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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 3

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 5

 p26  IV

America — Trappist Land of Promise

The year 1847 was probably the most frightful in the long history of Ireland. While fever slew its victims right and left by the hundreds, famine numbered its slain by the thousands. The poor, dispossessed by the stonyhearted and ever encroaching landlords, wandered about the country in starving crowds. Prior Clement Smyth wrote later of the profoundly shocking impressions made by the mobs that he saw the monks feeding every day at Mount Melleray. This constant drain of their limited resources reduced the monastery to the very verge of destitution, and compelled Abbot Bruno Fitzpatrick in 1848, almost from the moment he took over the reins of spiritual responsibility of the institution to look for some means of amelioration for the members of his flock. How long the idea of establishing a colony elsewhere — in America, for instance — had been developing in his mind can only be conjectured. However, it is certain that the plan was not as sudden as it seemed at the time.

As early as 1841 Abbot Vincent Ryan had ventured with a few companions on a journey to Sardinia, off the coast of Italy, in an attempt at establishing an affiliate, but the affair was a disappointing  p27 one and was dropped. In 1845 he had sent Brother Macarius Keegan to America to collect funds, and the latter's reports must have caused some speculation at the abbey. In September of that same year Bishop Ignatius Reynolds of Charleston, South Carolina, visited Mount Melleray and offered Abbot Vincent ten thousand acres of land for a foundation; but the Sardinian experiment had made the abbot doubly cautious, and realizing that since the death of the illustrious Bishop John England this southern diocese was in a precarious condition, its Catholics few in number, poor in worldly goods and scattered over an immense territory, and that therefore his monks would again face a heart-breaking struggle for survival, he politely refused the offer. The first contact with Dubuque and Bishop Loras seems to have been made in 1846. The bishop had sent one hundred pounds to Abbot Ryan who in his reply on November 6th said: "I want a dictionary to teach me some new form of grateful thanks for the bounty of God through you . . . would to God it were in our power to feed every hungry soul in the land." Through its relations with Melleray Abbey in France the authorities at Mount Melleray doubtless knew of the French institution's intentions of seeking an establishment in the United States. What probably brought the matter of a colony for America to a head and to the special attention of the new abbot, Dom Bruno Fitzpatrick, was a letter from Father Francis Xavier Kaiser, superior of the Petit Clairvaux Monastery of Tracadie, Nova Scotia, in Canada, written early in 1848 and strongly appealing for some religious brethren for their convent, and even implying that the Canadian house would be turned over to the jurisdiction of Mount Melleray if new blood could be injected into it for its perpetuation. This Canadian foundation, by the way, was established in 1825 and was the first permanent Cistercian house in America.

Dom Fitzpatrick related the necessity of making a radical decision: the crowded state of Mount Melleray, the waste and barren condition of its land when a fertile soil adapted to agricultural pursuits was an absolute requirement for a growing community, the threat of a disturbed political future for the country, all this was forcing his hand. This last element of the situation is sometimes forgotten today but at that time it seemed quite formidable; the Young Ireland party was growing noisy and fast departing from the fundamentals of a peace policy in dealing with the English government as laid down by the ageing Daniel O'Connell. The Fenian  p28 movement was just beginning to show its dangerous claws. In fact, during that very year of 1848 after the failure of one of their uprisings, the Fenian chiefs, Stephens, Dillon, and Doheny, spent a Sunday afternoon in the visitors gallery at Melleray Abbey but left without making themselves known lest they might compromise the monks. And across the channel in France the revolutionary clouds of Louis Napoleon were gathering on the horizon, already frightening the Trappist houses which had suffered so much from previous revolutions. Agricultural America with its freedom and religious toleration seemed the safest haven for a new Cistercian colony.

In the early summer of 1848, Brother Cyprian Slattery of Petit Clairvaux Monastery in Nova Scotia, who had been one of the monks of Melleray Abbey in France expelled by the troops in 1831, was in Europe representing his superior, Father Francis Xavier Kaiser, in an endeavor to secure brothers or novices for his American foundation. He was in Ireland, probably in June and July, and apparently as a result of his visit at Mount Melleray and his representations about the monastery in Nova Scotia, Dom Bruno decided to send one of his priests to investigate the proposition. So on the 25th of July, Father Bernard McCaffrey, accompanied by a choir novice, Brother Anthony Keating, left Mount Melleray for Canada with instructions to visit Petit Clairvaux with the possible view of adopting it as an affiliate, and otherwise, of seeking out an alternative site for an entirely new foundation. Brother Cyprian evidently returned to America with Father Bernard, also, because a little later the two of them were together in New York. Father Bernard, selected for this particular mission by the abbot because of his prudence and common sense, was at this time thirty-five years of age.

Shortly after the departure of these brothers, Dom Bruno decided that before he would go farther with a venture of such import both in its nature and in its consequences, he would put the project of a filiation in America to a vote of the entire community. Accordingly he announced that at the end of a week he would call on the members in public chapter to give their opinion relative to the undertaking. Eight days later the silvery voice of the great bell in the lofty tower of the abbey broke the calm pre‑dawn silence as it called the brethren to assemble and give their views for or against this important project. Of the choir religious, twenty-four in number, there were only five who disapproved; of the lay brothers of whom  p29 seventy-four were present, only seven expressed their opposition. From this expression of the top‑heavy majority of eighty‑six to twelve the conclusion was readily drawn by Abbot Bruno that it was the will of God that he should continue with this venture.

Meanwhile Father Bernard McCaffrey reached Tracadie in Nova Scotia and found that the little monastery of Petit Clairvaux was subject to no house of the Cistercian order but to the diocesan bishop. It may be, as it is alleged, that he found their climate too cold, their notions of perfection too austerely severe, and their superiors unwilling to resign to him and his abbot "their authority, their wills, their property, their all." It is more probable that the opposition to the jurisdiction of Father Bernard and Mount Melleray came from the extreme asceticism of the prior, Father Francis Xavier Kaiser. This monk, born near Freiburg in the German Black Forest, had been admitted in his youth to Val‑Sainte in Switzerland, then under the direction of the celebrated Dom Augustin de Lestrange, and the austere views of that Reform which he inherited clashed strongly with those of Father Bernard.

It is doubtless true that Father Bernard McCaffrey cherished the hope of a foundation in the United States rather than in Canada. So he cheerfully changed the direction of his voyage and went on to New York City. From what he had heard in Ireland he was led to entertain the most sanguine hopes of hospitable reception by the bishops of the United States, especially by the bishops of Irish birth and education. In this fond expectation he was to be rudely disappointed.

A few days after his arrival in New York, he called on the Right Reverend Dr. John Hughes, the bishop of that diocese, in order to pay his respects and to lay open to him the object of his mission. According to the monks' version, Bishop Hughes met Father Bernard with "all the insulting dignity of a Saxon lord and all the pomp and importance of an Irish tyrant peer," and the climax of the bishop's remarks was: "Your order, Sir, does no good either for yourselves or for anyone else." After hearing the bishop's denunciation of the Cistercians, the poor monk, naturally, was crushed and humiliated. Silently and respectfully he handed to Bishop Hughes the letter of approbation given him by his superior, Dom Bruno Fitzpatrick, and was again mortified before he left by the bishop's "contemptuous refusal of even deigning to open it."

 p30  In partial mitigation of this alleged attitude of the New York bishop is the possibility that his ire had been aroused by what he considered an unauthorized publication in the New York press of Father Bernard's plans and intentions. Whether the publication of this article had occurred before or after the monk's call on the bishop cannot be ascertained, but if it preceded his visit, the bishop's displeasure may be somewhat understandable.

In the early part of October the New York Tribune had carried the following article which doubtless had been inspired by Father Bernard and his friends among the priests of New York.

Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Intelligence; — Introduction of the Cistercian Order into the United States.

Two members of the Cistercian, Rev. H. B. McCaffrey and Brother Cyprian Slattery, have arrived in this city from Mount Melleray in Ireland, authorized by their superior to select a suitable place for founding a monastery of their order, in some part of the United States. It has long been the anxious wish of the Bishops, Priests and laity of the United States to see an establishment of the Cistercian Order founded in this country. The improvements made at Mount Melleray in Ireland, notwithstanding the sterility of the soil, the good effected by the brethren, by instructing adults in their moral and religious duties, by educating gratuitously the children of the vicinity, and particularly by holding up to the world the example of piety, temperance and industry, could not fail to excite a desire among our clergy to have a similar establishment in the country. Many applications were made to the late Abbot, Dr. Ryan, but owing to peculiar circumstances, without success. The time has at length arrived when a house of the order can be founded in this country. All that is required is a large farm of good land, from 500 to 1,000 acres, in a healthy climate, and fit for cultivation. Those who have such farms to dispose of can write to the Rev. H. B. McCaffrey, in care of Rev. J. Walsh, St. Paul's, Harlem, New York.

This article seems harmless enough, and probably caused the usual ripple of interest among the readers, many of whom, without a doubt, had already heard of the plans for the founding of the Gethsemani Trappist monastery at Bardstown, Kentucky, during the previous few  p31 months — a piece of news which had been widely published in the secular as well as the Catholic press, including the New York Freeman's Journal. This latter journal was under the control of Bishop Hughes and some of its articles came from his pen. In its issue of October 14th, 1848, the Freeman's Journal reproduced the above news item from the Tribune, and immediately beneath it published the following comment:

We are requested by the Rt. Rev. Bishop to say that the above extraordinary announcement is, to him, and to the clergy of his diocese, a piece of unexpected information. It may be that some of the Bishops, Priests, and laity of the United States have desired an establishment of the Cistercian Order, but they are not of the diocese of New York. In fact, the Bishops, Priests, and laity of this diocese would regard the Rev. Abbot of Mount Melleray as rendering a service to religion, if he would recall those members of his community, who have been collecting money in the United States and in the British Provinces during the last three or four years, and allow them to re‑enter on that life of religious retirement which, by this time, they must have almost forgotten, and a return to which could not but be of advantage to themselves. It is proper to add for the information of the faithful, that the Bishop of this diocese has not been consulted by either of the parties mentioned in the above notice, on the subject of which it treats; that he regards the proceedings as irregular, and advises the clergy and laity of the diocese to give it neither countenance nor encouragement.

Allowing for the provocation Bishop Hughes may have suffered because of Father Bernard's failure to call on him before the Tribune article appeared — conceding that this was actually the fact — it is certainly no overstatement of the truth to admit that his language was unconscionably strong and bitter. Many of Abbot Bruno's brothers had suffered arrest, contumely and exile for the Faith in France; all of them were undergoing for years a war of famine and pestilence in Ireland; they represented one of the holiest and most honored orders in the Church; who but Bishop John Hughes, a good but impulsive prelate, would state so boldly and baldly that they were not welcome? Brother Macarius Keegan, who was the only one of  p32 Mount Melleray's subjects of whom there is record as being a collector of funds for the order in America, was probably an unpolished monk and a crude bargainer for alms and favors as his record shows, and with him it is possible that the New York bishop had had an acquaintance, but today, at least, it is difficult to understand how this should have called for such an ignoble indictment of the venerable Abbot Bruno and his brothers.

That other Catholic newspapers at the time resented this attack on the Cistercians is clear from the attempted rejoinder made by the Freeman's Journal on the following November 11th:

The Orleanian, of New Orleans, of the 26 ult., has a brief notice of the Cistercian Order, which winds up with an allusion to the remarks of the Freeman's Journal on that subject, a few weeks ago. Our Southern friend has not taken pains to understand the object of our remarks. The Bishop of New York has as high an opinion of the Order, and of the meritorious objects which it proposes to accomplish, as any one can have, and his remarks were not directed against the order, but against the practice of certain members thereof, who have been, with or without permission of their superiors, engaged for some years past in collecting money in the Diocese of New York and elsewhere. The effect of this mode of life on these members of the Order is supposed to diminish their attachment to the retirement and quiet pursuits of a monastic life. It has also ceased in a great measure to edify the people among whom these collections are made.

In the case alluded to by the Orleanian, an advertisement was published by a secular paper, without the knowledge or consent of the Bishop of this Diocese, which was calculated to mislead persons at a distance by leaving it to be inferred, as it naturally would be, that the Bishop either approved, or was not opposed to the vague and irregular project thus announced and its consequences.

This rejoinder was, if anything, even more mischievous than the first article. Bishop Hughes protested that he had the highest opinion of the Cistercian order, and then, possibly justified by the certain facts not known today, he published his accusations: the order allows its members "with or without permission of their superiors" to collect funds in America; the abbots and other superiors are remiss in their duties because they allow the brothers to give up their attachment  p33 to the quiet and retirement of monastic life; the brothers disedify the people; Father Bernard gave out the news of his mission to America without Bishop Hughes' consent; his action was calculated to mislead people.

This treatment of the Irish Trappists could not but rankle for a long time among the members of Mount Melleray, and it dismayed others. "It was truly impious as a certain holy Bishop in America, the Rt. Rev. Doctor Loras, publicly declared, when speaking of this uncalled for and unmerited censure" — so writes Prior Clement Smyth three years later of this affair.

Brother Anthony, the choir novice who had accompanied Father Bernard to America, had already returned to Ireland, and now Father Bernard with fond hopes blighted and all his optimistic prospects for an American colony blasted, prepared to do the same. His passage on a sailing vessel was secured, but on the very day before his scheduled departure he received a letter which caused a change in his plans and immediately restored the roseate dreams of a successful American filiation for Mount Melleray. The letter containing a promise of abundant lands freely given should they meet Father Bernard's intended purpose was from the Very Rev. Thomas Heyden, the vicar-general of the diocese of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania and the pastor of Bedford in that state.

With well-grounded hopes and elated by the new prospects, the monk accompanied by Brother Cyprian Slattery of Petit Clairvaux, left New York immediately and arriving at Bedford was cordially received by Father Heyden. Impatiently he drove out to the intended abbey lands, called "Harmon's Bottoms," situated about eighteen miles from Bedford, at the foot of the Alleghany Mountains. The recoil from the painful disillusionment he had suffered in New York made Father Bernard now unduly sanguine and enthusiastic. "Hope told a flattering tale." At the end of the day, tired but happy, he sat down and wrote a most favorable account to the abbot of Mount Melleray: a thousand acres of beautiful land could be purchased for a thousand pounds, fee simple forever; the thousand pounds would be lent him without interest for the period of ten years by two or three generous and wealthy Catholics of Bedford; the soil was good, the springs salubrious, the climate was healthy; on the intended purchase were a grist-mill and a saw‑mill in full operation; and there were farm-houses, barns and other improvements making the land desirable to any purchaser.

 p34  It was small wonder that the arrival of this auspiciously promising letter at Mount Melleray Abbey created excitement in the community. Dom Bruno, discouraged by the news from Nova Scotia and heartsick over the insolent rebuff at New York, summoned the brothers to the chapter hall and with buoyant feelings read Father Bernard's enchantingly descriptive letter. Now, all ardor and vigor, he would suffer no delay and immediately discussed plans to send a group of monks to Pennsylvania to commence operations forthwith.

At the very time Father Bernard McCaffrey was spending his days at Bedford and "Harmon's Bottoms," Brother Macarius Keegan was receiving another offer of land as the site of a filiation for the Irish Trappists. Brother Macarius, at the request of the now deceased Abbot Vincent Ryan, had been travelling through Canada and the United States since 1845 seeking funds for his hard-pressed order at Mount Melleray. It is entirely possible that in his quest he had ventured beyond the Mississippi as early as 1845 after his arrival in America. One of Bishop Loras' vicar-generals, Father Terence J. Donaghoe, mentioned that he had met a Trappist monk at Dubuque in Iowa who was on his way to southern Wisconsin in that year. He referred to him merely as Brother Malachy, possibly confusing that name with the odd one of Macarius; and Brother Macarius was the only Irish Cistercian who at that time could have been in the West. Probably because of his kindly reception by Father Donaghoe he returned to Dubuque in November of 1848.

There he met and discussed with Bishop Loras and Father Joseph Cretin the matter of a location for the Trappist monks in Iowa. Brother Macarius was of the graceless type denounced by Bishop Hughes of New York with more than a modicum of justice; and his bargaining methods to secure for his order the best terms failed to impress Loras and Cretin very favorably. Nevertheless, the Iowa bishop definitely made him a generous offer at the time, and later from Kingston, Canada, the travelling monk wrote to Bishop Loras that he would present this offer to Abbot Bruno Fitzpatrick at Mount Melleray.

It was really this visit of the unpolished and unprepossessing Brother Macarius to Dubuque that swayed the tides of Fortune and Fate in favor of the ultimate establishment of Irish Cistercians on the fertile prairies of Iowa. For, — just a week later Bishop Loras announced to a congregation in his little stone cathedral his hopes of having his vast diocese blessed with their presence. Learned and zealous man  p35 that he was, it had been Dr. Loras' custom in Alabama and now in Iowa to give lecture series to mixed audiences of Protestants and Catholics on certain controversial subjects that unfortunately divided them. Just a few days after Brother Macarius' departure he commenced a winter series of talks and devoted his first lecture to the subject, "On Religious Orders in the Church," and there, in his very opening sentences, he alluded to the plans that were budding in his mind.

"Beloved Christians," he addressed them, and we have today, one hundred and four years later, his neat and clearly written manuscript before us, "You have undoubtedly observed in reading the late newspapers, that a convent of the Religious called Trappists is to be established in Kentucky. Besides this, a venerable monk of the same order was last week in Dubuque, collecting some means to have another one founded in Kingston in Canada; &, owing to the generosity of many catholics & to the liberality of several protestants in the U. S., the work will be commenced next spring. This, our far West, may also be blessed before long, with an institution of the same kind! But, as it is certain that many persons in this very town, have been imbued, from their very infancy, with deep prejudices against Religious orders and convents, we cannot select a subject, for our 1rst lecture, more appropriate, &, we may say, more interesting, as it will give us a favorable opportunity of calling to your minds many historical facts connected with it, which will instruct you & enable you to pass a correct judgment on those holy, religious orders so very much slandered for 3 centuries.

"We shall address you, Beloved christians, more willingly, because we remember gratefully that, 2 years ago, you paid a great attention to our evening instruction."

The bishop then launched out on a profound but interesting discussion of monasticism, and one is truly amazed as one reads his clever and devastating refutation of the gross misrepresentations of the Protestant historians Mosheim and Hume and Bingham, and his masterful pulverisation of the vulgar charges of Maria Monk and the other nauseously vile slanderers of his day. In his concluding summation he referred pointedly to his own connections with the Trappists:

"Now, Beloved Friends, who can be better judges of the real merit of religious orders, as they are now in the catholic church, those who have never put their foot in any of them, & who wrote abominable  p36 books against them, or those who, like ourselves, have seen many, both in Europe & in America, who have acted as chapelain in several of them; who have some of our own kindred members of them; who have spent some times in the most severe of them, we mean the cistercians or Trappists. Now, in the presence of God! we can assert that with very few exceptions, we have seen in them nothing but edifying, holy and truly religious. So that we are intimately convinced that religious orders are a blessing to a country, a source of good example, & of usefulness of every sort, both for this world & for the next. Amen."

When Bishop Loras mentioned that he had Trappist kinsmen he referred to his two nephews René and Romuald Tallon of the Cistercian abbey of Bellefontaine in France, where he had visited and made retreats. René Tallon had been regarded as one of the most saintly members of the abbey, and when in 1837 Bishop Loras had returned from Bellefontaine where he had made a pilgrimage to the grave of this illustrious kinsman, he was "deeply impressed with the spirit of sanctity breathed by that whole order" — so wrote his grand-nephew, Louis de Cailly, — "and there and then resolved to introduce those saintly religious in the course of time to his diocese."

The soil in which Brother Macarius had so rather cavalierly planted his seed was the benevolent and more-than-half Trappist heart of Mathias Loras, the great French bishop of the Northwest.

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