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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 2

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 4

 p16  III

The Mellerays of France and Ireland

The very name of the Iowa abbey, New Melleray, like the names New York and New Mexico, indicates that it has a bond or a relationship with a previous place of a similar name. Its connections as well as its roots go back far and deep, first, to old Melleray in France, and later to Mount Melleray in Ireland.

The ancient abbey of Melleray near Nantes on the northwest coast of France had been founded when the Cistercian Order was in the flower of its first development, and had been visited by St. Bernard of Clairvaux himself in 1142, eight years after its inception. Two of the founding brothers, spending the night in the forest, found in the hollow trunk of the tree under which they slept, a honeycomb, which supplied them with the food they desperately needed. This hollow tree marked the spot of the site of their new monastery, Meilleraie, which means honeycomb, and which in the long course of time has become Melleray.

The abbey flourished for hundreds of years, was reformed by the austere renovations emanating from La Trappe in the seventeenth  p17 century and at the time of the French Revolution in 1791 was a strongly established monastery. Suppressed by the tyrants of the Directory in that year,a it was soon raided and pillaged by the revolutionary soldiery. Some of the monks were imprisoned and others went into exile, a few reaching La Val Sainte in Switzerland with Dom Augustin de Lestrange, and the vacant and silent structure of Melleray lay stunned in mournful loveliness, a prey of the winds and storms of Brittany.1

Then, in the continued course of the dangerous and exciting years of the Revolution and later during Napoleon's meteoric ascendency, a couple of these monks along with a few others from La Trappe and other destroyed Cistercian monasteries of France, while refugees in England, established a Cistercian monastery there. That splendid old Catholic family of the Welds made a handsome offer of land to them in Dorset, and assisted them in erecting their new home near their own castle of Lulworth and a half mile from the sea coast. Their foundation grew: other French refugees and a number of zealous English converts entered the order as novices and soon became full-fledged Trappists, in this first Cistercian house in England since the monstrous destruction of the monasteries by Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII.

Not long-lived was this abbey, known as St. Susan's, in the bigoted England of that day. Its progress and its conversions aroused prejudices and suspicions, and finally the British Prime Minister restricted the novitiate entirely to Frenchmen. He further demanded that as the members of the community had been tolerated in England only as French refugees they should return to France as soon as possible. This was complied with and in 1817 the dauntless abbot, Dom Antoine de Beauregard, — now that Napoleon was on St. Helena and the Bourbon monarch, Louis XVIII was on the throne — led his members, Frenchmen and Englishmen alike to the now hospitable shores of France. And here the Melleray thread of Iowa Trappist history once  p18 again is taken up, but before it is further unravelled, an interesting word must be said to American readers about Lulworth and the grand triple-centuried Lulworth Castle.

The Lulworth monastic house, whose ruined cloister walls still stand around the green sward of the brothers' cemetery, became through the exile of its sons the parent house of six distinct monasteries: two in France, one of which was the revived Melleray; one in Ireland, Mount Melleray; one in England, Mount St. Bernard; and two in the United States, Our Lady of Gethsemani, near Bardstown in Kentucky and Our Lady of New Melleray at Dubuque in Iowa.

Lulworth Castle is further related to the United States in that its chapel was the locale of the consecration of the first bishop of the young American republic in 1790 — Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore.

On the 17th of July, 1817, on board the beautiful government frigate, La Revanche, which had been appointed by the French king for their voyage, Abbot de Beauregard and his peaceful band of Cistercian monks sailed into the harbor of Nantes and landed on the soil of France. The only monasteries left standing in that country after the hurricane of the French Revolution had swept by were the buildings of Melleray and the Grand Chartreuse. Dom de Beauregard could have bought the Grand Chartreuse but disliked its cold and bleak situation in the lonely Alpine valley. He succeeded in purchasing Melleray from several parties and received as a gift from a pious lady a farm attached to it. Earlier in that same year Dom Augustin of La Val Sainte had hoped to buy this abbey for his Trappist monks.

Again did this ancient abbey of Melleray begin to flourish. The first person to present himself for admission into the novitiate was a sailor from the frigate, La Revanche. So impressed had he been by the courage and holy demeanor of the religious brotherhood which he had helped escort back from English exile that he had raised sufficient funds to secure his discharge from the naval service and had come directly to the abbey-gate of Melleray to solicit admission. Within a few years the numbers grew rapidly and the silent corridors, the church and the gardens were peopled with industrious monks. To facilitate the religious life and exercises of the two national groups at the abbey, — the one of Frenchmen, not other of Irishmen and Englishmen — Dom Antoine made use on weekdays  p19 of two Chapter Rooms, each under a different Father Master, where the brothers could accuse themselves in their own language; but on Sundays they met in common in one Chapter Room with the abbot who spoke both languages fluently. Much of the soil of their property was stony and sterile. Upon these fields they applied their skill learned from the improved methods of English farming, introducing new types of plows and the first threshing machine ever used in Brittany. The backward farmers of that part of France imitated these experiments with a great degree of success; and the high proficiency of farming on the rich Iowa soil which later was always to accompany the work of the Dubuque monks at New Melleray can be traced back to these skilled agricultural methods introduced at this time at old Melleray.

The gifted abbot, Dom Antoine de Beauregard, restored at Melleray the Rule of St. Benedict as it had originally been written. Eschewing some of the excessively strict regulations that had crept into the order by way of Dom Augustin, he preserved the correct austerity of the contemplative life as it had been practiced by Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Stephen Harding. Under his wise leadership the community grew from fifty-nine to one hundred and ninety‑two members. Then came the 1830 revolution which put Louis Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, on the throne and brought trial and near-calamity to both La Grande Trappe, which had built itself up after Napoleon's downfall, and to Melleray, as well as to other houses of the Cistercian order. This revolutionary anti-clericalism had pursued Father Joseph Cretin at Ferney, where a mob had broken into the convent of Carmelite nuns and attempted to wreck his college; he had refused to pray for the "King of the French" after his Masses, and because of the government's persistent opposition he had been happy to come to Iowa with Bishop Mathias Loras.

But the attack of the revolutionary government on Melleray had been, if not so violent, much more formidable. Dom Antoine de Beauregard had correctly read the signs of the approaching storm as soon as the revolutionary change of government had taken place in Paris in July, 1830. As the Archbishop of Dublin in Ireland had recently solicited the establishment of a Trappist foundation in Ireland, and as Abbot Antoine had received offers of handsome supply of funds from Irish persons "of both sexes" for this purpose, the abbot quickly made plans for such a venture. He immediately sent  p20 the prior of Melleray Abbey, Father Vincent Ryan, and another monk, Father Malachy, to Ireland to exploit this design.

As Dom Antoine expected, the storm finally broke, and in August of 1831 the French departmental prefect secured a governmental arrest by the power of which the religious community of Melleray was suppressed and dissolved. Dom Antoine had been a friend of the family of the overthrown king, Charles X, and so the new revolutionary government, making use of an old ordinance dating from Napoleon's time, was vindictively determined to abolish the community. Late in September, more than six hundred soldiers of horse, foot and gendarmerie surrounded the abbey and went through the formal motions of a siege. For the next seven or eight weeks an opera bouffe warfare was carried on by the military against the passive — and in many instances, highly amused — monks. Abbot Antoine was courteous, but firm in his resistance which he based on his rights as a free French citizen. But later when the troops with bayonets and bared sabers reinvested the abbey, the abbot and his French brothers put on civilian attire and discontinued the religious exercises until an appeal could be made to the courts.

However, as a large number of the Melleray Cistercians were Irishmen and Englishmen — British subjects — the English consul at Nantes entered into the fray on their behalf. They had been forcibly expelled from the monastery because they were foreigners, and ordered to depart from France. Confined to the St. James military prison at Nantes they were put on a bread and water diet and were refused permission to attend Sunday Mass. Mr. Newman, the English consul, protested in energetic terms, and pointed out that as the French government had, fifteen years before, conveyed the British Cistercians from England to France, it should now that it was expelling them from its shores be responsible for their return journey to their own country. The government agents immediately seized on this proposal as a safe avenue out of their embarrassment and arranged for a vessel in which the religious could sail.

Sixty-four of the British monks chose Ireland as their destination, and at the end of November a French sloop of war, the Hebe, departed with them from St. Nazaire for Cork, Ireland. Fifteen English Cistercian brothers remained at Nantes, and Mr. Newman arranged for their accommodations under his own protection. A number of them were soon to depart for England where they were to assist in the  p21 foundation of Mount St. Bernard's monastery, which was to be a filiate of Melleray Abbey and a granddaughter of Lulworth. In fact, one of the members of old St. Susan's, Lulworth, — Father Benedict Johnson — who had gone to Melleray in 1817, became superior and prior of Mount St. Bernard's. This was likewise the case of the first abbot, Bernard Palmer, who had been first at Lulworth and then at Melleray.

Melleray itself, after the shouting and the rude jostling of the new government's prefects and politicians had died down, was left in the quiet possession of Dom Antoine and the remnant of his religious. Crippled in its exercises for a few years, the old abbey soon again became crowded with novices and postulants. By the year 1848 it was full to overflowing with almost two hundred members. Then Louis Napoleon began to loom in the offing, another revolution was on the way, and Melleray sent a number of its sons to Kentucky in America, to establish the Gethsemani foundation just one year before the New Melleray monastery was opened at Dubuque in Iowa by other Cistercians who came from Melleray by way of Ireland.

Meanwhile, on the first of December, 1831, the French war‑ship, Hebe, had arrived in the Cork harbor of Cobh in Ireland, and the sixty-four persecuted Trappists on deck were received with a tremendous welcome by the inhabitants, whose enthusiasm and uproarious joy struck the French sailors with great astonishment. The penniless exiles were embraced with warmth and generous hospitality. The prior of Melleray, Father Vincent Ryan, who with Father Malachy had been sent by the far‑seeing Dom Antoine de Beauregard to Ireland about a year before, had after many hardships and disappointments at last secured for temporary quarters a house and about fifty acres of land at Rathmore just twelve miles from Killarney. Prior Vincent then began negotiations whereby he was to obtain for a mere nominal rent six hundred acres of rather barren mountainous land, near Cappoquin, in the county of Waterford, with the view of founding and establishing there an Irish Cistercian house. It was a Protestant gentleman, Sir Richard Keane, who made this favorable settlement with the prior.

Until this could be ready for occupancy, however, the brothers were compelled to live an intensely crowded life at Rathmore under the severest hardships. It was necessary that work should be rushed at their newly projected establishment to relieve them of their appalling  p22 distress. The brothers sent there — near Cappoquin — for this work, were soon assisted by a demonstration of charity and cooperation that has probably been seldom equalled in this selfish world. Priests and people from many miles around came in crowds to volunteer their labor with pick, spade and hammer. Father Walsh, the pastor of Cappoquin, arrived with two thousand able bodied parishioners, most of whom were provided with building tools, or with agricultural instruments for fencing and ditching the fields. One day, four hundred men leaving their village at four o'clock in the morning marched four abreast with spades on their shoulders, led by the music of their band. In most instances the groups were accompanied by wives and daughters to care for the feeding of the men and even occasionally to help with the labor, most of which was on the hard moorland and the stony mountainside. At least ten thousand persons gave of their labor at one time or another in this great Christian task.

The carpenters among the brothers with the masons from the neighborhood began working on a commodious dwelling house which stood near the site already selected for the projected monastery. The hitherto miserably lodged and half-famished monks now on their own land began to live with at least a minimum of decency. It was Prior Vincent himself who gave the foundation the name of Mount Melleray to commemorate the mother abbey from which he and his brothers had come. At this time, it is of interest to mention, the monks had not ventured to wear the religious habit because of fear of the English penal laws which could still be enforced against them.

Their poverty did not delay them in preparing for the erection of their stone monastery. The first stone of Mount Melleray monastery was laid by Sir Richard Keane, their Protestant friend, after it had been blessed by the Bishop of Waterford. Thus on the 20th of August, 1833, in the presence of a great crowd of 20,000 people, was formally reestablished the solid foundation of Cistercian life in Catholic Ireland nearly three hundred years after its expulsion by the bloody rapacity of Henry VIII.

Work on the building of what was to be the Abbey of Mount Melleray continued until it was inhabited by the community in 1838. Meanwhile, the indefatigably zealous prior, Father Vincent Ryan, was elected the first abbot of the new community. Great preparations were made for a public ceremony for the reception of the abbatial  p23 blessing, but at the last moment what was to have been a giant open demonstration of the Faith of the people of south Ireland was cruelly interdicted by the British penal laws, and the function was soberly performed in the private chapel of Bishop Abraham of Waterford.2

During these years the poverty of the community was extreme, and appeals had to be made several times to the faithful at large in Ireland as well as to those in England for assistance. The edifying lives of the hard-working brothers made these appeals effective. Among the patrons of Mount Melleray was the internationally renowned champion of civil and religious liberty, Ireland's own patriot and emancipator, Daniel O'Connell, who visited the abbey and gave what financial aid he could. The order grew steadily in numbers. In 1837, Brother Adrian McCarthy, a graduate of Trinity College, was both professed and ordained. In the following year among those admitted to the holy profession, were three more well qualified and highly educated young gentlemen, Brother Clement Smyth, Brother James Myles O'Gorman and Brother Xavier Melville. By 1840 there were over eighty members in the community; and this despite the fact that in the previous few years a number of the monks, especially the English members, had been allowed to transfer to Mount St. Bernard's Abbey in England.

In the immediately following years schools were inaugurated for the children of the neighborhood under the auspices of the Trappists, now that the penal laws were being gradually relaxed. An academy for young men was placed under the direction of Clement Smyth, now ordained, who was assisted in this endeavor by Brother Xavier Melville. The successful development of this academy led to the addition of a seminary department which was also placed under the superintendency of Father Clement.

In the community was Brother Macarius Keegan whose talents recommended him to Abbot Vincent as a collector of funds. Armed with letters from the Mount Melleray abbot and from the prior of Mount St. Bernard in England, he moved from 1838 on through English cities and counties, collecting with equal success from English noblemen, from liberal Protestant gentlemen and from the poor Irish  p24 Catholic laborers. In 1845 Abbot Vincent sent him to America where he travelled in Canada and the United States, and, as it will soon be learned, took himself as far west as Dubuque in the state of Iowa.

The saintly Abbot Vincent died in December of 1845 beneath the graceful spire which crowns the noble pile of buildings so painfully and patiently erected through his efforts. Abbot Mary Joseph Ryan who was elected to succeed him, held the office less than two years; the members of the community having petitioned the Holy See to be united to the French Congregation of the order in France, the abbot resigned the abbatial dignity in October of 1847. His resignation was accepted by the Holy See, and a bull was sent from the Propaganda for the election of a new abbot as well as for uniting Mount Melleray Abbey to the Congregation of La Grande Trappe in France. Father Clement Smyth, whom Abbot Mary Joseph Ryan had appointed as prior and who also continued to serve as president of the seminary, acted as superior of the community until a new abbot would be elected.

The choice of the monks as they gathered in the Chapter Room on the 4th of April, 1848, fell on the young and outstanding Father Bartholomew Bruno Fitzpatrick, one of the future founders of New Melleray Abbey in Dubuque, who for the next five and forty years was to shape the path of progress and advancement of the American institution in a general way, and of Mount Melleray Abbey in Ireland in a most particular way. On the occasion of the solemn blessing of this third abbot of Mount Melleray on the 14th of the following September a Papal Brief was read aloud wherein the Abbey of Mount Melleray was declared exempt thenceforward from episcopal control and subject only to the authority of the General Chapter of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance.

The canonical visitation — which is a formal visit for the purpose of inspection and examination of the religious and temporal affairs of a monastery — of Mount Melleray from that day on has been made by the abbots of La Grande Trappe and Melleray in France. One of the customs restored because of these visitations was the ancient one of the Cistercians of burying their dead without coffins, a custom which had long been departed from at Mount Melleray as a concession to popular prejudices.

This was one of the most trying periods in the history of Ireland. The terrible Irish Famine was on. It was the awful years from 1845  p25 to 1849, during which Abbot Bruno Fitzpatrick was ushered into the office of superior, that pestilence, starvation and reckless English misrule united their forces to depopulate the land. The monks of Mount Melleray showed their heroic mettle by carrying on a herculean program of charity. Poor as their food was, they hastened to share all of it from their farm with the suffering masses. The records of those agonizing years will show that almost every day from four hundred to seven hundred destitute and distressed individuals obtained relief at the abbey. Meal and potatoes were all the food consisted of, but the gratitude of the starving crowds was the most celestial dessert the monks ever tasted — the monks, who only through unflinching self-denial and the exercise of the strictest economy of their own slender resources were able to give what they gave. This valorous band of Cistercians in 1848 numbered a hundred souls, just about the capacity of the house, under Dom Bruno's prudent and solicitous direction.

The Author's Notes:

1 One of the links in the relationship of Dom Augustin de Lestrange of La Val Sainte with Iowa was the predilection of Bishop Loras for the Trappists because one of Lestrange's followers, Father Alexis, fleeing from Napoleon's wrath, had taken refuge with the Loras family at Lyons. As a further result of Father Alexis' influence, two of Loras' nephews, reared with him in the same household as they were almost the same age, became Trappists. Romuald and René Tallon, sons of Loras' eldest sister, entered the Bellefontaine Trappist abbey. René died there in 1830 and Romuald later became one of the Cistercian officials at the famous Staoueli Trappist monastery in Algeria, Africa, and he corresponded with Bishop Loras up to the time of the latter's death.

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2 In The Red Book, a collection of his social essays, published by Wm. Powell, in Dublin, in 1835 appears a curious section entitled "Form and Ceremony of the Consecration of the Very Rev. Father Vincent Ryan, Abbot of Mount Melleray Abbey, Which Will be Performed in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Waterford, on the 14th of May, 1835." However, the blessing was given on May 17th, 1835, in the Rt. Rev. Dr. Abraham's private chapel.

Thayer's Note:

a Something is wrong here: the Directoire only came into being in 1795.

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