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Chapter 16

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 18

 p173  XVII

The Second Abbot

Father Lewis Gonzaga Carew became superior of the Iowa Trappist house at Dubuque on September 27th, 1889. An experienced and able monk, now in his fortieth year, he had already served as master of novices, sub‑prior and procurator at Mount Melleray Abbey in Ireland before his appointment to the American post. He was not entirely a stranger to the United States, for in 1878 he had been the travelling companion to Dom Bruno on his visitation of that year, and had journeyed as far west as Nebraska City, Nebraska, to visit relatives there. Of particular note was Father Lewis' ability as a medical practitioner. He had studied medicine and surgery but had never been granted a degree; at Mount Melleray he had acted as chief infirmarian and pharmacist and had been regarded in the community as a highly successful doctor.

Immediately upon assuming his duties as superior, Father Lewis, recognizing the talents of Father Alberic, his predecessor, — who, incidentally, was sixteen years his senior — appointed him his acting prior.

We must here diverge for a moment from the particular story of the Iowa Trappists to recount a major event occurring during these  p174 years among the Trappists of the entire world. Since 1879 there had been a movement manifested, especially through petitions to Rome, for a reunion of the scattered Trappist congregations into one order, with one head and a uniform observance. In 1892 that great pope, Leo XIII, took the matter out of the hands of the cardinal consultors and cutting through all the difficulties and red tape, he summoned all the abbots of the four strict congregations to an extraordinary General Chapter in Rome. Every professed choir religious in the houses of these congregations were invited to give his opinion and vote on the subject, and in Dubuque as practically everywhere the votes declared decidedly for union. On October 1st, 1892, fifty-four superiors of Trappist monasteries, of whom thirty‑two were mitred abbots, met in the Eternal City under the presidency of the Jesuit Cardinal Mazzella. The final amalgamation so earnestly desired by Trappists and the Church, after a number of peaceful discussions, was brought to a happy completion, with only three houses of a small Italian congregation refusing to participate.

At first it was decided by the General Chapter that the now happily fused and reunited order should be officially known as the "Order of Reformed Cistercians of Our Lady of La Grande Trappe." In the next few years, the buildings still left standing of the ancient mother abbey of the Cistercian order, Citeaux in France, after the political and physical storms of the centuries, were bought back again, and the abbot of Citeaux became the abbot general of the united Trappist congregations. "Once again," wrote Thomas Merton, "the abbot of Citeaux was the temporal and spiritual head of a world-wide family of monasteries where the monastic life was lived in its perfection." The name of La Trappe was then dropped entirely from the title, and as has been previously explained, the official designation now is "Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance." A Cistercian house of studies was organized in Rome, and a group of advisers to the abbot general, called definitors, representing the different countries in which the order has taken root, reside there also with him.

This permanent bond of union has made the order more fully conscious of its great heritage, and the six decades that have passed since the reunion was enacted have seen a constant growth of the fervent, contemplative spirit that prevailed in the mediaeval monasteries of Citeaux and Clairvaux.

 p175  And now, ambling back from Citeaux to Iowa once more, we find Father Lewis, the superior, in April of 1892 receiving his first official visitor in the person of Dom Jean Marie of Bellefontaine, France. The latter found that at the urgent insistence of Bishop John Hennessy of Dubuque the fathers of the monastery had for several years been obliged to care for a second secular parish, that of St. Joseph, a few short miles away, and had also been given the duties of the spiritual direction of the Sisters of Charity of the B. V. M. at their mother-house nearby. But as the Sisters were soon to move to their new convent at Mount Carmel on the banks of the Mississippi, Dom Jean Marie arranged that both of these charges would within a few years be removed from the care of the monastery. The abbatial visitor expressed himself as highly astonished at the large number of lay people who daily brought their sick to the porter's lodge seeking the medical ministrations of Father Lewis. He gently admonished the superior to refrain from medical affairs, especially those concerning remedies and consultations for the general public, — these being incompatible with the obligations of his office, — and to devote time to monastic matters and to the brothers of his community.

It was during this same year of 1892 that New Melleray had received another notable visitor — William Rufus Perkins, professor of history in the State University of Iowa, — who abided there for a while in order to secure material for his historical monograph on the abbey which was later that year published and sold under the auspices of the State University of Iowa Publications. "Few men engaged in historical researches," he wrote in the preface of his monograph, "have met with so cordial and hearty appreciation as has been vouchsafed by the monks of New Melleray to the author." Father Lewis gave him every assistance on this visit and of the superior Professor Perkins remarked: "The character of Father Lewis can be described in a few words. He has wonderful selfcontrol, he is never taken by surprise. He seems always prepared for any emergency and his temper is never ruffled . . . His self-possession, his gentleness and his firmness make his government efficient, and a light yoke on the community."

From the county court house records the professor prepared a list of the holdings of New Melleray Abbey at that time but pointed out that monetary valuation is based on an "assessment of 33⅓ per cent of actual value." Here is the list:

 p176  Number Value
Acres 2441.93 $30,666.00
Horses 54    1,000.00
Cattle 285    1,735.00
Sheep 270    270.00
Swine 90    100.00
Vehicles 3    30.00

Grand Total of All Property


By 1892, the day of the oxen as draft animals had apparently passed.

Perkins was informed that the number of the members of the community was fifty-four, eleven of whom were American born, the others Irish by birth. He pointed out, however, that whereas thirty years before in 1862 there had been forty-eight professed members, there were in 1892 only forty‑two. It was because of this failure in growth of numbers as well as of other reasons which he adduced that Professor Perkins took a dark view of the future stability of the Iowa abbey: "It is strange in the nineteenth century and on the banks of the Mississippi, in the midst of the new and vigorous west, to see the usages of thirteen centuries ago still active and fruitful — to behold the white robe of Citeaux and the brown scapular of Benedict, to know that within the walls of New Melleray the canonical offices of the Ancient Church are chanted, and that the community preserves the customs of mediaeval times. The question cannot but present itself as to what will be the future of the Abbey. Will its members increase in number, will the American monk replace the one of foreign birth, will the cross which now heralds a Cistercian house be thrown down, or will it multiply itself? These questions time alone can fully answer. But like all other religious communities which seclude themselves from the world and build barriers against its stress of progress, it is not unlikely that this may find its isolation fatal, and that it may prove to be the first and last Trappist Abbey west of the Mississippi."

Toward the end of December, 1893, the sad news reached the brethren of New Melleray that Dom Bruno Fitzpatrick, their beloved Father Immediate, had at last passed away. For two score and four years he had been the Iowa Trappists' hope and prop and pride. On December 4th, the great abbot of Mount Melleray, the victim of influenza in his eighty-first year, had gone to his eternal reward. The celebrated Cardinal Logue mournfully proclaimed  p177 that the entire Catholic world had suffered loss by the abbot's death. In the abbey's little cemetery a handsome Celtic cross surmounting his grave has inscribed on it, in classic Latin, the story of his heroic life and labors.

His successor as abbot of Mount Melleray and Father Immediate of New Melleray was Dom Carthage Delaney. One of the first acts of Dom Carthage was to delegate in 1894 Abbot Eugene of Melleray in France — who was also to visit Gethsemani in Kentucky — to act as the official visitor of his Iowa affiliate. When Abbot Eugene, who spoke little English, arrived in Dubuque he was accompanied by Dom Edward Chaix-Bourbon, abbot of Gethsemani, who served as interpreter. Dom Eugene discovered that it was the almost unanimous prayer of the brethren of New Melleray that an abbot should be elected to preside over their institution, and this ardent desire of theirs he promised to transmit both to Dom Carthage and to the General Chapter. The material conditions of this American house had now become more favorable and the monastic spirit had never been more fervent.

The prayers of the brethren were answered. In June of 1897 Dom Carthage made his first visit to America and to the Iowa monastery, and with him from Europe had returned Dom Eugene of Melleray in France. On Whit Monday, June 7th, the canonical election was held in the chapter room, and the choice of the monks fell on the prior, Father Alberic Dunlea. The holy and self-sacrificing work of this Trappist monk that had so inspired them during the years before the arrival of Father Lewis and latterly while he served as prior, won their approval of him as their new abbot.

The formal abbatial investiture of Abbot Alberic did not take place until the following October 29th, almost five months later. The abbot of Gethsemani was ill and as there was no other Trappist abbot in the country to assist with the abbatial blessing, Archbishop John Hennessy of Dubuque was delegated to perform the ceremony alone, aided by two priests acting as substitutes for the abbots. This was a singular situation and it is doubtful if another similar function ever took place in the ritualistic history of the Church. In order not to be guilty of deviating from the age old customs and rule of the Cistercian order, the perplexed abbot-elect, Father Alberic, had written to Rome for counsel, and on September 25, 1897, a letter from the Holy See addressed "Au Révérend Père Dom Alberic, Abbé de la Trappe de Nouvelle Melleray par Dubuque,  p178 Iowa" arrived at the monastery permitting two priests to act as assistants in the conferring of the abbatial belong — something hitherto entirely unprecedented and since then never duplicated. During the month following the receipt of this letter, it was decided to hold the ceremony in the secular parish church nearby which was under the spiritual care of the fathers of the monastery, and to which the general public, both men and women, could be invited — the latter not being permitted to enter the abbey church or even go within the abbey walls.

Except for the pontifical mass it was a modest and simple affair — extremely modest when compared with the elaborate celebration on the occasion of the abbatial blessing of Abbot Ephrem in the Dubuque cathedral thirty-four years before. Even the decorations of the little church were very simple, consisting of evergreens and leaves. No prelates, religious or secular, were present except Archbishop Hennessy. Except for the monastery fathers only a handful of priests attended — to be exact, there were twelve. One of these, the Very Rev. P. J. McGrath, a former president of Loras College, delivered a long and erudite sermon, terminating with this expression of his felicitations: "Permit me, my Lord Abbot, to offer to you and your true and faithful and tried brothers — now that you have passed through your dark night of temporal bondage — my heart's sincerest congratulations on this happy day; and in the name of his Grace, and of you, my Lord Abbot, and your devoted monks, I tender my friend, the Honorable William J. Knight, undying thanks for his judicious and charitable and superhuman efforts in bringing, under God, the deplorable financial condition of the monastery to so felicitous a termination. May God inspire us all with a true zeal for His work so that we may enjoy forever the rewards of our holy labors. Amen."

Father Lewis Carew returned to Europe with Dom Carthage and was shortly afterwards appointed by the General Chapter of the Cistercians as one of their definitors for the English-speaking monasteries. He held this office for two successive terms of five years each, residing during this time at Rome with the abbot general of the order, the abbot of Citeaux. Not long after his return to Mount Melleray, Ireland, he was chosen as the provisional superior of Mount St. Bernard's Abbey in Leicestershire, England, and while acting in this capacity he died in 1927 in his seventy-eighth year.

 p179  It is almost incredible but it is certainly true that the New Melleray monastery after having through its first half century of existence emerged from one perplexing crisis after another, now for almost another thirty years under its new mitred abbot, the extraordinarily able and pious Alberic Dunlea and his capable successor, faced yet again an emergency — a very protracted and a very tenuous crisis this time — in its long history of acute crises. Materially and financially the abbey was on a sound basis, in piety and good works its life-blood never pulsed more ardently, and yet strangely enough it began to face the ever growing danger, year by year, of death by strangulation — strangulation simply due to utter dearth of vocations.

During this period the Iowa abbey seemed to lead the life of an isolated, half-abandoned outpost of the monastic world. From 1897 on for over twenty years it received only four official visitations from the abbatial officers of the Cistercian order. There seemed, outwardly at least, during these long years of spiritual distress, to be no intimately sympathetic interest displayed by the episcopal leaders of the Dubuque and other Iowa dioceses in the affairs of New Melleray Abbey. It may have merely seemed so — in comparison with the fiercely affectionate and paternal support of Bishop Mathias Loras and the ever ready assistance of the Trappist bishop of Dubuque, Clement Smyth, in the early years of the monastery's life, and the renewed kindly interest of the archbishops of Dubuque in these last two decades of our day. There is no doubt but that among the public it was regarded as a foreign colony, strangely surviving on the Iowa prairies, written up periodically by newspapers and magazines, usually in favorable language, as something very wonderful indeed, but hinting that its members were probably pious paranoiacs, and the entire monastic group was quite out of this world, and after all a bit foreign and fantastic.

It was in the first year of the twentieth century, 1901, that the distinguished superior of Gethsemani, Abbot Edmond Obrecht, who had been sent to Kentucky by the abbot general himself, made an official visit to the Dubuque monastery. Somewhat dismayed when he learned that members of the community had shrunk to only thirty-four, Abbot Edmond addressed them: "We thank God that we have found among you a true religious spirit and a real zeal for your sanctification. However, we cannot conceal from you that, with  p180 many of you, we are most deeply impressed and worried about the scarcity of vocations and about the future of the personnel of this house. Is it only a trial sent by our Lord to you? We hope so from the bottom of our heart." And Abbot Alberic accepted it as a trial. Leading a mortified and an austere life himself, he was the soul of patience, ever considerate and kind towards his brothers of whom everyone loved him dearly. At the common manual labor he bent his tall frame and worked as hard as any of his perspiring monks. "Though there were several confessors in the house," wrote one of these monks, "most members of the Community of their own free choice selected the Abbot for their confessor and spiritual director. His room opened on a public corridor along with both religious and guests frequently passed. Nevertheless, at a certain hour every Saturday evening after the end of work, the members of the Community were to be seen kneeling on the corridor outside the Abbot's room waiting for their turn, and I saw some with tears flowing from their eyes as they were preparing for Confession."

The prayers for an increase of vocations continued, patiently, unceasingly — but so did "the trial sent by the Lord."

And then in May of 1909 came a distinguished visitor indeed who signed his name on the official visitation card — "✠ F. Augustinus Marre, Episcopus, Cisterciensis Abbas Generalis"— and was the abbot of Citeaux himself, arrived from Rome to inspect New Melleray and the other American monasteries. To the brethren he read in making his formal address to them: "We, Brother Augustine Marre, Titular Bishop of Constancea and Abbot General of the Order of Reformed Cistercians, visiting the Abbey of New Melleray in the Archdiocese of Dubuque, have found under the direction of the Right Rev. Father Dom Alberic, its venerable Abbot, 5 Choir Religious, 1 Novice, 2 oblates, 16 Lay‑Brothers, 1 non‑stabiliated, 2 lay oblates, in all 27 persons."

The discouraging decline: twenty-seven members, and most of them grizzled old men grown gray with Grace! In humble silence they listened attentively to their abbot general: "Now my dear Sons, We are happy to visit you for the first time, and We do not regret the length and trouble of the difficult voyage, because We desire to become personally acquainted with all the members of our Order. We are compelled to confess that Our first impression has been a little sad, since we find the number of both Choir religious and Lay Brothers to be so small. This gives Us serious fears for the future  p181 of your Monastery. We wish to call your attention in a most special manner to the strict necessity under which you labor, of meriting, by your fervour and regularity in the observance of the Rules, that God may send you good vocations to continue the good work you have commenced."

But had not these veteran soldiers of the Trappist monastic army shown fervor and regularity in the observance of the Rules? Wasn't this the "trial sent by the Lord?" Continued the abbot general who had come from Rome: "It is not sufficient to have merely temporal prosperity, to own a large amount of land; to have a monastery at least one half completed; all these you have; but you must also have religious to dwell therein, otherwise there is nothing but ruin, at least from a spiritual point of view, for all your work. We see that amongst you the greater part are well advanced in age; it needs, therefore, almost a miracle from God to hinder the Abbey of New Melleray from falling, and that very soon."

A miracle was needed to save New Melleray!

In fatherly language the abbot general then counselled them gently: in a small community there was danger of everyone being overburdened with work which in large communities is nicely distributed, so care must be taken that the spiritual should always hold the first place. The brothers have not come to the Iowa cloister merely to work — all have entered it in order to sanctify themselves by means of the regular pious exercises. Therefore, a goodly number of laymen — "seculars" — should be employed to lift the burden of labor from the monks sufficiently to permit them to assist at all the spill exercises prescribed by the Rule.

And furthermore, something must be said about picnics, he explained — "Pic‑nics," it was spelled. This was a word that on the last three or four official visits had represented something a bit mysterious, possibly a bit reprehensible, to the puzzled French and Irish abbots coming to Dubuque. It seems that for a number of years in the nearby cities excursions had been arranged to bring crowds to New Melleray where the well-kept grounds and lovely woodlands, hospitably offered to the public by the monks, were ideal for large scale picnic dinners and the playing of baseball and other games. The proximity of the crowds to the monastery buildings, their noise and din and music, greatly disturbed the monastic quiet, especially on Sundays, The reasonable suggestion was made by the abbot general that these affairs should be restricted; the pleasure  p182 parties should be kept at a distance from the enclosure, from the cemetery, and especially from the brothers in the fields on working days.

There was one visiting monk present on this occasion who understood the American urge for outdoor picnics. He was acting as secretary to the abbot general during his tour of visits in the United States and he subscribed his name to that of the Abbot Augustine Marre on the visitation card at Dubuque as Frater Frederick M. Dunne. Born and reared in Ohio, he was the first American choir monk to come to Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky and remain — he remained for over fifty years. He was likewise the first native American to become a Trappist abbot, and under him from 1935 to 1948, New Melleray's sister abbey, older by one year, Gethsemani, attained along with its filiations the greatest expansion and prosperity in its history.

The growing crisis in the affairs of the Iowa Trappist monastery was obvious, of course, to the public and to the press. A Dubuque newspaper with the headline "Recruits the Crying Need of the New Melleray Monastery" wrote in its Sunday issue of March 21, 1909:

. . . With three thousands of acres of land now under the control of the Abbey and with its temporal position more than exalted, it is nevertheless a waning institution, in the heart of a cold, modern world, looking back over the passing centuries, seeking the spiritual strength of men willing to forsake the world and its pleasures to live the life of the Trappist monk, the life ordained by St. Benedict and followed by thousands for the last 1300 years. The disintegration is marked. The Abbey calls for recruits . . .

With all its interesting history New Melleray today occupies a threatened position. The young men who instilled strength into the order two score years ago are old men. New blood has not appeared for many years. To work the immense farm it is necessary to employ assistance. With hired help they have no little trouble. Time and again the abbey has appealed for recruits. It now needs them badly and must have them to preserve the institution.

The mother house is aware of the condition. A brief time ago — and this is the first publication of the fact — notice was received by Abbot Alberic to stop adding land. Hereafter,  p183 New Melleray will purchase no more ground. Recruits to work the vast acreage now possessed is the crying need.

The decline at New Melleray continued. When the new Father Immediate, the recently elected Abbot Maurus Phelan of Mount Melleray, came to Iowa for his first visitation in June of 1911 the members numbered twenty-five. "Alas," exclaimed Dom Maurus, "that your community is so small, and that year by year it is growing smaller still. May God Who can grow up children to Abraham from the stones of the earth come to your aid, and preserve your life as a Community by sending numbers to strengthen your ranks."

A few years later the number of monks in the New Melleray Abbey fell below the twenty mark. Yet, through all these years under Abbot Alberic, except for the growth in the number of vocations, there was progress of every other sort — in the conduct of temporal and spiritual affairs, in the introduction of modern farming methods and machinery, in completely wiping out every vestige of debt and adding to the monastery's lands and assets — progress and peace and piety were there. Much of the material well being of the monastery was due to the splendid work of the zealous procurator, Father David O'Sullivan. During most these years Father David served as the pastor of the secular parish attached to the abbey, and under his wise direction a beautiful brick church was built for the flourishing congregation of Iowa farmers.

Thayer's Note:

a So the printed text, but there has been a confusion. Constance is in a Christian country, and thus not the see of a bishop in partibus. Constantia in Arabia is meant.

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