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Chapter 17

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 19

 p184  XVIII

Darkness — Then Dawn!

It was during the second decade of the 1900s especially that rumors were rife about the impending doom of New Melleray Abbey. Due to the steady decline in the number of its monks and to the fact that so many winters weighted down the hoary heads of the devoted survivors it was inevitable but that among the public in general and among the monastery's friends in particular the belief had arisen that the institution would soon be forced to close its doors. When the visitors beheld the extensive lands of the estate with so few hands to care for it, when they saw the vacant cells in the large dormitory and the empty stalls in the choir, they were naturally inclined to credit a widely circulated report that a Canadian religious order was to make an exchange with the Trappist brothers and establish an experimental farm at New Melleray. Then in the summer of 1912 several newspapers carried a similar story and gave chapter and verse: the Sacred Heart Missionary Society of Sparta, Wisconsin, was to be transferred to the Dubuque Cistercian foundation; the society was to open up an agricultural college for boys and young men; the buildings and lands were to be leased by the missionary organization. It was further explained, however, that  p185 complications might delay the transfer, because a group of French Trappist monks was already on its way to New Melleray to assist in the farming operations and in the conduct of the work of the order, and furthermore the change would have to be approved by the "Abbot in France."

Under the impulse of these unsubstantiated rumors one of the newspapers of that city most interested in the abbey as a neighboring institution, Dubuque, published an editorial on the subject as illogical as it was wanton, and it revealed the usual popular misconception of the purpose of contemplative monastic life. Apparently irked by the refusal of the community to grow in numbers, and looking only toward utilitarian and pragmatic results, the impatient editor wrote in the Telegraph-Herald on August 23d, 1912:

The Trappist Monastery

A Catholic missionary society is reported to be seeking the lease of the Trappist Monastery and farm at Melleray for a boys' college with an agricultural department.

All thoughtful persons will wish the society success in its efforts. The monks at Melleray are thinning out and the order is contributing little or nothing to the welfare of society. Since its founding here over seventy years ago it has done little more than serve itself in piling up titles to land. Its spiritual influence, to be sure, has been felt in the countryside, but a missionary society would exercise the same influence and serve social welfare at the same time.

A monastery may by silent suggestion remind men of the need of saving their souls, and offer to penitents a place of retreat for contemplation and penance, but this monastery doesn't do the latter. It exists for the spiritual benefit of the members and the material benefit of the order.

In this day and age they are accounted truly religious who are in line of service, who are taking part of the burden off men's backs, helping struggling men up the path, and opening the door of opportunity to children. With this conception in mind, one speaks truly of orders of Sisters which care for the sick, the superannuated, the aged and which instruct the young, as truly religious.

The serviceability of such monastic orders as that of Melleray passed with the Dark Ages. They are anachronisms in this age.

 p186  One of the few things Abbot Alberic Dunlea had ever written in his life for publication was his forthright reply to this editorial:

Dear Mr. Editor: — An article appeared here in a local paper regarding this monastery which was not written with a friendly hand. In what school of asceticism the writer qualified as a competent judge of the utility of our lives, I know not. Our serviceability, he says, passes with the dark ages; someone had told him of dark ages and he actually believes they were dark.a Our Order reaches far back in history, that is true; the famous Abbey of Citeaux in France is the birthplace of the Order. The wonderful diffusion of the Trappists — more properly called Cistercians — is due in great measure to St. Bernard, the last of the Fathers of the Church. During his life-time (1091‑1153) the order had spread so rapidly and so widely that it was said "All Europe is Cistercian." Throughout their history its members won renown as agriculturalists. In this connection Europe owes to them a greater debt of gratitude than to any other religious institute.

This sage of ours informs the public that we are contributing little or nothing to the welfare of society; that for seventy years we have done little more than serving ourselves and piling up titles to land. What does he think of the mountains of food and provisions which we laboriously produced and furnished to keep alive the multitudes in this nation during those near‑to seventy years — whilst in all probability he did not produce a spoonful?

Our people came here at an early date, forty or fifty in number, hardy, industrious men, more given to labor than to traducing their neighbors, and the signs of their industry could soon be seen all around them. The country being a wilderness at that time and land being had almost for the fencing, these enterprising men acquired title to a considerable share of it. Several of those titles we have given up and some we retain but both those which we have held and those which we now hold have been obtained through our own hard labor and industry like those of other honest people and like the members of our Order all over the world. These possess lands according to our rules, that laboring in them and earning their bread by the sweat of their brows,  p187 they may not be a burden on the Church or on the people and that they may live in peace and be out of reach of malevolent critics. If their lives seem not useful to persons of a certain stamp, it is not their fault.

For our old and grand Order and its practices I make no apology to this writer nor to anyone else, and if this light of the twentieth century go back to the so‑called dark ages, he can find much in them wholesome and profitable to his poor soul. As for us, I think we have as much right to live in solitude if we so please, as others have to keep out of it, and that right we assert. The world and its agents have ever been a trouble to monks, ever thrusting themselves upon their solitude, and trying to draw them out of it lest here they meet with failure. Our help is in the name of the Lord!

The rumors died away — but not the Iowa anachronism. It persisted with an obstinately robust spirituality; it persisted because Providence was pleased with it and with the prayerful devotions that were offered up daily, yes, hourly for a world of editors and others who just would not understand.

There were occasionally other items of news in the press about New Melleray, but most of them during this period dealt with a subject that struck the popular fancy — that of a medical monk whose fame as a healer far surpassed that of Father Lewis Carew during his years of superiorship. Brother Paul was a lay brother who previous to his entrance into the Dubuque monastery had studied medicine and for years had interned in several Chicago and St. Louis hospitals. Thousands of people from all northeastern Iowa, poor and wealthy, Protestant and Catholic, flocked to the abbey to receive treatment for their bodily ills from the hands of Brother Paul.

In 1915 when his fame was at its height it was estimated by newspaper reporters and taxi drivers that not less than one hundred automobiles called there on favorable days to disgorge passengers seeking aid from the brother, and on Sundays and holidays there was twice that number. On these days crowds were scattered about the grounds waiting for an appointment; some of the people were seated on the grass eating lunches and picnic dinners which they had brought with them, while others hovered about the doors of  p188 the institution patiently awaiting their turn for admission. In all those years Brother Paul and the monastery refused to accept a cent of financial payment, judging the services merely as a Christian labor of love for humanity. These ministrations were later terminated with the sudden decline of Brother Paul's health and strength.

In the face of steady decline, frequent discouragement and occasional denunciation the soul of venerable, old Abbot Alberic was imperturbable. He knew that at several meetings of the General Chapter the fate of New Melleray had been discussed and mournful apprehensions had been manifested. But serenely and, thus far, safely he had held the destinies of his beloved house in his gnarled and withered hands that were so often clasped in prayer in chapel and cell. On a Sunday morning of early February, 1917, the angel of death cordially grasped those withered hands of the zealous monk, then in his eighty-fifth year, and on the following morning the obituary mass was offered up in the monastery chapel by the prior, Father Bruno Ryan.

Then for the first time in the trans-Mississippi history of America was an abbot buried — in the abbey cemetery, in Iowa soil, Abbot Alberic was laid away in the rough habiliments of his silent, toilsome days, with the surviving members — only seventeen! of the Dubuque Trappist house grouped about his grave.

Father Bruno Ryan was immediately appointed as head of the New Melleray institution. The new fifty‑one year old superior had entered Mount Melleray Abbey in Ireland as a postulant in 1888 and had been ordained to the priesthood in 1896. While acting as master of novices to the lay brothers, he was sent in July, 1914, to America to serve as prior under Abbot Alberic in the administration of the Iowa foundation.

When in 1918 Abbot Pacomius Gaboury of Our Lady of the Lake Abbey near Montreal, Canada, made the official visit for Abbot Maurus of Mount Melleray to the Dubuque cloister and found Father Bruno surrounded by his sixteen lonely monks, he exhorted them: "Your dear monastery is at the turning point which causes you great anxiety. Your lists are growing smaller by degrees, many of you are very old and must bear the burden of labor. The future appears to you full of uncertainty . . . But fear not. How could Providence abandon those who renounce all things for His sake?"

These pious words bespeak the zeal of Dom Pacome. But with all his zeal and piety he was outstandingly an abbot who today  p189 would be called progressive. On his monastic lands at Oka near Montreal were then the finest blooded livestock in Canada; on his abbatial domain he had introduced for the use of his monks the then last word in modern farm machinery. Father Bruno, naturally anxious to restore again to New Melleray the good name it had once enjoyed for its famed cattle and agricultural products, broached the subject of its introduction of pedigreed stock and new agricultural machines to the Canadian abbot. But the cautious and monitory advice of Dom Pacome discouraged him. Indeed, so disheartened did he become over the ever saddening prospects that, according to his younger contemporaries still living today, he assumed a fatalistic attitude during the first years of his spiritual rule at New Melleray, believing firmly that the Iowa monastery was doomed and that his surviving monks would soon return to Ireland. His laudable dream of restocking the Iowa monastic estate with blooded cattle and modernizing its machinery was finally to be carried out later under the favorable direction of Abbot Eugene Martin.

In both years of 1919 and 1920 the Father Immediate of the Dubuque monastery, Abbot Maurus, personally made the visitation. On the earlier visit he stated it as his conviction that the introduction of a fresh contingent of young, active monks from Ireland or elsewhere was a necessity, and he promised to do his utmost to bring this about. He sent over five good brothers from Mount Melleray, and on his second visit to Iowa was pleased to note that with the addition of a couple of American novices the community now numbered twenty-five. In return he asked for prayers for Ireland, which in 1920 was desperately wrestling for independence against English troops and Black-and‑tans. His next visit to the American filiation was in 1924, when he was accompanied by Father Celsus O'Connell, (today — 1952 — the Father Immediate of New Melleray and happily presiding over Mount Melleray as its abbot) and on this occasion he found the community unchanged in numbers as well as in its excellent spirit of piety and austerity.

The visitation card of this year of 1924 reveals itself to the research student with the impact of a mild shock. What is this? Where is the scroll on the mustily fragrant parchments of the earlier visiting abbots? Where are the flourishes of the pen as the often eloquently worded exhortations were written out? This card is typewritten! From Citeaux and Clairvaux to the Royal and the Underwood — from the scratch of the quill‑pen in the cell of the  p190 monk to the clack and ring of the modern machine in the monastic halls, — why, this is an attack on the alleged monkish anachronisms.

But this was not the end of treason to Cistercian medievalism — there was still further mischief afoot. At the General Chapter meeting in ancient Cistercium — Citeaux — in 1921 New Melleray Abbey in the United States was authorized to introduce electric lighting and heating in its corridors, rooms, halls, and during the next few years Father Bruno proceeded with the complete modern installation of electricity. But even this did not terminate the wonders, for in its final session of that year of 1921 the staid and venerable fathers of the General Chapter after a favorable vote, then a reconsideration, and then a second favorable vote permitted the superior of New Melleray the use of an automobile! Vehicles of the de luxe type, though, were interdicted.

The interest of writers in the Iowa Trappist foundation, whether feature specialists for newspapers or professors of learned societies, did not flag in the least during all these years. In 1906 a Professor Loos of the college of political science in the University of Iowa made a visit, with some fan‑fare, to the abbey and gave out a public announcement that he was to write an authoritative account of the institution for the Iowa State Historical Society. He was to return later for a week of study and observation and would be a guest of the monks. Professor Perkins' account of the monastery in 1892, the announcement continued, had contained inaccuracies, but an entirely new and correct story was to be written and published by Professor Loos. The records on hand today, however, fail to reveal any such published work.

But in 1922 one of the journals of the Historical Society, The Palimpsest, devoted an entire issue to the monastery, the articles appearing under the title of "A Day at New Melleray."b The editor in his short article took a rather gloomy view of the future of the Dubuque Trappist "anachronism," and concluded with the statement: "The asceticism of the silent monks at New Melleray does not appeal to American youth. Religious zeal is not a prominent trait of the times. Monastic life in Iowa seems to be an anachronism." The principal articles of the journal which dealt with the oft treated features of monastic life which usually interest the public, were written by an able professor on the staff of the university, Dr. Bruce Mahan, and with a fortuitous note of prophecy, he made the query:  p191 "One wonders if this settlement of the Trappists in the Mississippi Valley will repeat the story of Citeaux. Will New Melleray Abbey, which now seems to languish, wax vigorous in the future, spreading its influence afar and contributing to a revival of monasticism?"

It was in 1926 that the Chicago Tribune, — "The World's Greatest Newspaper," it styles itself — again ran a series of articles on New Melleray Abbey, written this time by that incomparable artist, James O'Donnell Bennett, who had no peer in the newspaper world of his day.

'Tis the nearest to an absolutely unique shrine place in all Chicagoland," he commented, and then philosophized: "And there I was in a different world and in another age of the world. I was in the premier seat in our country of the kind of healing the unaging Dumas prescribes in that unaging book of his, 'Monte Christo':º 'All earthly ills yield to two all potent remedies — time and silence." For at New Melleray stands, a Trappist monastery of the Roman Catholic Church, and there they have abundant silence and all the time there is — from generation unto generation, from age unto age. Saecula saeculorum is no hollow formula within those long, cool corridors of silence.

"For seven and seventy years that monastery has stood there, and what was happening there in the year of our Lord 1849 was happening there yesterday and today, and will be happening there in the year of our Lord 2003.

"I mean an unhalting, unvexed, unhurried and unhurrying routine of prayer and praise, of digging the soil for the kindly fruits of the earth and digging the soil for the kindly grave that shall at last enwrap us all in the everlasting silence."

During this same year Father Bruno decided to put into effect a project that he had been mentally nurturing for some time — a project that had been frequently mentioned to him by friends of the community, both clerical and lay. This was the erection of a guest and retreat house. The purpose of a guest house in all Trappist monasteries is to provide accommodations for gentlemen — both priests and laymen — where they may spend a number of days in retirement and seclusion, apart from business, home and social duties, to attend to life's most important affair — the salvation of one's immortal soul. Although service buildings had been erected on the grounds, there had been no major addition to the large and lovely  p192 Gothic semi-quadrangle whose construction was completed fifty-seven years previously. Work was started on the guest and retreat house in 1927 and was finished toward the end of 1928. Erected on the grand scale it forms part of the third side of the contemplated huge quadrangle. Along with this project a new abbey church was installed in the north wing of the quadrangle on the second floor, running almost its entire length east and west. A screen separates it into two unequal sections, the larger part forming the community chapel, and the smaller section, with altars and confessionals and pews for two hundred people, accommodating the laity. It was thus arranged so that the monastic church and the divine services would be accessible to the general public, and thereby the laity of both sexes could have the opportunity of satisfying their devotion by visiting the church and assisting at the various liturgical services.

On October 28, 1928, Archbishop James J. Keane of Dubuque blessed the new buildings and delivered the sermon of the occasion, while Bishop Henry P. Rohlman, then the chief shepherd of the Davenport diocese, offered up the pontifical mass.

These and other necessary improvements left a debt of $30,000.00 on the Trappist institution, but under the careful management of Father Bruno this was paid off during the next few years in the face of the severe depression which struck the nation in 1929.

When in 1928 the abbot general of the Cistercian order, Dom Jean Baptiste Ollitrault de Keryvallan of Citeaux, arrived for his visitation of New Melleray he was quite pleased with what he saw. The monastery was at least holding its own in numbers — the community had twenty-seven members. He wished that he could visit them more often in order to assist them. "Unfortunately you are so far distant from your Mother House that you cannot enjoy the assistance of regular visitations," he said. "In fact, this is the fourth year since you received the visit of your venerated Father Immediate and it is nineteen years since you have seen the Abbot General!" He lauded the building of the guest house and then suggested the erection of stone walls for an enclosure, that is, a high barrier with locked doors, about the immediate grounds surrounding the monastery "to protect your interior life from the interference of the world of outsiders."

The last visit of Abbot Maurus occurred in 1930, and the next year the Iowa house was honored with the visit of the new abbot general of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance — Dom Herman  p193 Joseph Smets. What he saw gave rise to sentiments of optimism — thirty-eight members and a sincere zeal for monastic observances! "We thank God," he exclaimed, "for having found here a community few in numbers, it is true, but about to increase! Your monastery has taken on new additions and is blessed with a goodly number of novices seeking therein the peace of God and way of perfection according to the Rule of our Father St. Benedict."

The shrewd abbot general correctly sensed that here at last was the critical yet propitious turning of the scale. Probably the chief factor in the election of Father Bruno Ryan a few years later to the abbatial dignity was the increase of native vocations under his superiorship. The increase was small at first but kept growing during the years, and after his death it became an avalanche. For eighty years Mount Melleray had been sending its monks to America to help staff the Iowa filiation; under Father Bruno affairs seemed finally to be shaping themselves in such a manner as to promise the complete emancipation of the daughter house both in regard to material administration and to vocations.

The same phase of history had been passed through some years earlier by New Melleray's sister abbey, Gethsemani in Kentucky. For the first thirty or forty years at that Trappist house there had been only eight native Americans at the monastery, and they had all run away. Had it not been for the French and German and Irish and even French Canadian novices who came from time to time the foundation might not have kept going, but finally that great problem of home vocations was solved. Extraordinarily odd it was that the first of a long list of native Americans to enter Gethsemani — this was in 1885 — and take the Rule and remain to the end was a Texas cowboy, John Hanning, who became Brother Joachim, The Man Who Got Even with God.1 By the early 1920s the Kentucky cloister housed a thoroughly homogeneous "American" community, although there were still many monks who had come from foreign lands.

The metamorphosis developed a little later in the Iowa Trappist story. When Dom Celsus O'Connell of Mount Melleray, the Father Immediate, was present at the Dubuque monastery in 1935 for the  p194 election at which Father Bruno was chosen the third abbot of New Melleray, he made it clear that from then on this American affiliate was to strike out entirely for itself.

The abbatial blessing of Father Bruno followed his installation as the third abbot of the Dubuque Trappist cloister; this took place on May 23d of 1935, and formed an epochal event in the annals of the abbey. It was the most colorful and impressive function that had ever hitherto taken place at the monastery. Archbishop Francis J. Beckman pontificated at the blessing of the new abbot and at the solemn high mass. Seven bishops, twelve monsignori, three scores of priests and many members of religious orders and of the laity attended the ceremonies. Three abbots of the Cistercian order were present: Dom Celsus O'Connell of Ireland; Dom Pacome Gaboury of Oka, Canada; and Dom Frederick Dunne, the recently installed abbot of Gethsemani. Because of the predominance of the natives of Ireland at New Melleray it was only appropriate that prominent among the special guests should be the Irish consul at Chicago, D. J. McGrath, as representative of the Irish Free State. The sermon on this occasion was preached by Bishop Henry P. Rohlman of Davenport.

Frederick L. Holmes, the distinguished Wisconsin lawyer and publicist, and for years the managing editor of that lively periodical, LaFollette's Weekly, called at New Melleray about a year after Abbot Bruno had been installed, and after a visit through the grounds and buildings of the abbey asked permission to interview the abbot. A moment later Abbot Bruno appeared. Smiling, he said he was glad to have Mr. Holmes as a guest. The conversation continued some minutes.

"You wanted to ask me something, I believe?" the abbot finally remarked.

"It is an important question, but I think you have answered it with your appearance," Holmes rejoined. "Out in the world it is said that the Trappist tortures his body by insufficient food and lack of sleep. I came —"

"You came to find out for yourself," interrupted Abbot Bruno. "Take a good look at me. I have been a member of the order for over fifty years; do I look as if I were suffering from loss of sleep or starving for food?"

Holmes was forced to confess that he had seldom met a man over seventy with so robust a physique. He learned, too, that no special  p195 treatment was accorded to the abbot. He rose at the same hour of two o'clock, ate the same as others, and scrupulously performed the same services, including four daily hours of manual tasks.

"Do the monks dig their own graves?" Holmes asked.

"The grave-digging story is like Banquo's ghost," the abbot explained good-naturedly. "That is only one of the many untruthful stories told about us to excite the curiosity of strangers. Many visitors show keen disappointed when disillusioned. Ours is a life of happiness and not of gloom."

The healthy progress of New Melleray under Abbot Bruno may be indicated by the growth of vocations: the number of brothers grew to fifty‑one in 1938 and to fifty-four in 1941; by the improvements and renovations on the lands and in the monastery buildings; by the introduction of special courses in theological training for the priests and candidates for the priesthood among the increasing number of choir monks — this was done on the suggestion of Dom Celsus, the Father Immediate; and also on his advice the organization of classes for all the brethren to sing the holy office under the direction of the cantors.

Then came World War II, and the monks of New Melleray suffered no more than the rest of the nation except for one spiritual embarrassment: the drafting of all available men into the military services temporarily stopped the flow of new novices and postulants into the monastery. Some of the younger ordained monks were seized by the prevailing martial fever; two of them obtained dispensations to serve as army chaplains, and three others were granted leaves to help various bishops by replacing other priests who had volunteered as chaplains with the military forces.

In 1943 Abbot Bruno conceived the idea of establishing a Trappistine convent in or near Dubuque. Numerous nuns and lay‑women had written to the abbey inquiring about the availability of such an institution with its holy and austere mode of life. The Trappistines — Cistercian nuns — follow substantially the same rule as do the Trappist monks. Prayer, especially the divine office, reading and manual work, are fused in a way that does not burden the spirit. The seven hours each day spent in manual labor include in most convents the making of vestments, altar linens, altar breads, rosary beads, etc. Although Canada already had several Trappistine convents, all composed of French-speaking nuns, there was no such establishment in the United States.

 p196  Abbot Celsus of Mount Melleray Abbey, when he learned of the number of American ladies definitely interested in Trappistine vocations, consented to the venture and even promised additional vocations from Ireland. Archbishop Beckman of Dubuque also gave his approval to Abbot Bruno in the matter, provided that a suitable site and sufficient endowment could be secured. Father Flanagan of Boys Town in Omaha sent the first check, a sizable one, in support of the cause for which he promised enthusiastic support. But with his death in 1944 Abbot Bruno's ambitious plan came to an end.

Still, this same plan of the Dubuque abbot was later revived by Archbishop Cushing of Boston, and in October of 1949 he brought a group of Trappistine nuns from Ireland to establish a convent in Wrentham, Massachusetts, the first community of this order in the United States.

On August 2nd, 1944, the Trappist brethren were saddened by the passing of Abbot Bruno Ryan, then in his seventy-ninth year, after having served his community selflessly and zealously for more than a quarter of a century. Archbishop Beckman officiated at the requiem mass for the repose of his soul three days later. Dom Celsus O'Connell at Mount Melleray wanted to come to America to be with his daughter-house during this period and to preside at the election of a new abbot. But a world war was on, all normal transportation was interrupted, and an ocean full of hostile surface warships and U‑boats separated him from the United States and Iowa. Nothing daunted, he obtained passage on an army troop-ship and crossed the perilous seas in the late fall arriving safely at Dubuque in time to be present at the choosing of a fourth abbot of New Melleray on December 12th, 1944.

The Author's Note:

1 By M. Raymond, O. C. S. O. (Milwaukee, 1941). — John Hanning was the first American lay brother to stay on, and Frederick Dunne, later Abbot Frederick, who entered in 1894, was the first American choir brother to remain.

Thayer's Notes:

a A common mistake made by many people and in all kinds of contexts; on the part of some, not actually so much a mistake as an intentional agenda then repeated by the innocent: the notion being that until the "Renaissance" and the "Enlightenment" Christian Europe was altogether benighted, but now of course we've gone beyond that.

Leaving aside questions of hubris — no century has seen anything worse than the horrors of the Holocaust in presumably enlightened Germany as late as the Year of Grace 1945, and among the infidels, the ramming of planes into civilian buildings (A. H. 1422) — "Dark Ages" applied to any time after about 1100 is a mistake, plain and simple, betraying ignorance of European history: and the monastic awakening under St. Bernard was in fact one of the chief factors in the turning point toward modern civilization. The term "Dark Ages" is more properly used by historians to refer to the almost anarchical period after the fall of the Roman Empire, say the sixth to the tenth centuries.

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