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Chapter 15

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 17

 p162  XVI

Debacle and Deliverance

It was not until the spring of 1877 that the authorities of New Melleray Abbey — that is, Abbot Ephrem and the prior, Father Bernard — became uneasy about the financial affairs and structure of the Iowa Trappist institution, and began to challenge and check the business activities of Brother Mary Bernard. That the frenzied finance and traffic had hitherto borne no rank or distasteful fruits was due to the continuance of inflation after the Civil War. The national panic of 1873 did not appear to affect New Melleray at the time, but from that year on the debts of the monastery began to increase rapidly. In 1874 the amount owed was $115,000.00 but the brothers then had enough to meet any demands. Brother Mary Bernard began to show a reluctance and a hesitancy in turning in the accounts and in revealing the bills that were presented for payment. Then in 1877 the abbot and the prior were frightened when they discovered that the indebtedness amounted to $170,000.00. To meet this they had — entirely exclusive of the new monastery itself and the two thousand acres of land around it — assets, mostly in land and some in livestock, between $140,000.00 and $150,000.00. This would  p163 have left them, they believed, in debt only to the amount of $20,000.00 or $30,000.00 and this they then hoped to be able to pay off by good management in a few years — should no financial crisis or new panic occur.

The causes of the steady and rapid rise in indebtedness were not obscure and could be bracketed under two principal headings. The one was the heavy interest the monks were compelled to pay for the outstanding obligations. The interest paid to creditors varied, some receiving eight, others ten and a few as high as twelve and a half per cent. Add to this the fact that much of the interest was compounded, and it will be seen how quickly the deficit grew. The other causes were due to a constant and persistent loss in the selling of live stock — in which so much of the monastery's holdings were invested — since the year 1873. Winter feeding of cattle in Iowa had suddenly become a losing venture since the states to the southwest had become cattle raising areas. Kansas, Texas, Colorado and other states became more populated due to the rapid extension of the railroads, and since there was little or no winter there, cattle could be matured without corn or hay. It took sixty bushels of corn worth from $12.00 to $18.00 to fatten an ox in Iowa. In the Southwest men could mature their herds of steers and oxen without corn or hay by merely letting them graze in the fields. The supply of fat cattle carried to the eastern markets from these regions by the new railroads was greater than the demand and ruined all chances for profits by the great Iowa livestock raisers such as the New Melleray corporation.

It became apparent that only a severe tightening, spiritually and corporally, of the monastic belts might save the day — and it was doubtful if even this heroic measure would stave off the threatening catastrophe. In desperation Father Bernard wrote to Dom Bruno in Ireland: "It is with a sad and heavy heart that I write this letter to you. When you were here seven years ago, you imposed a law in your visitation card on Brother Mary Bernard to give an accounting to the Abbot, every time he returned home, on how our financial affairs stood. Until the great fall in cattle came 3 or 4 years ago the Abbot did not urge him much. But though often asked, he deferred until 1874 when he gave a statement that our debts were then $115,000.00." After a long recital of the almost insuperable difficulties facing the monastery, Father Bernard made his final plea. "The Abbot and I wish you to make arrangements with the General Chapter to come yourself and visit our house as soon as you can after the Chapter is  p164 over. There is no use of sending Abbot Dominic of Tracadie or any one else. None but yourself can do us any good this time. Our debt is not yet too far gone, but if allowed to accumulate for 4 or 5 years more in the ratio it has accumulated for 4 or 5 years past, we may lose all we have. The sooner a remedy is applied, the better."

Of course, Dom Bruno came — but not until a year and a half had elapsed. Toward the end of November, 1879, he arrived at New Melleray accompanied by his sub‑prior, Father Lewis Carew. Now in his sixty-sixth year, and still erect and slender of physique, he was as vigorous as ever in the service of the Lord. Old Brother Kieran wrote mournfully in his annals:

He found our affairs much changed, and not for better, since his last visit in 1870. It was a very different affair from former visitations. There was an atmosphere of dejection and gloom on all sides. The effectsº of the 'traffic' wasº felt, — it was more than felt, it took the sorrowful shape of a dark, impenetrable cloud hanging over our monastery, and meant to remain. But our good Visitor told us that the dark, impenetrable cloud must be penetrated by humble incessant prayers. He prescribed special prayers to be said in our community every evening for this purpose, and to continue them until the next Visitation be made. When it was made, the prayers were continued, yes, and even to the Visitation that again followed that."1

In addition to his mandate of storming Heaven by prayer, the Father Immediate advocated in this crisis poverty and sacrifice. "If ever you were bound to practice holy Poverty," he urged, "now is the time . . . If you have to wear old, patched boots and shoes; old, patched cowls and cloaks, robes, scapulars and stockings; be content; and let there be no murmur in your heart, or on your lips, or fingers; no sadness, or displeasure, in your eyes, or countenance." And in his appeal for personal sacrifice, the eloquent abbot attacked the use of tobacco with an argument that is such a classic of startling novelty that we dare not forbear quoting it here: "If tobacco was made for Man, it is rather strange that world had existed for five thousand five hundred years before its use was known. Tobacco, and Martin Luther, and Henry the Eighth, and the so‑called Reformation came before Europe much about the same time. To take snuff is bad enough. To smoke, with pipe or cigar, is worse. But to chew is worst of all. Happy is the Monk who never uses tobacco in any  p165 shape or form! Turn away from it, you who are young, as you would turn away from sparks of fire!"

Matters were worse, though, than Dom Bruno dreamed. Prayer and sacrifice are not miracles, and only a miracle could have prevented the culminating calamity from breaking into public news and causing a local panic. Hardly had the Irish abbot and his sub‑prior returned to Europe, when matters came to a climax. The sad state of affairs, which month by month had grown worse since the day that Abbot Ephrem and Father Bernard had first taken alarm, was now noised far and wide. Creditors came storming out to the abbey grounds in crowds. The monastery resembled a broken savings bank, the only difference being that the doors were left open and all had free entrance.

In desperation Father Bernard sent out eight hundred letters to friends and charitably inclined persons; he received seventy-five replies and only eight hundred dollars. He penned an urgent letter to Father Daniel Hudson of Notre Dame, Indiana, explaining that sixty thousand dollars had to be raised immediately if the Abbey of New Melleray was to be saved, and requesting him to insert an enclosure with a moving appeal in each copy of the Ave Maria magazine's Natchez issue, except to "the residents of Dubuque County, Bishops and priests."

In the meantime, the procurator, Brother Mary Bernard, by then thoroughly frightened and feverish, again risked his chances on the Chicago board of trade, rashly hoping for some measure of success. Reverses came fast and he was beaten in the market. In an effort to recoup his losses he went more deeply into debt. Although now removed from office and replaced as housekeeper by the able Father Alberic Madigan, he displayed great courage during the stress and strain of the next few months, and it was due to his efforts, aided by Father Alberic, that the monastery land and farm stock were saved from being auctioned off at less than half of their value by the clamoring creditors.

According to Brother Kieran and others the indebtedness had reached the figure of $230,000.00. Due to some remission by friends and to a fortunate legacy by Father James Sweeney of Buchanan County, Iowa, who came to the monastery as a postulant in 1870 and died within a year, the actual figure probably did not far exceed the two hundred thousand dollar mark. But with this huge debt confronting them the monks of New Melleray looked for the end of their  p166 Iowa foundation. The loss to them was everything, and rumors were rife that preliminary arrangements had already been made to close the Trappist cloister and return to Ireland.

Here again Brother Mary Bernard Murphy exerted himself effectively. His staunch friends in the business world came to the rescue. Mr. William J. Knight, one of the most prominent attorneys of the West and for years a state senator of Iowa, who had occasionally represented Brother Mary Bernard in legal affairs; Mr. William Ryan of the Ryan Packing Companies of Dubuque and Galena whose business relations with the former monastery procurator had covered a score of years; and Mr. Patrick Clarke of Dubuque — these three gentlemen freely offered to serve as a committee to represent the New Melleray corporation in settling its affairs with its creditors. The brothers gladly appointed them as the legal trustees of all their properties. The committee published letters and notices that it was deciding upon a bond issue as a solution of the financial problem. The bonds would run for five years, and were renewable, and the high interest rates would have to be reduced to a uniform six per cent. The creditors were assured that in this way — and in this way only — would they all be ultimately repaid.

Preliminary meetings were held, excitement ran high, but the confidence inspired by the high calibre of gentlemen who composed the committee tended to ease the strain of the affair. Finally a general meeting of all the creditors was called at the monastery, and bonds aggregating two hundred thousand dollars were issued. This meeting, however, promised to be a turbulent one; objections and complaints, long, loud, and profanely emphatic, were shouted, and the element that hitherto had been receiving the highest interest proved to be the most difficult to please. An Irish farmer from the northern part of Dubuque County was very violent in his denunciations, using such terms as "swindlers" and "robbers." But when an Englishman rose up and joined him in his abuse of the monks, the Irishman angrily resented his remarks as a Protestant attack on the Father, and for a moment there was danger of a physical encounter. As a by‑play and a piece of very becoming Celtic consistency the episode struck everyone as a refreshing oasis in a desert of dry details. Harmony soon prevailed and the able trustees then guided the meeting to a successful conclusion. "Thus was averted through God's goodness," piously commented Brother Kieran, "the dread of being thrown out of house and home of our beloved New Melleray." But every  p167 member of the community was profoundly conscious of the fact that sleeves had to be rolled up and loins girded to meet the labor and economy and sacrifice of the years ahead.

Meanwhile, the former housekeeper, Brother Mary Bernard, bore the overwhelming reverse bravely for a while but as the enormity of the loss dawned upon him and he realized the disastrous effect it had on his Cistercian house, he weakened. It is reported that he died of a broken heart, torn by the anguish of the calamity he brought upon his beloved abbey.

It was inevitable perhaps but that legal haggling should be continued somewhat intermittently by those disappointed with the terms of the Dubuque monastery settlement. Thirteen years after the settlement, in 1893, the final case was disposed of by the courts. The Dubuque Daily Telegraph then wrote a special editorial dealing with the matter, indicating how honorable and adequately the monks had fulfilled their obligations.

The McNamara-Melleray Case.

The case of Michael McNamara against the monastic corporation of New Melleray was on Wednesday last, for the second time, decided in favor of the defendant . . .

Regarded from any standpoint this is a complete exoneration of the monastery. If there had been the slightest equitable liability on the part of the corporation, there would have been no suit, for the brothers would have paid every dollar of the claim if the settlement had taken their last acre of land. If proof of this were required, better could not be asked than the fact that the corporation voluntarily assumed the unauthorized debts contracted by Mary Bernard Murphy when it could easily have escaped their payment by resorting to law. It is a splendid tribute to its conscience and character that trying and manifold as have been its financial difficulties, it has uniformly and persistently disdained to avail itself of legal technicalities to escape any debt for which it regarded itself as in the least morally obligated . . .

The case is a very interesting one, and its interest is the justification for this special editorial reference. It has intensified public respect for and confidence in the New Melleray community by making prominent the fact that in its dealings with its creditors the corporation has been governed  p168 by a delicate sense of honor and a most scrupulous, high-minded conscientiousness.

This case wrote finis to the litigation and to the most desperate and publicly embarrassing crisis in the history of the Iowa Trappist house. But years of heroic labor and struggle had made this honorable denouement possible, and other years of struggle still lay ahead.

Nearly all the monks who had come to America in 1849 and 1850 were surprisingly still alive. They had weathered many a storm and many a crisis and were now venerable and bent and grey. Since 1863 when five of the professed brothers had been laid away in the little monastery cemetery there had not been a death among them. Then in 1882 the pendulum of life slowed up and stood still for seven professed lay brothers of New Melleray. Among them was Brother Philemon, the last survivor of the band of Trappists who were expelled from Melleray Abbey in France in 1831 by Louis Philippe, King of the French. Brother Philemon had entered the French cloister in 1826 and at the time of his death had been a member of the Cistercian order for over fifty‑six years.

The next year, 1883, saw the passing of the first of the Irish monks who had come to the American shores with the definite purpose of establishing a Trappist colony here. He was Father Bernard McCaffrey, the former superior and prior, the staunch but erratically grounded pillar upon whom the simple and pious Abbot Ephrem had leaned during all his years in Dubuque. From the day of Father Bernard's death, March 3d, the abbot himself began to decline, and a few months later, resigning his office, he departed for Mount Melleray, Ireland, on August 29th. Here he survived, however, for another fifteen years, finishing his holy life in 1898.

The last official visitor delegated by the Father Immediate, Dom Bruno, to inspect the Iowa monastery before the resignation of Abbot Ephrem, was none other than a son of France, Dom Jean Marie, abbot of Our Lady of Bellefontaine, France. Arriving in New Melleray in June of 1883, he found the community somewhat reduced in numbers, there being fifty‑one members including novices and postulants. Encouraging them he wrote on his visitation card:

"We knew what a heavy debt weighed upon you, and one of our first cares has been to inquire into this matter. We have been very happy to learn and to feel assured ourselves, that, thank God, you are henceforth out of all danger and that with the Blessing of God, the resources of the  p169 farm and proper management, you may be free from debt and may even begin again to think of completing your new monastery. Without any doubt the severe lesson you have received will preserve you from future danger . . . We must in truth, my very dear Brethren, congratulate you on your excellent dispositions, your piety and the desire you have to be faithful to the Holy Rule. But we cannot be silent on the object of our grief — your numbers decline more and more, especially the members of the Choir . . ."

Such was the status of New Melleray, when on the feast of St. Michael, the Archangel, September 29th, 1883, there arrived a new superior, Father Alberic Dunlea, with five companions, Father Placid Flynn, Father Gregory Pendergast, Brother Francis Bransfield, Brother Patrick Fitzgerald — these latter soon to be ordained priests — and Brother Malachy Coghlan. New blood, it was apparently judged, was needed at the Dubuque monastery; for lack of Trappist vocations in America, the mother house in Ireland was willing to send some of her finest sons. And indeed, as time was to show, Father Alberic was the savior providentially chosen by Dom Bruno for his Iowa affiliate. He found a monastery with a load of enormous debts and with crushed hopes for the future. A man of fifty years of age, Father Alberic was tall and of commanding appearance, and from the day of his arrival he inspired a confidence that always remained with the community — a community that now had lost the proving of having a mitred abbot because of its debts and the paucity of its members.

Probably ignorance was bliss in Father Alberic's case, for with no real knowledge of the difficulties that lay before him and simply by placing all his confidence in God, he went to work with an energy that was surprising. Meticulously careful management became the rule; needless expenses and doubtful ventures were eliminated. A bit of news that must have heartened him and his brethren appeared toward the end of his first year as superior, in the Dubuque Daily Herald of August 26, 1884:

The trustees of the New Melleray monastery, the Hon. W. J. Knight, Mr. Wm. Ryan and Mr. Patrick Clarke, held a meeting Sunday to consider its financial affairs. The brothers, five years ago, to meet a sudden financial disaster issued bonds to cover the indebtedness. They have since extinguished $75,000.00 of the debts and the bonds are at par. The new ones will be issued for five years and will draw six per cent interest. Their amount will be $130,000.00.  p170 Nearly all will be negotiated in this city where they will find a ready sale.

A splendid lieutenant of the superior in his able efforts for the welfare of the community was his prior, who also acted as his housekeeper and bursar — and who was his namesake — Father Alberic Madigan. Besides the outlay for the retirement of the debt, current expenses had to be met, new farm and out‑buildings had to be erected, new green-houses built, new trees planted. Many years later one of the surviving monks wrote of this period: "As far as manual labor was concerned I think it is true to say that the Religious of New Melleray, during the last twenty years of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, were the most hard-working Religious in the Church. In fact, no laboring men in Europe or the United States worked harder than they did. Efforts such as these were bound to be crowned with success."

What was both helpful and consoling to the depressed brethren in this their severe hour of trial was the evidence of loyalty among the rank and file of the faithful in many parts of the country who now rallied to their cause. Hundreds of people either brought or mailed donations of from one to ten or more dollars. Nuns and laborers and small merchants, many of them anonymous, sent in their pittances. Many others sent in stipends for mass intentions that were to be fulfilled at the future convenience of the fathers at the monastery. One surprising feature of all this help from the humble and lowly friends of New Melleray was the number of mass stipends and money offerings — all of these latter quite slender, it is true — which came from Mexico across the Rio Grande. These kept on arriving during the years of 1883 and 1884; and on the old records one reads with a measure of wonder and curiosity the mellifluous Spanish names of the collectors of these funds for the hard-pressed Iowa monks: Manuel Cortina Valdovinos, Donnaº Ramona Cortina, Alberto Alvarez, Doña Ana Yermo, Agustia Rodriguez, Doña Amadora Santacruz, J. Mariano Duarte, Don Victorio Carillo and Ignacio de la Torre. They had forwarded contributions from two hundred and eighty-seven individuals in Mexico.

The official visitor of New Melleray in 1886 was Dom Mary Eugene of Melleray in France — the first time Iowa saw the Vicar General of the "Congregation of the Cistercians of the New Reform of La Trappe" as he signed himself on this visit, the Vicar General being the supreme executive officer of the Trappists. Both he and  p171 the succeeding visitor in 1887, Albert Eugene of Bellefontaine, emphasized the caution that should be displayed toward a new type of inmates of this monastic house; they looked askance at the practice of some western bishops who began at this time to send certain recalcitrant clerics to the Dubuque monastery for periods of penance and recollection. In particular, however, they asked that the postulant oblates should be carefully screened and should be accepted only if they had the sincere intention of remaining and of submitting to the Rule, especially that part of it that pertained to silence. An oblate is a lay‑person who desires to share, to some extent, in the life of prayer and the spiritual benefits of a monastic order. In the Cistercian order oblates live in the monastery and, with some modifications, lead the life of the monks, but take no vows or other formal religious obligations. Those requesting admission under these conditions were to be turned away unless they were candidates of the best character and would submit to thorough probation.

Father Alberic carried out these latter recommendations with scrupulous care. In 1887, including novices, postulants and oblates, there had been sixty-seven members in the community. Two years later, in April of 1889, when the Father Immediate, Dom Bruno, arrived from Ireland the number had been reduced to fifty-three. Of these monks ten were priests.

This visit of Abbot Bruno's was his sixth. It was forty years before, in a hot month of July, 1849, that he had arrived in Iowa for the first time. This sixth visit was to be his last. There had not been many physical changes between these two visits. True, the ivy‑clad stone monastery of Augustus Welby Pugin's artistic design stood there, but it was only half-built, and financially it was shakier than the humble frame and log dwellings that had housed the first Trappist colony. Crisis after crisis had been successfully weathered, but now after these bitterly won victories with all the sacrifices they entailed, the American affiliate was as weak as ever. In numbers, the institution had barely held its own; indeed, were it not for the constant transfer of brothers from Mount Melleray, the New Melleray house might not have survived. The volatile nature of Dom Bruno could not be restrained from a touch of impatience; he was an old man now, seventy‑six years of age, and his grizzled beard was white and hoary.

"The main object of a Visitation," he told the fathers and brethren of New Melleray, "is the correction of abuses. We proceed, at once,  p172 to point them out clearly and briefly." It was apparently hard for him to understand the delicate and difficult tasks that poor Father Alberic Dunlea and his monks were facing in these still critical years, and he probably believed that a change in administrative personnel was needed. His concluding appeal to the brothers on his visitation card was both prophetic and pathetic: "We ask special prayers for Ourselves, who now bid you farewell forever, in this world."

The Author's Note:

1 These special prayers have not only been continued to the present day but have even been enlarged upon.

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