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Chapter 19

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Arms and the Monk!
The Trappist Saga in Mid‑America

by
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 21

p207 XX

The Daughter House: Our Story's Finale

During the last century many another Trappist abbey has established an affiliate — a daughter house — from the overflow of its members. In the face of its many acute crises New Melleray was under the providence of God fortunate enough to survive itself without daring to dream of erecting filiations. It will be recalled that back in 1856 an experimental attempt was made to carry on an annex at Wexford, Iowa, on the land deeded over to New Melleray by Father Thomas Hore, but this effort died abornin'.

While Abbot Eugene was in Europe during the summer of 1950 to attend for the first time the meeting of the General Chapter at Citeaux Abbey in France, an event of tremendous importance occurred at Dubuque during his absence. In 1849 on a hot July day the monastery of New Melleray had been formally established in Iowa. Now, on another hot day in July, just as the Dubuque Trappist foundation was completing the first year of its second century of existence something almost incredible — even for Cistercians, whose faith in the Lord's power is profound, indeed, — took place in the p208reception room of New Melleray's guest house. Reference has been made several times to the interest the Chicago Tribune through its feature writers has displayed in the story of New Melleray Abbey. One day a gentleman called at the abbey and in the absence of Abbot Eugene was received by Prior Vincent. The gentleman, after introducing himself as Mr. Joseph Pierson, a retired foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, explained that he had a thirty‑six hundred acre ranch in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains in Missouri which he would like to extend as a gift to the Iowa Trappist monks.

It is no exaggeration to say that Prior Vincent could scarcely trust his ears as he listened, first with amazement and then with gratitude to the good God, to the words of Mr. Pierson. These words of explanation were brief: his age and the calling of his sons into the military service had at first disposed him to sell the property; but he had often heard of the Cistercian brotherhood and although he was a non‑Catholic he had long admired their holy lives of solitude, prayer and work, and God in His mercy had inspired him to seek out the monks of New Melleray to offer them this land and to induce them to come and make a new foundation.

With most sincere praise to God and gracious acknowledgment to Mr. Pierson, the Iowa community accepted this princely gift. Abbot Eugene, apprised of the proposal, had cabled Prior Vincent from Europe to receive gratefully the benevolent offer. All the legal requirements for taking it over were expedited and Bishop Edwin V. O'Hara of Kansas City welcomed with enthusiasm the coming of the Trappists to his diocese. On this widespread estate, most of which is still virgin forest, seventy-five miles east of Springfield and twenty miles north of the Arkansas line, is a main building of stone and concrete with five thousand square feet of floor space. This is connected with a large workroom and garage, and nearby are barns and other outbuildings. The location is in the ideal tradition of the Rule and polity of St. Benedict — far from the haunts of men and well adapted to monastic life. Catholicism is little known in this part of Missouri — there was but one Catholic church in the entire county — but this was an added incentive to the monks to let their flame of Faith gleam openly from the Ozark hills.

The initial group of monks which left New Melleray for their new home was a well-seasoned staff of young Trappists, eleven in all, three priests and eight brothers — skillful and able to face the vicissitudes p209of the strange hill country and the problems of a new foundation. Recruits from the Iowa parent house have been steadily arriving and the original number has now been more than doubled.

Eight and a half centuries ago twenty‑two monks, headed by Robert of Molesme left the abbey of Molesme to found a world renowned monastery — famed Citeaux — in the marshy woodlands of Burgundy. Twenty-five monks today, of whom six are priests, under their superior, Father Canice Keneally, have left the abbey of New Melleray to found a monastery on the hilly woodlands of Missouri. At Citeaux the Duke of Burgundy had ceded in 1098 the sparsely settled and practically useless land to the monastic colonists, believing that they alone could ever cultivate it. Today, a modern duke of charity has donated his estate in the primitive Ozark highlands to poor and penitent monks because of his confidence in them and because of his admiration of the Trappist way of life.

In this foundation the monks have grimly set to work with a will. Their first problem was that of rearrangement of the rooms of the main building to comply with the requirements of Trappist community life. The long, low garage and workshop connected with the main building was converted into a pleasing monastic chapel soon after their arrival. A new and modern heating-plant was installed. The poor roads which impeded travel and transport have been considerably improved. There had been no electricity for a time but light and power have now been introduced through the agency of the Rural Electrification Administration. It had been necessary to make a four‑mile trip to Evans, Missouri, each day for the mail, but the mailing address has now been changed to the town of Sweden from where there is Rural Free Delivery. One gains an idea of the monastery's primitive remoteness on learning that there is as yet no telephone service. A small saw mill is now being operated by the brethren in the shady forests about their home; they have already planted orchards and vineyards; and the bucolic science of apiculture or beekeeping is here being developed just as at Dubuque.

In the woodland chapel of this Trappist Arcadia every morning and every evening there rises up the soft chant of monastic voices as the brethren praise the Lord and pray for the world. Under the benign blessing of God Almighty this pioneer Missouri Trappist cloister — the monastery of Our Lady of the Assumption — will grow and prosper; it was appropriately named in honor of the great dogma p210of the Assumption of the Virgin promulgated to the world in the Holy Year of 1950, the year of its founding.1

At New Melleray itself, just as in most of the Cistercian abbeys of America and of the world at large, the year 1952 sees the measure of new vocations still flourishing near the flood mark. Of course, there are some who perforce must leave, and, according to the law written for all men, there are some who die. Of these latter there was one at the Iowa Trappist abbey who in February of 1952 passed away in his eighty-fourth year — Father Placid Magee, for more than forty‑one years the pastor of the secular church, the "monastery parish" of the Holy Family. For all these breaches in the ranks of the monastic heroes, the grace of God working in the hearts of young men, sends more than commensurate replacements; "good measure and pressed down and shaken together and running over."

At the one hundred and third anniversary of their abbey's penitential existence, the priests and brothers of New Melleray rejoice in the evidence they behold on all sides of God's benign acceptance of the greatest gift they can put at His feet — their lives.

****

This is the Iowa Trappist story. It is the story of the austerely humble monks in white and brown who for over a century have carried the weapons and armor of Jesus Christ in the modern agricultural and industrial valley of the Upper Mississippi.

Our Lady of New Melleray had a slow and painful growth — building on a foundation of poverty and sacrifice. Crises and calamities were its ever recurring portion, and as the pages of this book clearly show, its constant survival was almost miraculous. Yet today the monastery is compelled to expand by the press of vocations and is prospering more than ever before in its long history.

The writer can well recall when as a lad with his parents, driving out on summer or fall afternoons from Dubuque in the old family carriage, they approached the vicinity of New Melleray. There, a short distance away, stood the monastery with its whitish-grey stone walls with arched windows, with its buttresses and spires and p211ornamental chimneys, set on the crest of a rise within a frame of trees and green fields. There it stood, a bit of mystery and even somewhat of an American anomaly; to us of Dubuque and to folk in general it was still mediaeval, still foreign; what we saw of the institution — the monks, with their dust-covered habits tucked in about their hips, working silently in the fields as we passed —, what we read and heard about their austere life, fell just short in those days of making a practical appeal to American Catholic youth for vocations. At the end of World War I an idealistic West Point graduate returning from France with the writer and dismayed by what he had witnessed at Chateau-Thierry and in the Argonne forest essayed a postulancy at the monastery; after two months' trial he, like a number of others through those years, withdrew.

But of late a new breath of the Holy Spirit is astir in the ranks of our Catholic people. What a transformation among the young of America in regard to Cistercian monastic life in the last score of years! New Melleray Abbey and other Trappist cloisters seem to be revitalized centers of spiritual attraction, throwing out their mystic life-lines to the increasing number who are seeking a regimen of Benedictine inspiration — a life of monastic obedience and labor and fasting and silence. They "See God's world through the rags of this."

Catholicism has always held the prayerful, contemplative life as an ideal one; the critics of the Catholic Church have in the past condemned such a life as a useless one. Today the critical pendulum is swinging in the other direction. In the national weekly, Time Magazine, for January 21, 1952, is a reprint of an article by an alleged Catholic which originally appeared in the Protestant Christian Herald, berating American Catholicism because it is "totally non‑mystical; it is booming, aggressive, materialistic." Non‑mystical! The Catholic Church in the United States? Behold the mysticism and prayerfulness found today in America in the growing number of contemplative monasteries, convents, the lay retreat houses and various apostolic movements such as Catholic Action! The marked increase of theological interest and spiritual reading among American Catholics in recent years indicates the strong growth of the mystical movement. St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross have been rediscovered by clergy and laity. But in the forefront of it all just as in bygone centuries is the Cistercian contemplative life of today. Trappist asceticism practiced in the abbey of New Melleray for over a century, and p212today more powerfully attractive than ever before, is a conclusive proof of the healthy mystic life of Catholicism, especially in mid‑America.

"Arms and the Monk!" It is the end of the day at New Melleray; the monastic militia files out from the Gothic structure which to them is their Rule and their Fortress, and in their hands they carry their weapons, — the rosary, the divine office, the book of general devotions. During the supper period in the refectory they had been listening to the brother reading over the public address system an article dealing with another onslaught against the Church of Christ behind the Iron Curtain. They are a bit depressed but outside here everything is golden. The setting sun is gilding the trees in the woodlands about them. One of its rays flashes on an airplane high in the skies speeding on to Chicago. An ex‑aviator pulls his cowl over his eyes to shield them from the sun as he stares at the plane. It's a large airplane; it reminds him of the C‑47s he used to fly. From a nearby tower rings a soft, wistful, silvery but insistent bell. The monks pass back within the monastery along corridors hung with placards lettered with the word "Silence."

Slowly they mount the stairway leading to their chapel. Strains of organ music fill the air. There is a murmur of voices, an intoning, and a lift of song, Salve Regina, and lo, these monks of the centuried Iowa cloister are wrapped up in the blissful devotions with their brethren throughout that world and with their predecessors from Monte Cassino to Citeaux and Clairvaux, and down the ages, to New Melleray, "ad majorem Dei gloriam."

Arma, Monachum Cano!


The Author's Note:

1 History records an earlier attempt at establishing a Cistercian monastery in Missouri in the early 1870s. Several monks from the short-lived Holy Ghost monastery in the Province of Quebec, Canada — which was an offshoot of Petit Clairvaux, Nova Scotia — founded the monastery of the Immaculate Conception at Old Monroe, Missouri, with Father Gerard Fuerstenberg as superior. After a short and stormy existence the foundation was abandoned as hopeless in 1875.


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Page updated: 15 May 13