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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 1

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 3

 p9  II

Monte Cassino to Iowa

The six men who gathered in the little Dubuque episcopal mansion on that summer afternoon of 1849 — Dom Bruno and his three monks, Bishop Loras and Abbé Cretin — were, as time was surely to prove, the actual authors and fashioners of the Iowa Trappist institution. Others gave of brain and brawn, of toil and suffering, to its construction and development, but it was to the vision, the enthusiasm and the generosity of these six gentlemen of Christ that New Melleray Abbey owed its successful, albeit oft tottering, beginnings.

Today, crowded as it is with novices and professed monks, with its many spiritual activities and temporal labors, New Melleray is a veritable powerhouse of prayer and penance. Yet a century and more ago it was a dangerously weak and tottering institution which these six men had to guard and to guide lest it plunge into the abyss of disaster that ever yawned at its feet. The agonizing events before 1849, and similar events in its history long after 1849, when the founders had already long been called before their just but merciful Judge, were of such a precarious and menacing nature that as one gazes back through the perspective of time he gains the vivid  p10 impression that only through a miracle of God has New Melleray survived to become the divine powerhouse it is today.

As late as 1892, when the Dubuque abbey was well over forty years of age, a learned professor of history writing under the auspices of the State University of Iowa and still conscious of this hazardous Cistercian venture, stated that "it is not unlikely that this (foundation) may find its isolation fatal, and that it may prove to be the first and last Trappist Abbey west of the Mississippi."a Looking back today we dare to say: Unfounded fear! Monks are indestructible! Yet thanks entirely to the omniscient God Who guided it, New Melleray Abbey is now well started on its second century, possessing greater vigor and promise than ever, and three more Trappist foundations flourish west of the Mississippi; one in the Ozark hills of southern Missouri, another in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, and the third in the Pecos Valley at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, outside Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The 1849 meeting was but an early milestone in the development of the stirring story of the Iowa Trappists. Already they had travelled thousands of miles by land and sea, by lakes, canals, steamboats and stagecoaches, to reach their goal of an American foundation. Already they had encountered disappointments and losses, opposition from American bishops, suspicion from priests, hostility from some of the laity, and ridicule even in the Catholic press of that day. The atmosphere of Know-nothingism and Nativism, rampant among the non‑Catholic masses in the '40s and the '50s of the last century, made the road hard and life acutely arduous for these foreign White Monks. Among the cultured and educated classes, there was not the ignorant hatred of the masses towards them and their ideals, but something worse: a cold contempt for contemplative piety, a cynical disbelief in all that stood for supernaturalism, a subtle but assiduous attack on faith in the Christian dispensation. Who better than Emerson, the poet of contemporary agnostic transcendentalism could voice the attitude:

"I love a church, I love a cowl,

I love a prophet of the soul;

And on my heart monastic aisles

Fall like sweet strains and pensive smiles.

Yet not for all his Faith can see

Would I that cowled churchman be!"

 p11  The patient, heart-breaking struggles and travels of the Irish Cistercians up to this year of 1849 would form, in their description, a classic Odyssey of their own. But they were merely the prelude of a great drama. The grand saga of epic disasters and long-drawn battles against varied catastrophes was to be carried on until well into a new century.

These monks of our story have been called, it will be noted, Cistercians and Trappists as though the names were synonymous and interchangeable. A short glance into the long panorama of their monastic background will clarify the mind of the curious reader. We will now leap back, therefore, for just a moment to the rising of the curtain on our story's very beginning.

The fierce military conflagration about the hills and walls of Monte Cassino monastery in 1943 and '44 made the Western world, at least, again conscious of St. Benedict and his monks and their heroic work started there in Christian antiquity. Now happily in 1952 arising again from the ruins caused by American soldiers and British bombers in World War II, Monte Cassino still stands after fourteen centuries as the historically focal point from which the streams of Benedictine contemplative life began meandering through the civilized world.1 Benedictine monks, ever since 529 A.D., went to various wildernesses in Europe, — (and only in the last century to Africa, America and Asia) — built their monasteries there, cultivated the land and applied themselves to the sciences and arts. Benedictine monks are members of a community of men, leading an austere and contemplative life apart from the world, under strict vows, and in accordance with the Rule of St. Benedict.

Besides the contemplative orders such as the Benedictines, there are active religious orders: such as the orders of the friars — the  p12 Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians — or such societies as the Jesuits, — whose members take care of the sick and directly feed the poor and teach children in school, and even conduct parish work. It is true that the contemplative orders often do some of this work indirectly, for much of their material goods goes to the poor and they assist other charitable activities. But their primary work is spiritual: it is prayer and meditation and austerity. In a world which knows nothing of prayer and austerity, it is these orders who pray for the world and all those in the world who have neglected prayer.

As the centuries rolled on some of these strict orders grew weak in their primitive discipline and fervor. Reforms had to be instituted to correct their laxity, caused sometimes by their landed possessions and wealth. When the laxity of the Benedictine life of the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries is spoken of, it must be immediately understood that this did not mean grave disorders or corruption, but a too easy and free interpretation of the strict Rule of St. Benedict.

One of these marked reforms occurred at the turn of the twelfth century under the great monk, St. Robert, who founded what he called the New Monastery, at Citeaux in France. A little later under St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the Cistercians became probably the greatest contemplative order of all times. Within fifty years this order had five hundred abbeys, and later numbered in the thousands its monasteries and convents.

Then again decadence descended upon part of the order. Although riches and great properties led to laxity in numerous places, there were many abbeys where there was no diminution in fervor, fasts or fortitude. And so in the seventeenth century the Order of Citeaux was divided into two Congregations, the Cistercians of the Common and the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, the latter adhering strictly to the Rule in all its phases.

But what of the name "Trappists?" We are now coming to that.

There had been for a long time an abbey in northerly France called La Trappe. It was an old, old Cistercian abbey going back to the year 1140 A.D., and because both of its prominence and its robust growth it became widely known as La Grande Trappe. In the seventeenth century a zealous abbot who had been a rich and reckless rake in his youth tried — and succeeded in a large measure — to reintroduce  p13 profound piety and severe austerity in the Cistercian order. His movement was called the Great Reform. So great was the fame of holiness under this Abbot de Rancé that men like Bossuet, the celebrated French pulpit orator, and King James II of England came to La Trappe to make spiritual retreats. As these reforms introduced by de Rancé at La Trappe began to spread through all the Cistercian houses of the Strict Observance, the name Trappist everywhere accompanied them and it is by this name today that the White Monks are popularly known.

There is just one more remarkable Trappist besides de Rancé of whom a word must be said here — because of his influence on the Cistercians during a critical period of world history, because of his pioneer American venture, and because one of his followers actually visited the Iowa area in the year 1817.

Father Augustin de Lestrange, usually known to history as Dom Augustin, was the young novice-master at La Grande Trappe when the thunders of the ugly French Revolution began to roar over Europe. More sagacious of the horrible future than many of his elders he led a group of Trappists out of France to sanctuary in Switzerland; most monastic institutions were destroyed and the remaining monks imprisoned or liquidated. In the old ruined Carthusian house of La Val Sainte in the Swiss canton of Fribourg Dom Augustin opened a refuge for many Cistercians who "liberated from monastic despotism" by the revolutionary fanatics still craved their Trappist way of life. He and his community then started a new Reform with a capital R, one of the most drastic ever attempted and going far beyond the normally austere Rule of St. Benedict. One example of many severities: they renounced even the rough straw mattress allowed by St. Benedict and slept on boards.

Under Dom Augustin La Val Sainte soon became an abbey, and under this amazing human dynamo of saintly zeal it started to found new Trappist houses, all with his severe Reform, in many parts of Europe: in Spain, in Belgium, in Holland, in Italy, in England. Came Napoleon: and he reached out his grasping Corsican hand to La Val Sainte to seize the handsome, adventurous and devoted Trappist who defied him. But Dom Augustin swiftly led his groups of followers to short-lived foundations in Germany, Austria, in Poland, and finally in Russia. For years he had dreamed of the young American republic and its free institutions, and in 1803 when the Trappists had finished their long flight to Russia and began trickling back to La  p14 Val Sainte, he sent out one of his captains, Dom Urban Guillet, with a goodly group of monks to the United States.

It was this adventurous group, imbued with Dom Augustin's austere zeal, that came to Pennsylvania, then went on to Kentucky, and finally reached the Mississippi. During the winters of the four years that they carried on their monastic labors in their log‑cabin at Cahokia in Illinois, Dom Urban Guillet and Father Joseph Dunand, his active lieutenant, would mount their steeds and trot carefully over the ice of the Mississippi to render missionary service to the scattered flocks in the St. Louis and Florissant districts of Missouri. The zealous community had hoped to obtain a grant of four thousand acres from the federal government at Washington to support the technical Indian school which they were organizing. Then suddenly they were called back to New York from Monks' Mound, and a few years later with the fall of Napoleon they returned to France.b

However, they left there behind them in the Mississippi valley one solitary Trappist, the former prior, Joseph Dunand, whose missionary adventures were a little later to reach out to the Dubuque and Wisconsin districts.

There, in a nutshell, is the early and later Cistercian background of the Iowa Trappists. When Abbot Bruno Fitzpatrick and his companions signed the documents in the home of Bishop Loras they probably appended the letters "O. C. R." to their names, meaning Order of Cistercians of the Reform. Today they would sign themselves "O. C. S. O.," which always mean "a monk, a Trappist, a contemplative," and these letters stand for Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance.

Today, especially in the United States and Canada, there is a renewed intellectual interest displayed in the Cistercian history and program. Due to the shock and disillusionment in the materialistic minded world following World War I and II, and to various other causes, some obvious and some mysterious, (a minor one among them probably being the spectacular flash of the military conflagration at Monte Cassino within the last decade) there has been a growing urge in the hearts of good men who realize that true peace can be arrived at only through a perfect union of their wills with God. They see this in the quiet, contemplative orders — in the Trappist way of life. Merchants, students, farmers, and, of late, soldiers and sailors — both officers and men — coming back from the wars, have  p15 trudged up to the monastic gates to peer through them in search of spiritual security.

New Melleray Abbey is among those institutions which have thrown open their portals to them. And now the brown robed lay brothers, some picturesquely bearded, bringing in their sputtering tractors and their groaning army trucks from the rolling Iowa cornfields, the shaven choir brothers coming in from the orchards or poring over their Latin chant-books, and the tonsured white-robed priests working at their desks, all hear the abbey bell ringing in the clear air of the Mississippi valley and they converge on the high-arched chapel there to pay their devoirs to the Christ. New Melleray Abbey is their spiritual fortress. The monks are front-line soldiers of God. Their arms are the shield of silence, the sword of prayer, the sharp-pointed arrows of self-denial. Of these spiritually armed monks of the Dubuque Trappist institution do we herewith tell the sometimes sad, sometimes glad, but always glorious story. Arma, Monachum Cano — Arms and the Monk I sing!c

The Author's Note:

1 Winston Churchill questions in his memoirs the value of the Allied bombing of Monte Cassino monastery in Italy during World War II. The wartime British prime minister declares:

"The monastery did not contain German troops but the enemy fortifications were hardly separated from the building itself . . . On Feb. 15 therefore, after the monks had been given full warning, over 450 tons of bombs were dropped, and heavy damage was done. The result was not good.

"The Germans had now every excuse for making whatever use they could of the ruins, and this gave them even better opportunities for defense than when the building was intact."

Incidentally, Monte Cassino Abbey will now have inscriptions on its new bronze doors to symbolize the five destructions since its foundation fourteen hundred years ago. One panel will picture a steel helmet, an aeroplane and a giant bomb.

Thayer's Notes:

a W. R. Perkins, History of the Trappist Abbey of New Melleray, p57. The little monograph (79pp including appendices) is most disappointing, and misleadingly titled: of its 57 pages of text, the first 35 are given over to a summary retelling of the history of the various Cistercian orders, mostly in France; of the remaining 22 pages, at least eight or ten deal with generalities on the Cistercian life. Similarly, less than one page of the 22 pages of appendices has to do with New Melleray at all.

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b For a detailed look at the Trappists of Monks' Mound and their peregrinations, see "The Trappists of Monks Mound", Illinois Catholic Historical Review, VIII.106‑136 (a reprint from Records of the American Catholic Historical Society, March, 1925).

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c An adaptation of the opening words of Vergil's Aeneid: Arma virumque cano . . . — "The arms and the man I sing (who left Troy for Italy to found what would become Rome)".

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Page updated: 15 May 13