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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 14

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 16

 p152  XV

Material Progress

The frame buildings — stoutly constructed as they were — which housed the community of New Melleray Abbey were naturally regarded by the monks as only temporary dwellings which some day would be replaced by a stone monastery worthy of its name. That day finally arrived; the expansion of the holdings of the institution and the prosperity it enjoyed during the Civil War and the years of its immediate aftermath, due to the toil and frugality of the brothers, placed it in a financial favorable position where its wholesome ambitions could be realized on a lofty scale. Money had been set aside; stones and lumber had been gathered for years; the plans were sent by Abbot Ephrem to the General Chapter and came back approved.

Fortunate was New Melleray in securing the competent services of John Mullany. This Dubuque architect was the brother of Brother Stanislaus Mullany, the first member of the community to die at New Melleray. John Mullany had been for three years in England on the staff of Augustus Welby Pugin, the architectural genius of the nineteenth century who at his death left England studded with his cathedrals, parliamentary buildings, colleges and monasteries,  p153 among the latter Downside of the Benedictines and Mount Saint Bernard's of the Cistercians. Pugin more than anyone else restored architecture in England and revived the mediaeval forms which since his day have covered that land. Mullany successfully carried over Pugin's Gothic spirit and his embodiment of Gothic art into the building he erected at New Melleray. The two wings of the proposed huge quadrangular edifice erected according to his designs — the north wing two hundred feet two hundred and twelve feet in length and the east wing one hundred and twenty feet — were of the Pointed Gothic style of the thirteenth century. These designs, for the major part unchanged, are still today being gradually carried out toward the completion of the quadrangle. The two wings begun in March of 1868 were completed on the 1st of November, 1870, at a cost of just under one hundred thousand dollars, and without a single cent of indebtedness remaining. This amount by no means represented the real cost, for no account was made of the materials and labor provided by the monks themselves which probably far exceeded another hundred thousand. Because of delays and difficulties due principally to problems of heating and ventilation, the structure much to the understandable disappointment of every member of the community was not occupied for habitancy until 1875. By that time another important addition, one hundred and twelve feet in length, known as the kitchen-wing, was constructed.1

The gray, limestone cloister-walls were firmly and carefully laid and soon the ivy was growing upon them. Today — and even since shortly after 1875 — the abbey beneath its steepled crosses and sturdily graceful stone water tower fifty feet in height has assumed an appearance of antiquity and hoary venerability.

Dom Bruno of Mount Melleray returned to America and Iowa in October of 1870 just as the two Gothic wings were being completed in all their pristine loveliness. It had been ten years since his last visitation. Astonished and gratified at the prosperity of the hitherto often tottering Dubuque institution he launched out on a paean of rapture and praise on his visitation card of that year:

 p154  "We find a great source of joy in the actual condition of New Melleray. Little more than twenty years ago, Ireland being then in a sea of confusion, we made choice of your present Prior (Father Bernard) as a fit and proper person to act as Pioneer in this Country, with a view to the Foundation of a monastery. We gave him a letter, in which, as we recollect, we expressed a hope that we might live to see a Majestic Monastery of the Cistercian Order rising up in the midst of one of the vast solitudes of America. That bright vision is become a still brighter reality.

"Let a traveller from Europe take his stand upon the eminence known here as Mount Carmel. Tell him to fix his steady gaze upon the Buildings and the Land, upon the Live Stock, the Trees and the Fences. Tell him that all the improvements, the cultivation of the Farm, and the splendid stock are all, without exception, the fruits of Monastic industry; that the Monks worked morning, noon and night, sometimes at 2 o'clock in the morning, sometimes at 10 o'clock at night; that they travelled night and day in all kinds of weather, collecting, not money, but cattle to make money; that the Superiors never sent out begging Brothers or begging letters, never made appeals to the public in any Newspaper, and scarcely ever received even a small donation from any Benefactor.

"The traveller will naturally ask: what was the number of Brothers, and what the number of years, since the Foundation of this Monastery? When informed that New Melleray was not founded until late in the summer of 1849, and that the average number of Brothers throughout the whole period was under fifty, we can imagine his amazement. Well might he exclaim: 'Incredible! Incredible! . . . The truth appears to me stranger than fiction. When or where, in what country in what Century since the Foundation of Christianity, was there ever a stone Monastery built otherwise than by subscription and collection? New Melleray must be one of the wonders of the Roman Catholic Church. It must be the wonder of the Cistercian & of every Religious Order, of the Trappist & of every Religious Congregation!'

"Your reply should be 'Non nobis, Domine, non nobis.' 'Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Thy Name give glory!' "

And then with a touch of justifiable pride, Dom Bruno, the Father Immediate, spoke of one of the great distinctions of his still youthful affiliate: "We find another source of joy in the extraordinary esteem and predilection exhibited by His Holiness, the Pope, towards the  p155 Community. The name of New Melleray has been mentioned in his presence only to be honored. Once, and only once in Europe, since the time of De Rancé, who this day 200 years was Abbot of La Grande Trappe, — once only was a Trappist monk chosen to be Bishop. Father Malachy became Bishop of Carpentrasa and continued as far as possible to lead the life of a Trappist Monk . . .

"Passing from Europe to the new world, what do we behold? A small Community, glorying in the Cross of Christ, and in that calm, holy obscurity which is the true element of the Monks of La Trappe. From that one little Monastery the Holy See was pleased to take two Bishops within three years . . .

"Rejoice in this that their names are, as we confidently hope, written in the book of life, and that Our Holy Father the Pope was pleased to select two Monks of New Melleray out of nearly two thousand Priests then officiating in the United States."

It was well that the brethren had this period of rejoicing with Dom Bruno; in less than a decade the day of catastrophe and desolation — the worst in their history — was to be upon them, and that bitter day was to stretch out into many sad years for the Dubuque Trappist house.

The monk who at this time was more responsible than any other for the material growth and prosperity of the Iowa monastery was undoubtedly Brother Mary Bernard Murphy. This housekeeper or business manager or bursar of the establishment — he was actually all three — enjoyed the complete confidence and trust of the abbot. Abbot Ephrem was a pious, an extremely pious, man. The Chicago Tribune correspondent had heard correctly when he was told that the abbot spent so much of his time in prayer in the monastery church. Physically, he was by no means strong in body or health. Because of this, he delegated much of his authority in directing the abbey to the prior, Father Bernard McCaffrey, and to the housekeeper, Brother Mary Bernard. The abbot's physician recommended drives in the fresh air, and of this means for preserving his health, Brother Kieran wrote slyly and somewhat waspishly:

"For this purpose the housekeeper bought for the Abbot's exclusive use a grand buggy. This was used by him only in the summer and fall. For his winter drives was purchased a splendid sleigh-cutter. Glittering in the sunshine with its brilliant varnish, horse and harness were well mated to these vehicles. The horse invariably was the best  p156 pacer in our stables. To complete the turn‑out a beautiful string of musical sleigh-bells had to be added. With these, cushions and buffalo-coverings, the rig was perfect.

"Now all this was meant for the Abbot's health, of course, and at all events it is well known the Abbot's health was very delicate and most likely he needed this exercise. Indeed, it is well known too that he was suffering from serious infirmities, and so kept on to his drives until within a few months of his departure to Mount Melleray, the 29th of August, 1883."

This solicitude for the infirm abbot by the housekeeper, Brother Mary Bernard, was without any doubt perfectly justifiable in the circumstances, but it also brought about in return an intensification of the trust and affection which the abbot entertained for him. Brother Mary Bernard was a redoubtable character and possessed a colorful personality, and from all that can be learned about him one must conclude that he was a good and pious monk. He showed for years a wonderful business ability, and the clever resourcefulness that was displayed in many important undertakings never reflected in the slightest on his honesty and integrity.

Brother Mary Bernard had been one of the younger monks on the steamboat Constitution in 1849 when the cholera had struck down so many of the passengers including six of his Trappist brethren, and the heroic assistance he had rendered to the afflicted during that voyage had won for him high commendation from Father Patrick and the other members of the colony. During the early bitter years of the New Melleray foundation he had been a loyal and faithful worker in the community, and his sterling talents had finally caused him to be singled out for the important office of housekeeper. In the Iowa of his day he had shrewdly discovered that on the broad acres of his monastic house the livestock industry could be very profitably developed, and among his many activities it was this particular field that he exploited more than any other.

In the early 1860's he had already won a creditable name for the Dubuque monastery farm as a cattle and oxen ranch. The Chicago Tribune correspondent had written in glowing terms of the monastery cattle, as this interesting excerpt shows:

"In the Cattle Yard I saw some of the finest Durham stock I had ever beheld. I had a good view of the estate from this yard; and was pleased to see that the hills and prairies were well stocked with cattle. — They give a pretty, pastoral aspect to the landscape. There were hundreds of well selected  p157 pigs, and lots of poultry in the yard. The noble part of the stock, however, were the Durham oxen. They have twenty-four pedigree Durhams on the estate. Those which struck me as being the noblest of these animals, were, the one a red and white, from Sangamon County, Illinois, and the other, all red, to which the first premium had been awarded at the late Dubuque fair. I was so fascinated by the last animal that I studied his points long enough to describe him — if only I had the ability to do it."2

The fame of the farms of New Melleray Abbey and of their products and livestock spread throughout the West, and at the time it was a well-earned and wholesome fame. But beneath this material prosperity of the institution lay constantly an uneasy feeling, a feeling of incipient threat toward the quiet spiritual order that should be the Trappist way of life.

This lurking danger was not entirely hidden from the kindly solicitous eyes of the various visitators, possessed of the austere and penitential character of St. Benedict and Citeaux. During this cycle of years there appeared at the Iowa abbey on official visits besides Dom Bruno of Mount Melleray, Dom Anthony of Melleray, France, Abbot Benedict of Kentucky's Gethsemani, Father James, prior of Little Clairvaux of Tracadie in Canada, and finally Dom Eugene of France's ancient Melleray. Not like old monastic patriarchs nor with stentorian voices did they denounce the ever growing threat  p158 to the peaceful life of the cloister; but gently and tenderly they made their cautiously worded but none the less pointed suggestions about avoiding the commerce and traffic of a noisome world. Plainest spoken of all was Abbot Eugene of France. Although unable to speak English, and accompanied by Abbot Benedict of Gethsemani to serve as his interpreter, he made his prudent observations clear: the intensive business traffic was spiritually unhealthy for the order; several of the farms owned or rented were too remote from the abbey for supervision; the frequent travellings by the brothers were dangerous to the quiet contemplative life; too much was spent for the various machines, whose complex operations were not well understood and which were soon abandoned.

These admonitions were hearkened to by the pious Abbot Ephrem of New Melleray with due humility but apparently were not well understood; worrying little about temporal affairs, he passed these admonitions over to Father Bernard, the prior, and Brother Mary Bernard, the procurator, but both of these monks failed to see the necessity of their close and immediate application.

In the long and bitter and acrimonious aftermath that followed the financial collapse of the Iowa Trappist institution in 1879 and 1880 it has been customary for the writers describing that hectic episode to pillory Brother Mary Bernard Murphy as the arch-perpetrator of the disaster, and many acid-tinged shafts were directed by Brother Kieran, the fearless annalist, at "Brother Murphy," as he was then widely known. But in the heyday of the abbey's prosperous fame in the '60s and '70s no one was more highly and more deservedly respected for his honesty, zeal and business genius than this same Trappist brother. His activities reveal an intelligence and acumen in farming and commercial methods that in another walk of life would have made him one of the American captains of agricultural industry of his day. Brother Mary Bernard possessed the respect and admiration of business leaders and bankers from Omaha to Chicago.

In the early 1860s despite the depressing days of the Civil War he began the profitable work that was almost entirely responsible for the eventual erection of the lovely stone monastery building. In the year 1863 he purchased for the brothers their first large flock of sheep — Cotswolds — in central Illinois. Living in an old fashioned canvas-covered wagon for three weeks, he drove the sheep on foot all the way to New Melleray. It was at about this period  p159 also that Brother Mary Bernard started to raise the purebred Durham cattle for which the monastery was noted all over the West; he had gone to Kentucky and bought his first herd there. During the Civil War years he commenced the policy of buying hogs and cattle from neighboring farmers in order to fatten them and sell them to the Ryan Packing Company of Galena, Illinois, the largest packing house on the upper Mississippi at that time. The hogs were driven all the way to Galena on foot with a horse-drawn wagon or two accompanying them in order to pick up the tired‑out stragglers. This trip from New Melleray to Galena usually took three days. During the winter the task of driving the large herds of hogs across the frozen Mississippi to Galena presented quite a problem. Each brother at hour intervals started over the ice with a small group of hogs. Should the earlier groups become contrary and turn back and meet the later groups coming over there was too much congestion of weight at one spot and danger of the entire herd going to the bottom of the river. On one occasion there was a drove of seven hundred hogs going to the Ryan Packing Company; at another time two hundred and fifty head of cattle were driven over.

During the years Brother Mary Bernard bought a few small farms and rented several others; some of this acreage was tilled to raise grain but most of it was used for grazing purposes for the herds now grown so large that even the monastery lands could not feed them. Various brothers were stationed for certain seasons of the year at these farms to care for the livestock. Most of these farms were in Dubuque County not too many miles distant from the abbey, but about the year 1870 Brother Mary Bernard acquired a large tract of land in Mills County. This county — sparsely settled at that time — is in the southwest corner of Iowa bordering the Missouri river some miles south of the city of Council Bluffs. For years several brothers had to maintain a home in Mills Creek in order to look after the herds that were grazed there. Brother Mary Bernard and Brother Barnaby lived there an entire year themselves. Many of the Mills County cattle were taken to Omaha to be fed in the distillery there and when fat were shipped to Chicago for sale. The Sisters of Charity owned five hundred acres of wide and unfenced prairie land adjoining the monastery domain and here the brothers herded large droves of cattle. A brother minded the cattle by day, coming home after dark when the cattle would lie down; and he was off again in the morning by daylight.

 p160  The procurator's successful endeavors reached out into other fields, too. In the year 1872 he bought forty acres of woodland in South Garryowen, fifteen miles south of the monastery, and for four winters — until 1875 — the brothers made excursions there with horse and mule teams to obtain cord wood and fence posts. Ten thousand posts and five hundred cords of wood were hauled away from those forty acres. The round trip was thirty miles, and in order to complete it in a day, the brethren rose at two o'clock in the morning, went to the stables to feed and harness the teams, came back to the monastery to attend holy mass at three o'clock, ate their breakfast at four and then hitching up their steeds were eight or ten miles away by sunrise — "often a cold winter's morning with the glass perhaps 20 degrees below zero."

Cooperating with Brother Mary Bernard in those years the fathers and brothers performed all their own work on the abbey domain without any hired men. When necessary, in harvest time as many as forty-eight persons, — choir and lay brothers — worked in the field. Of these, eight were regular horse teamsters and two were ox teamsters.

Occasionally, one or other of the Trappist procurator's business exploits was written up in the press. Thus, the Dubuque Daily Herald of Sunday, September 12, 1875, proclaimed:

Sale of Short Horns

The Brothers Purchase one of the most Valuable Herds in Illinois for $23,500.

One of the most important purchases of short horn cattle that had been made in Iowa for some time was transacted in this city yesterday. J. B. Murphy, of the Brothers, New Melleray, Dubuque County, has purchased the noted show herd of A. A. Funk, McLean County, Ill., a herd which we venture to say has been looked upon with envy by every stockman in the Northwest. The show herd consists of the First Duke of Vermillion and five cows. The Duke is the prize winner of Kentucky, Ohio and Illinois in his own ring and sweepstakes. Last year this animal was displayed in Indiana and took the 1st prize over the renowned Breastplate in the 4 year old ring in sweepstakes, and all others . . .

In addition to the above herd, the Brothers purchased of A. A. Funk nine other cows as well bred as any in the United States, tracing through the American herd books to the  p161 English herd book. The price paid was $23,500.00. This herd was originally from Kentucky, was selected with the utmost care and caution, and was considered one of the most successful prize winners. We understand that they will be taken for exhibition to the state fair of Nebraska which meets on the 21st inst.

It is a matter of record that for fifteen years from 1862 on, the Trappist brothers of New Melleray successfully entered their purebred cattle at state and county fairs; for several weeks before each fair there was washing and currying and feeding the animals to embellish their appearance; two or three brothers accompanied the bullocks and oxen and were usually gone for a fortnight; they seldom returned from a fair without coming away with both first and second prizes and red and blue ribbons on the cattle's horns.

During all this time Abbot Ephrem, zealously wrapped up in the spiritual affairs of the monastery, never questioned the methods of Brother Mary Bernard. In the course of his profitable transactions it was probably inevitable that the procurator should finally become imbued with the fever of speculation, and should indulge in an occasional plunge on the Chicago board of trade. He had made the acquaintance of Armour and others of the great packing industries. He was the representative of New Melleray, and that now highly reputed corporation had an extensive line of credit.

The Author's Notes:

1 The principal contractor who assisted John Mullany in the building of New Melleray Abbey was John Keenan of Dubuque who during over half a century of building activities had erected churches and public buildings in various localities in the state of Iowa. In 1850‑51 he had built Mount St. Bernard's College and Seminary for Bishop Loras at Table Mound just south of Dubuque, and exactly fifty years later he constructed Hennessy Hall, which today is the Science Building of Loras College, the successor to Mount St. Bernard's College.

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2 Searles later judged he had the ability to depict this prize ox, and for those who are interested in pedigreed cattle, — and especially in the splendid type of livestock possessed by New Melleray Abbey in the 1860s and 1870s —, his following description is herewith given:

"The Monk whose business it was to attend to him roused him from his stall, and brought him out with a halter tied to his horns. There he stood, that vast Leviathan of beef! on those four short legs, which looked as if they were not half strong enough to bear the ponderous weight of his immense carcass.

"His sides like solid walls; his broad, enormous rear quarters, flanked by a fine tail, with a silky brush, which showed the breeding of a long ancestry of noble sires. The line along the back rising to a high arched ridge over the neck, close to the small and beautifully formed head. The ears and horns small; the eyes large, dark and fiery, the nose delicately moulded. The depth from the top of the neck to the base of the chest, and from thence to the extreme peak of the huge lap that hangs from it and joins the concave line of the belly between the forelegs, is really a mighty measurement, which no man could compass with his outstretched arms and hands. A neck like that of the war‑horse spoken of in Job — literally 'clothed with thunder.'

"I walked more than once or twice all around this splendid animal so finely proportioned in all its parts, and thought I had never before seen so much beauty and so much mammoth power combined in any living creature. Brother Romuald, his keeper, who was more than half afraid of him, said he weighed upwards of 2,500 pounds."

Thayer's Note:

a Malachie d'Inguimbert (1683‑1757), bishop of Carpentras from 1735 to his death.

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