •four miles of these shrubs on the grounds. But the winter last year killed them all except a strong piece at the top of the garden which had withstood all its shafts and the bitings of the frost.
I noticed that the garden contained everything which the monks could possibly require for their use in the house. Father Bernard showed me the tobacco patch with a good deal of pride. They had raised a fine crop from it and he was evidently looking forward to much enjoyment from a participation in its sedative fascination.
When I said to him, "Dear Father, I thought the rules of your Order forbade you from smoking?"
He said, "Yes! but not from sniffing! We rise every morning at two o'clock and go to bed at seven in the evening. When we rise it is good to taste the narcotic in the olfactories! It rouses us up thoroughly and other successive pinches keep us awake."
"Rise at two," said I; "that is surely a very early hour!"
"Not a bit too early," he replied, "to praise God! We pray, more or less, from that hour to eight o'clock. There are intervals during those six hours which a Monk can fill up as he pleases; either by praying or reading in the Chapter House."
I saw some rows of fine plum trees and there were extensive graperies laid out and framed.
p146 After making a survey of the upper part of the garden, we walked to the lower end of it towards the entrance gates. I asked how many acres the estate contained and the Father told me there were •1600 in a compact body round the house, •1000 of which were cultivated, •400 in timber and the rest wild.
The number of brothers in the Abbey was sixty; and there were six priests to attend to their spiritual necessities.
At the foot of the garden near the entrance gates was the graveyard of the Abbey; and to meet it was a very touching sight to see the clustered graves of the six dead brothers who reposed there. There was something very patriarchal in thus gathering them together in that quiet and secluded garden. They still seemed to be a part of the Abbey family and were only separated from the living by a few feet of earth. Here came every day one or more of the good monks to hold commune with God over their ashes; so that although they were no longer familiar objects on earth, they were not forgotten, but affectionately remembered and many prayers were said for their souls' rest.
Father Bernard related to me the names of these dead monks who slept so well under the open heavens, far away from the proud fanes of European cities. These were all the monks who had died within the walls of the Abbey during fourteen years. There were two graves close to them, ranged indeed in the same row with them, of seculars who had visited the Abbey and died there during their sojourn. All the graves were simple hillocks, having wooden crosses at the heads of them on which the names of the departed were inscribed with their ages when they died.
The monks' names are as follows:
|Brother Lawrence, aged||60|
|Brother Benedict, aged||55|
|Brother Francis, aged||55|
|Brother Robert, aged||70|
|Brother Andrew, aged||40|
|Brother Stanislaus, aged||27|
The seculars were:
|Mr. Nolan, aged||70|
|Mr. Casey, aged||55|
Both from Ireland.
p147 When the Father had pointed out these graves to me, he paused a moment and with much earnestness said: "I knew all these Brothers intimately well; and if it be possible for men to live without sin, those who lie here were sinless!"
We went from the garden to the washing and drying grounds which were about •a quarter of an acre in extent, surrounded by poplar trees. One man washed and dried for the whole community.
It may be as well to state here that every trade required in the service of the abbey is represented by some member of the fraternity; and I saw the various shops of the carpenter, tailor, shoemaker, watchmaker, blacksmith, etc.
I was much interested in the bakery which supplied the food for so much godliness. The entrance is by a side door which leads into a narrow and thoroughly monastic passage way having a window looking into the garden and piles of wood ranged along the outer wall. A door to the left leads down a short flight of steps into the large and open room where Brother Jerome makes all the bread for the monks and the chance visitors. It differs in no wise from any other bakery that I am aware of, except that the oven is probably larger than most, being capable of baking three or four barrels of flour at a time. Brother Jerome seemed very delighted to see me and I have no doubt he would have been equally delighted to see the very devil in that wild seclusion of his; so that I take no credit to myself on that account. He wore a white cap — did Brother Jerome — and he grabbed my hand at parting with the grip of an iron vise, grinning from ear to ear with a most comical expression of laughter on his white face.
From the bakery we crossed the courtyard to make the inspection of the house. At one corner of it I saw two brothers in their monastic habits, chopping and piling wood, whilst others cast side-long glimpses at the Chicago stranger and vanished under the arches of sojourningº outhouses. The habit of this Order, — vulgarly called La Trappe, from the original monks in France whose house stood in a valley and was then nicknamed La Trappe — the habit of this Order is precisely that which was worn by the old Romans 1400 years ago.a It is the veritable Toga Virilis; but although warm and picturesque it is not the best adapted to the hard work of modern times. Like the Toga, however, there are brass rings attached to it which, by the aid of a string, draw up the folds and leave the limbs p148 tolerably free for action. The Romans called this cinctus — highly girt up, ready for knuckling and mauling. A heavy hood covered the entire head — and when not wanted for protection was thrown over the neck, upon the back, between the shoulders.
We entered the house by the front porch and passed through a narrow passage to a private chapel on the right where a monk was kneeling before the Crucifix on the dimly lighted altar. The ghastly appearance of the man, clothed from head to foot in white woolen garments, kneeling there so motionless, did not affect me in the pleasantest manner and reminded me of a vision I once saw in an opium dream when recovering from a sickness. Neither was the close odor which greeted my nostrils the most agreeable perfume which I had tasted. It would be easy to remedy this if the good monks would only admit the fresh air — and I take the liberty to make this suggestion for their benefit and in part payment for their kinds to me.
Immediately behind this private oratory was the Church of the Abbey. Every morning at two o'clock the great bell rings and all the brothers turn out of their dormitory and repair at once to the Church where they pray in silence for two hours. The Church is dimly lighted with candles and the High Altar is illuminated with numerous wax tapers. At such a time it is a very imposing spectacle to behold. The front stalls are occupied by the monks in their white habits; the back stalls by the lay‑brothers who are clothed with black garments. At four o'clock Mass is celebrated and it is optional to the Brothers either to be present at this sacred rite, or to retire to private devotions, or to go read and meditate in the Chapter House. The breakfast, however, varies according to the season. At eight o'clock the secular business commences. Teams are driven afield — either to plow, or sow, or reap, as the case may be. The stock is duly provided for; the pigs and poultry are fed; the horses groomed and provisioned; the working carpenters, the smith, the baker, the tailor, the shoemakers, the woodchopper, the cook, the brewers — have each their task apportioned to them.
The watchmaker repairs all wrong-going time pieces; the physician attends to the sick in the hospitals; the lawyer — if his services are required — attends to the Abbey interests; and indeed this secluded establishment is a busy world in miniature, and man, however much he may be restrained by religious doctrine and discipline, is still the p149 same old mole that he is in the out‑of-door world, animated by the same feelings and subject to the same passions.
I saw no difference except in dress between these Benedictine Monks and the ordinary people of our cities. They very evidently do not allow their religious devotions to interfere with their secular affairs, but are good, shrewd business men who look well after their own interests. They seem to thrive on their vegetable diet; and their field hands perform as much labor and work as long without fatigue as any other farmers. This is rather surprising because the articles of their day's provender are not of the most substantial kind, often consisting of nothing more than boiled beets and coarse brown bread with a pint or so of cold coffee.
I questioned Father Bernard as to the health of the Monks and their capability of endurance. He replied by calling to one of two Monks who were returning with a wagon and a yoke of oxen from the fields where they had been husking corn all day to come and speak to him. The man, whose name was Brother Merry (sic), jumped down from the wagon like a young, lusty fellow of twenty-five and soon stood before us in his working garb.
"How old are you, Brother Merry?" asked the Father.
"Eighty years within a few months," was the reply.
"And do you feel well and hearty?"
The man gave a round, laugh at this question, gathered up his long garments, cinctus, and began to dance about like a lamp-lighter. He was clearly booked for a long lease of life yet; and there did not appear in him any of the usual signs of extreme old age.
I thought, however, that the monks whose avocations confined them mostly to the Abbey did not look solid, substantial men although most of them were stout and fleshy. They seemed puffed and flabby, if I may use such expressions without offence, and lacked that hard, healthy look which the field hands possessed.
One thing struck me on going over the Abbey yards and grounds, namely the silence that enveloped them like an atmosphere. Signs of busy life and activity were abundant, and monks were moving about here and there and everywhere. But there was no noise — no shouts nor laughter. All was as still as death, broken only by the occasional sharp ring of the hammer on the smithy anvil, and by the lowing of the cattle on the hills.
p150 The only glimpse I got of the Abbot was in the Church, and then I only saw his skull‑cap. He was praying there and I could just see it over the railing; and a little to the right of him was another monk — a very old man, upwards of eighty years, who was also occupied at his devotions. The Father told me that these two means were, to use his own words "at it all the time; week in, week out, morning and night; and they'll soon be in heaven," he added. The height of the Church was •twenty-five feet, the length about •eighty feet and the breadth •thirty-five.
From the Church we went to the Chapter house, a long, low, narrow room, where the monks read and write during their leisure. I could not help contrasting this humble apartment with the magnificent structures of York, Peterboro, Ely, Lincoln and Durham, all which I have had the supreme pleasure of beholding. In a short time, however, the present Abbey will give place to a majestic stone building and this matter with many others will be remedied. All around the room seats were arranged and under them were little , each containing a few pious books and a copy of the holy Scriptures. On the walls were hung several mediocre engravings of sacred subjects and tables of church duties with the names of the officers appointed to perform them. These were altered every week; and there was a similar table for serving Mass with a weekly directory of saints' festivals. At the end of the room was the symbol of the Cross. The refectory was a large room capable of containing all the monks. It was •sixty feet long and twenty-five feet wide containing three rows of tables, and in each brother's place, there with the brother's name printed on it, was a napkin, a knife and fork, a spoon and a drinking cup. In the middle of the room was a desk for the lector whose duty it was to read from the Acta Sanctorum whilst the dinner was progressing.
The bill of fare in the refectory is not the most tempting which an epicure could desire. It consists entirely as I said of vegetables, — namely: boiled potatoes, beets, onions, parsnips and mangle wurtzel; relieved occasionally by batter puddings, apple and plum pastries and great bowls of milk. In the fruit season the dinner table is laden with strawberries, raspberries, currants, gooseberries, apples, plums, grapes — as the case may be — and some of the finest wheaten bread I have ever tasted. It is a curious sight to see the monks at dinner in their antique dresses and to watch the expression of their p151 faces as they discuss the viands before them. Not a word is spoken by anyone present from first to last. The lector reads in a dreary, monotonous tone of voice, his passages from the Lives of the Sains and the thoughts of each particular brother are supposed to be occupied all the while with divine things.
The dormitory contained some forty beds and was in no way remarkable. The apartment for strangers is capable of accommodating eight sleepers.
Having visited the inner apartments of the Abbey we returned to the Lodge where Brother Augustin insisted that we should partake once more of his malt brews. A jovial monk this! — who evidently desires to keep up the olden tradition of monkish hospitality.
In conclusion I may say that there was everywhere the appearance of tranquillity and happiness. I asked the Father if any of the Monks had run away.
"No!" he said. "They are all perfectly happy here and contented. It is true that they work hard; and they live on vegetable food, never tasting meat except when they are sick, but no one ever utters a complaint. Of course," he added, "nothing but the inspiration and grace of God could keep men here. They can all leave if they like. I have a horse," he said, "worth a hundred dollars, in the stable. What is to prevent me from getting into the saddle and riding off? Nothing, my friend, nothing at all, but the restraining grace of God."
And I believe it is all true.
1 A few of the details of Mr. Searle's otherwise accurate article are not quite correct: 1) the ages of the brothers buried in the cemetery: that of Brother Stanislaus is correct, that of Brother Andrew too low, and those of the others too high; 2) likewise neither the abbot nor the other monk "praying in the church" were "upwards of eighty years," for the records reveal that among the sixty or more members of the community at that time three were dividing the honor of being the oldest at the age of sixty-four; 3) of the two seculars buried in the cemetery, the Cemetery Record shows that the name of the one is not "Casey" but John Flinn; (incidentally, the other — Mr. Nolan — was the father of Brothers Joseph and Peter Nolan of the monastery); 4) the age of "Brother Merry" of whom there is no record as well as the entire incident about him seems to be an exaggeration, and is a typical example of the ability of that eccentric and inveterate jokester, Father Bernard McCaffrey, of pulling the leg of an inquisitive stranger, no matter how distinguished he might be.
a This and most of what follows about the robes and the toga is sheer fantasy. Other than being essentially draped rather than sewn, the Cistercian habit is nothing like the old Roman toga, for which see the article Toga in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, and the illustrations there. For comparison, here are a typical toga and the habit of a lay brother (most likely to be working in the fields) at New Melleray:
Roman statue of a man wearing a toga, from Philippi (Greece)
Brother Timothy, a lay brother at New Melleray, 1922 or earlier
Photo © Jona Lendering 2010,
From The Palimpsest III.296.
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