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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 18

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 20

 p197  XIX

The Second Century of the Iowa Trappists

Prior Albert Beston, graduate and master of arts of the National University of Ireland, professed choir monk and priest of the Trappist order, professor in Mount Melleray seminary and sub‑prior of Mount Melleray Abbey, had come to America in 1920. At New Melleray he had served as master of novices, professor of moral and dogmatic theology and as prior at the time of the death of Abbot Bruno; and as successor to the latter he was elected to abbatial honor on December 12th, 1944. He was installed on December 14th, at which time each professed member of the community made his promise of obedience to the newly elected superior. He was blessed on December 28th, in the presence of two archbishops, three other Cistercian abbots, eleven bishops, and a great number of priests, religious and laity. The three visiting abbots were the Father Immediate, Dom Celsus O'Connell of Ireland, Dom Pacome Gaboury of Notre Dame du Lac, Canada, and Abbot Stephen Schappler, a Benedictine, of Conception Abbey, Clyde, Missouri. Archbishop Rohlman, formerly bishop of Davenport and now coadjutor archbishop  p198 of Dubuque, pontificated at the mass, and Archbishop Beckman in his eloquent sermon paid this tribute among many others: "This venerable Abbey, its roots embedded deep in the sacred dust of generations of its forebears and inextricably intertwined with those of the Old World, is a living symbol of the Christian life at its best, an example of Christ-like sacrifice shining forth like a signet of hope in a pleasure-jaded, war‑surfeited world. What untold wealth of blessings has this Archdiocese reaped from within the hallowed walls of New Melleray where, if nowhere else in these parts, giant saints are in the making!"

A few days before, in his visitation address to the Trappist brethren, Dom Celsus after congratulating Abbot Albert Beston on his elevation and the community on having him as their superior, declared that New Melleray Abbey must appeal to the American world as the home of God where men spend themselves and are spent in His service. And then calling on them as monks with arms and armor, he said: "You must fully realize that you are Christ's ambassadors on earth; His elite bodyguard, his valiant soldiers. The arms of your warfare are, not the deadly weapons of militarism, but the spiritual armor of Faith, Hope and Charity daily, to a high degree, exercised in your community duties; in penance and prayer, and in the full imitation of your Divine Master."

Abbot Albert's term of office lasted not even two years, but they were years crowded with colossal occupations both spiritual and material. As the first months of 1945 were ushered in it became apparent to everyone that the Fascist might of Germany and Japan was doomed, and that the long war would soon be followed by an era of peace. Then the holy example of Abbot Albert and his monks not only drew in more vocations but inspired the growing number of novices already in the cloister. When Abbot Albert was installed as superior in December of 1944 the community numbered fifty‑one; at his death in September of 1946 it had grown to sixty-seven, by far the greatest increase in the history of the Iowa Trappist foundation. It was apparent that the flood of vocations was just starting. When Archbishop Rohlman at the conclusion of the pontifical mass on December 8th — the feast of the Immaculate Conception — 1945, during which he had ordained two of the young and fervent monks to the priesthood, delivered a beautiful sermonette and said: "What a wonderful culmination if at your centennial in 1949 you had a hundred monks at New Melleray — one monk for  p199 each year of the abbey's existence!" he prophesied better than he knew. Incidentally, the two brothers who had been ordained were Alphonsus Layeaux of Minneapolis and Basil Zavadskis of Cleveland — their names and origins indicated the new trend of American vocations to the Trappist monastery.

Another colossal work of Abbot Albert's was the inauguration of the building program to complete New Melleray Abbey. The ideas for this mammoth undertaking were submitted to the community for their consideration and by a unanimous vote of all those monks who had been solemnly professed it was decided to launch the program. The labor and finances which previously had been intended to be used toward the erection of a Trappistine convent would now be employed toward the work on New Melleray Abbey itself. The very growth of the numbers of the community demanded this. The mediaeval Gothic designs and dreams of Augustus Welby Pugin and John Mullany would be carried out and even be extended. All useless expenditures from now on were to be cut down and all efforts were to be concentrated on this great work. Due permissions were soon obtained from the General Chapter and from the Holy See, and immediate arrangements were begun for the completion of the plans and the letting of the contracts.

Then for months — and for years, too, for that matter, as the work is painstakingly but surely progressing today — a small army of monks aided by all that modern mechanical contrivances can do, went to work with a will. New basements were dug under the older cloister wings; land was cleared as the forest of trees to the south and east fell beneath the ringing blows of monastic axes. Graders large and small, powerful caterpillars, cranes, trucks, scrapers and shovels all added to joyful noise and apparent confusion of excavating and preparatory building of the new wings and extensions of the huge Gothic quadrangular pile. Father Michael Holland, a former Canadian "mountie" as well as a building expert, was drafted into service as director of construction; it should be added here that at the beginning of 1952 he celebrated his thirty-fourth anniversary as a Trappist happily recovering from being crushed under a concrete wall which his fellow monks were building. Father Holland had come to New Melleray for this specialized work from the monastery of Our Lady of the Valley, Valley Falls, Rhode Island. This monastery, since that time destroyed by fire, has been rebuilt at Spencer, Massachusetts.

 p200  After the war auto-trucks were being sold from army surplus materials and at a large discount to educational institutions. These strong vehicles were needed at New Melleray for construction work as well as for other operations on the abbey lands. Prior Vincent Daly travelled to Washington and convinced government officials that as the Iowa institution had a school of philosophy and theology for its priestly candidates it correctly came under the proper classification for the discounts. In the spring of 1946 Prior Vincent accompanied by two other brothers and two laymen made a triumphal arrival at New Melleray from the East with four new army trucks.

Naturally the world war had interfered with the movements and travel of Trappist abbots and superiors, just as it had with everyone else, and had prevented their capitular meetings since 1938. So when in 1946 a convening of the General Chapter of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance was to be held at the abbey at Citeaux in France on May 1st, Abbot Albert considered it his duty to attend, and the more so, because a new abbot general was to be elected. That great son of Flanders, the Most Reverend Herman Joseph Smets, the abbot general who had visited America and New Melleray in 1931, and at that time had so prophetically discerned the latter's coming growth and vitality, had been dead since January of 1943. To arrive in Europe on time Abbot Albert flew from New York to Ireland by plane — another colossal affair and sufficiently of a novelty at that time to appear as quite a blow to those who considered Trappist methods anachronistic. But what was still more striking and something which had never occurred before in history was the sight of four Cistercian abbots together flying from Shannon airport, Ireland, to Paris, from where they motored to Citeaux. This quartet, much photographed and commented on in the world press on that occasion, consisted of Dom Celsus O'Connell, Dom Camillus Claffey of Mount St. Joseph Abbey, Roscrea, Ireland, Dom Benignus Hickey of New Melfont Abbey, Ireland, and Abbot Albert Beston.

There at the eight centuries old Citeaux Abbey the Iowa Trappist monk, Abbot Albert, met Cistercian abbots from all over the world. There with the other white-robed prelates he marched from solemn votive mass in the chapel to the spacious chapter room. Massive oak double doors closed behind the monks as they took their seats for the opening of the balloting for the new abbot general. The chapter room at Citeaux is a simple room furnished only by two rows of chairs and green-topped tables. Only two pictures hang on the walls  p201 — of two great monks to whom we referred in the early chapters of this Iowa Trappist story: the one is of Abbot de Rancé, the great reformer of La Grande Trappe, and the other is of the handsome Dom Augustin de Lestrange, among whose followers was the Prior Joseph Dunand who had made the missionary visit to the Iowa Country and the Upper Mississippi valley in 1817, coming from St. Louis and Monks' Mound.

At the head of the chapter room sat the vicar general with his secretary and "scrutators" or examiners on a slightly raised platform. At the green-topped tables along with Abbot Albert were forty-three other chapter members from France, Belgium, Ireland, Italy, Canada, England, Spain, Holland and the United States. This chapter meeting of 1946 was not a full one — across from Abbot Albert were nine vacant seats. Abbots from Japan and China were unable to come, and the French military authorities, still actuated by the feelings of la revanche, had refused to permit entry to the abbots of Germany.

Before each member present lay a white ballot paper. But before he wrote the name of his choice on it, the Iowa monk walked to the vicar general, president of the General Chapter, knelt before him and swore that he would vote for the man he thought most worthy. Each of the other abbots present did the same. One by one the capitular members completed their papers, walked to the secretary's table and dropped them into an ancient urn that had witnessed these elections for hundreds of years. One by one they returned to their places.

Three hours later the abbots filed out singing the Te Deum, and announcement was made that by one of the largest majorities in the history of the order Dom Dominic Nogues, a white-haired monk from Brittany, the former abbot of Timadeuc in France, and for seventeen years the vicar general of the order, was elected the new abbot general.1

 p202  After a week of strenuous meetings Abbot Albert flew back for a visit to Ireland and then returned to New Melleray. But not for long; always active — he himself had helped to dig the foundation for the abbey expansion — he was now hospitalized from an illness that followed his return journey to America. On September 5th the shy and gentle Abbot Albert passed into eternity, and two days later Coadjutor Archbishop Rohlman of Dubuque who had blessed him as abbot twenty months before celebrated the pontifical mass of requiem at his funeral obsequies in the abbey chapel.

Until the election of a new abbot which was to take place the next month when the Father Immediate, Dom Celsus of Mount Melleray, was expected to be present, Prior Vincent Daly acted as provisional superior. After the arrival of Dom Celsus the election was held in the chapter room on October 3d following the mass of the Holy Ghost. Several ballots were required among the seventeen solemnly professed choir monks present, for in the election of an abbot there must be an absolute majority of votes. Father Eugene Martin, abbey procurator and sub‑prior, was their choice.

For almost a century — a century lacking only three years — every superior of New Melleray had been a professed monk who had made his vow of stability in Mount Melleray Abbey at Cappoquin in Waterford, Ireland. Father Eugene Martin has been — and is — the only exception. He was received into the order and made his vows at Mount St. Joseph's Abbey at Roscrea in Tipperary, but this institution like New Melleray of Iowa had been founded by the illustrious Dom Bruno Fitzpatrick of Mount Melleray — so he was a grandson of Mount Melleray by filiation. After serving in various administrative offices in Mount St. Joseph's, Father Eugene came to the Iowa Trappist house in 1920 and at the time of his election was sixty-eight years of age — the oldest to be elevated to the abbatial office at New Melleray with the one exception of Abbot Bruno Ryan who had been in his seventieth year at the time of his election.

 p203  The ceremony of the abbatial blessing of Abbot Eugene was a major ecclesiastical function with national and even international undertones. The abbot had served as the monastery's active procurator for twenty-five years and his engaging personality had won him a wide circle of friends throughout the country. It was learned immediately after his election that many of these friends intended to be present at the ceremonial affair. Because of the limited capacity of the abbey chapel it was decided that the blessing should be held in the nearby secular church as on previous historical occasions. This proved to be a wise decision for — despite a two hour downpour of rain at the time of the ceremonies on October 24th, 1946 — five hundred and sixty people from all walks of life were present. Four Benedictine abbots from United States monasteries were in attendance as well as three bishops, and four Cistercian abbots, these latter being the Father Immediate, Dom Celsus O'Connell of Mount Melleray, Ireland; Dom Camillus Claffey, the Lord Abbot of Mount St. Joseph's, Roscrea, Ireland, who had come to America to see the son of his abbey elevated to the dignity of the abbatial office; Abbot Frederick Dunne of Gethsemani, Kentucky; and Abbot James Fox of Our Lady of the Holy Ghost, Conyers, Georgia.

Archbishop Rohlman again pontificated at the mass, and at the conferring of the abbatial benediction he delivered the sermon of the occasion. After the ceremony all were guests of the community at dinner and about one hundred and fifty remained that evening for supper. Many of these were relatives of the New Melleray brethren, and among them was Mr. Joseph Martin of New York City, the new abbot's brother, who had come to Iowa with his wife and two sons to witness this signal function. Incidentally, this is the only record in New Melleray's history of the members of an abbot's family being present to witness his reception of the honors.

(The abbatial titular prefixes of "Dom" and "Lord" possibly prove somewhat of a puzzle to the interested American reader. In democratic America, abbots prudently refrain from translating the "Dom" in front of their name to its English equivalent of "Lord." As Thomas Merton aptly explains, in England and Ireland the abbots are Lord abbots (Domini abbates). In England it is a title. In Catholic Ireland it is not merely a title; it is something more of a fact. The superior of New Melleray in mid‑America will be referred to by the title by which he is so well known to his many friends and acquaintances — Abbot Eugene.)

 p204  The blessings of God continued to be heaped upon the Dubuque Trappist monastery, and as the first century of its existence was being rounded out it found itself entering an era of ardent spiritual vigor and unprecedented temporal progress and well-being. The guest and retreat house, built in 1928, had spiritually as well as materially justified its existence a thousand times over. For years hardly a week went by that some organized group of laymen from Iowa or the surrounding states was not attending a week‑end retreat. One of the neighboring dioceses conducted the annual retreat of its priests at the abbey. During the week there were annually hundreds of other persons — priests and, more often, laymen — who sought in the consoling quietude of the guest house and the abbey chapel and the monastic walks the divine unction needed for their souls.

Under Abbot Eugene the work on the new oratory and church and the other wings of the great Gothic quadrangle has been steadily and earnestly continued. The constant influx of vocations has made the execution of the building program more imperative than ever. The monks carry on the construction of the addition themselves using outside labor only when special skills not available among the members are needed. By doing the work themselves the brothers are fulfilling a double purpose — they do the four hours of manual work a day required as a minimum by the law of their Trappist monastic life and at the same time they are slashing today's inflated building costs.

When the original plans were made — and the various wings must have offices and refectories, kitchens and dormitories, a monastic library, a scriptorium, large, airy classrooms, a community infirmary, sanitary facilities, special quarters for choir brothers and also for lay brothers, for novices and postulants — the contractor estimated the cost at about $2,500,000.00, an enormous sum for the monks, and one which because of the lessons learned from the past financial history of the Dubuque abbey, they eyed with almost suspicious horror. By doing the work themselves, however, the silent Trappists in white and brown have cut the estimate drastically to $1,000,000.00, still a formidable sum for the cautious but yet daring brothers working on the Gothic halls in the Iowa countryside.

So — with earnestness and even relish, pouring concrete, cutting pipe, digging foundations, cutting and setting tile, pushing wheelbarrows are the occupation for at least four hours a day for men,  p205 some of whom can also read easily ancient languages, others of whom can wrestle with abstract problems in philosophy and still others can give evidence of their scholarship in diverse fields of learning. These ambitious activities of the Dubuque Trappist brothers were considered so noteworthy by both the secular and the Catholic press that from time to time feature articles, some of them accompanied by photo-illustrations, appeared all the way from the front page of the New York Mirror to the Chicago Sun‑Times, News and Tribune, as well as in a number of Iowa papers and on out to the Rocky Mountains where the Denver Register also ran pictures and by‑lined stories.

The real invasion of New Melleray by the new postulants commenced after Abbot Eugene had only become just comfortably ensconced in his abbatial seat. It was headed by young men, some still wearing their uniforms, who not so long before had been in the North African campaign against Marshal Rommel, the Desert Fox, or who had taken part in the bloody battle of the Bulge or who had been island hopping in the Pacific under Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Douglas MacArthur. How strange the puzzle is when one looks at it from merely the human viewpoint. For from 1919 to 1926 when America was peaceful and serene as never before only five of the applicants who knocked at the doors of the nigh vacant New Melleray Abbey persevered in their monastic calling. A quarter of a century later in a new day of radio, jet plane, television and hydrogen bombs the manly youth of America turned to the great anachronism, in numbers.

The records show that in 1946 Abbot Eugene had the spiritual direction of sixty-seven members of the Iowa Trappist community. In 1947 there were seventy-three members; in 1948 the number had grown to eighty-four; in 1949, the centennial year, the prophecy of Archbishop Rohlman had been fulfilled and surpassed — the number was one hundred and eight! And in 1950 one hundred and thirty-five!

Today, in 1952, the numbers have gone still higher and the Dubuque cloister would have little elbow room were it not for the fact that a new filiation in Missouri is now receiving its own generous quota of members from New Melleray. They come from all walks of life; and although we have spoken of some who have mastered ancient languages and others who have delved deeply into philosophy and the natural sciences, we do not wish to convey the impression by any means that any great part of them is "learned" men.  p206 An Omaha street car conductor will have his monastic cubicle next to a Milwaukee high school graduate. During the past two years a Negro from Chicago's South Side area and a Filipino from the West were admitted, the first non‑Caucasians ever to enter the Iowa monastery. Trappist cloisters have no racial or national discriminations. Anyone is admitted without question provided he meets only the physical, mental and educational standards required of all.

The Author's Note:

1 In 1951 a new abbot general was elected at Citeaux Abbey as successor to Dom Dominic Nogues who resigned at the General Chapter of September 12th, 1951. The present abbot general of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance is Dom Gabriel Sortais, formerly abbot of Bellefontaine, near Angers, France, who was elected at the extraordinary General Chapter of November 7th, 1951. Several abbots of Bellefontaine were official visitors of New Melleray during this past century of its existence.

The new abbot general, Dom Gabriel Sortais, is renowned in France for his conduct during the last world war. In 1940 he rescued wounded men of the 38th Infantry regiment, an action for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre. He was made a member of the underground Liberation Committee of the Maine et Loire department after he gave sanctuary in his monastery to hundreds of Allied parachutists.

His successor at Bellefontaine Abbey is Dom Emmanuel (René) Coutant, a twenty-eight year old monk, believed to be the youngest monk ever elected to head a Trappist community. He had been the prior since the time of his solemn vows before being ordained to the priesthood. It was at this monastery that nephews of Bishop Mathias Loras had made their vows in the early part of the last century.

Thayer's Note: A biography of Dom Gabriel Sortais has been written by Guy Oury, O. S. B., and is available in an English translation by Brian Kerns, O. C. S. O. under the title Dom Gabriel Sortais: An Amazing Abbot in Turbulent Times (Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, MI, 2006).

A bare summary of his life, with a photo of him, can be found at Cistopedia.

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Page updated: 27 Oct 13