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Chapter 4

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 6

 p37  V

The Odyssey of Prior Clement

After pondering over Father Bernard's optimistic letter on the Pennsylvania lands, Dom Bruno decided that the proper person to execute a foundation in America for the Mount Melleray monks was none other than Father Clement Smyth, the prior of the abbey and the president of the seminary. Eminently successful in his educational and administrative endeavors, the prior also held the trust and affection of his superior. Somewhat dismayed at the assignment, the prior accepted the appointment with a rather reluctant obedience. He was happy though at the selection of his companion, Brother Ambrose Byrne, who was not only a skillful agriculturalist but a man of good sense and of a naturally quick and intelligent mind.

Fortunately for posterity, about a year later when Prior Clement was safely situated at the new Iowa monastery, he began to write down a personal narrative of the events in which he was involved from the time of his appointment to the American venture, continuing it on until the end of the year 1852. We can safely follow  p38 him in this chapter as he describes his adventures, but occasionally his observations and conclusions must be qualified by authoritative data obtained since his time from other sources. Father Clement was a keen student whose mind reflects for us today the reactions of a cultured immigrant to America in 1849. His narrative, however, includes many philosophical homilies on man and eternity; and when he rhapsodizes on the beauties of nature his eloquence too often slips into rhetorical verbosity.

Dom Bruno, under the influence of Father Bernard's magic letter, advanced the idea of sending ten or even twenty brothers along with Father Clement in order to get the monastic foundations going in Pennsylvania as soon as possible, and he pointed out that with two mills on the place, as described by Father Bernard, it would not be difficult for the monks to find work and support almost immediately. Prior Clement prevailed on the abbot, however, to wait until he could send him definite corroboration of the hoped‑for paradise.

The two monks departed on January 20th, 1849, by way of Dublin, and then Liverpool. A good Presbyterian captain refused to violate the Sabbath by sailing on the Sunday scheduled and the next day the ship, a new iron "four master," promptly ran into a terrific storm. The two Cistercians paid thirty‑six pounds for their second-class passage and were awed by the sight of the luxurious furnishings in the first-class salons. Twenty-five days of unusually stormy weather brought them to a New York whose thermometer ranged ten degrees below zero and whose streets were deeply covered with snow. They tarried here but two days as they were anxious to reach their Pennsylvania destination. They travelled to Philadelphia by the "evening Cars," arriving too late for a meal. They said their respective offices and performed other pious devotions at a little hotel, and at eight o'clock in the morning, after having contented themselves with only a dry crust of bread, they again took the "Cars." They rode to "Harrisburgh" and then to "Chambersburgh" without any refreshments along the way. At the latter place the owner of the stage hotel, an Englishman "well versed in Saxon trickery" arranged with the coach agent to detain the passengers stopping with him as long as possible. After three days the poor monks climbed into a crowded horse-drawn coach, paying the exorbitant price of twenty dollars for a forty mile trip, and never before in their lives did they perform so painful, so disagreeable and so dangerous a journey by land. As night came on and they dipped up and down over the rough terrain "the Coach  p39 lamps shed a lurid light around thousands of towering rocks, and lofty trees which enclosed some miles of their journey."

About two o'clock in the morning the coach noisily negotiated the passage of a perilous wooden bridge into Bedford, and later that day the prior and the brother found to their disappointment that the Very Reverend Thomas Heyden, who had originally invited Father Bernard to his district, was absent on missionary duties. So the next morning without him they proceeded to Harmon's Bottoms, twenty miles away.

The country was desolate looking, and the soil was rocky and slaty. Their first impressions of the Bottoms were of sharp disillusionment from what they had been led to expect. At a little after noon they approached the rough, tiny chapel where services were occasionally conducted. Prior Clement stopped in his tracks when he heard soft, sweet strains of harmony apparently issuing from the little hut, and so heavenly was the music that he seemed "to be transported to the valley of Rasselas." Father Clement was extremely susceptible to music. When he had left Liverpool on the four-master he was deeply impressed by the music on the dock: "Here the violin with its sweet and delicate sounds, there the clarinet with its soft and agreeable melody, charmed the ear of the attentive listener, yet these appeared as dull and doleful sounds when contrasted with the rich and melting harmony of a few German voices, artfully blended and producing a sensation more agreeable and less fallacious than Siren melody could create or excite in the minds of their devoted victims." Here among the wild and barren foothills of the Alleghenies on this cold noon the prior was almost transported with delight as his ears drank in "such soft harmonious strains that Euterpe or Apollo himself might justly envy." Followed by Brother Ambrose he gently opened the door of the chapel and beheld near a blazing fireplace playing upon his accordion "with as much execution as he was master of" — Brother Macarius Keegan!

Soon Father Bernard and Brother Cyprian Slattery appeared upon the scene and astonishment was the sensation all around. It was too soon for letters to arrive from Mount Melleray with the news that Dom Bruno had despatched the two monks to investigate the proposed abbey lands. Further, Prior Clement had not seen Brother Macarius since 1845. Brother Macarius, it seemed, had left Dubuque in November of 1848, with New Orleans apparently as his destination. Already puzzled by this strange and enigmatic monk, Bishop  p40 Loras was probably not too surprised to receive a letter from him from an entirely different direction — from Kingston, Canada, a month later. In this missive Brother Macarius stated that he was writing to the Abbot of Mount Melleray concerning "the offer made by your Lordship to our community," and he concluded the letter with a warning against "a person named Brother Cyprian Slattery who," he alleged, "was not authorized to collect for the Trappists." This was an unjust reflection on Brother Cyprian, a good and holy monk if ever there was one. A member of the order at Melleray in France, he had been expelled with the other British subjects in 1831 by the revolutionary agents. Instead of returning to Ireland with the majority, he later entered the monastery of La Grande Trappe from where he went to the Petit Clairvaux at Tracadie in Nova Scotia. At the moment of Brother Macarius' attack on him he was, as has been noticed, with Father Bernard at Bedford where he soon was to receive Brother Macarius on friendly terms being entirely unconscious of that monk's attitude toward him. A short time after this he was to go to the Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky to teach for a time before returning to Petit Clairvaux where he died a happy death on January 4th, 1860.

During his stay at Kingston, Ontario, Brother Macarius was impressed by the invitation of the Right Rev. P. Phelan, Coadjutor Bishop of Kingston, to the Irish Cistercians, and went so far as to buy some land in the name of Mount Melleray. Hearing from Father Bernard about the Pittsburgh vicar-general's offer of land at Bedford he immediately left for Pennsylvania, and on reaching Pittsburgh wrote Bishop Loras another long epistle on February 2nd. "I have strong hopes," he wrote, "of being able to make the necessary preparations for complying with the terms of your Lordship's very noble offer . . . I have ardent hopes of being able to obtain assistance from the Catholic nobility of England. I doubt not your Lordship's generous offer will be hailed with joy by the Monks of Mount Melleray . . . It is to be understood that the branch of the order established at Dubuque shall only be subject to the House of Mount Melleray in Ireland." From Pittsburgh Brother Macarius then went to join Father Bernard and Brother Cyprian at Bedford, and was accordingly with them when they received the unexpected but welcome visitors at Harmon's Bottoms.

Careful inspection of the Bottoms lands on the following day convinced the shrewd and prudent geologist, Brother Ambrose, that they  p41 could never be converted into good farms. The cheap loans that were originally held out as bait to Father Bernard were now forgotten or the terms changed. Neighboring land-owners refused the monks passage to get to the mills, or to permit the water to pass through, unless their lands would be purchased at exorbitant prices. Father Thomas Heyden's own brother-in‑law, according to Prior Clement's account, made an unfair financial proposal to which the prior did not even give an answer. And when the very reverend vicar-general himself returned from his mission journey, his attitude was described by Father Clement as one of cold indifference toward the entire matter. This is probably a bit of exaggeration on the part of the prior's pen, still unacquainted with American ways and manners. Dr. Thomas Heyden had certainly been very hospitable to the monks before the prior's arrival. It may be added that he was a distinguished churchman of his day in the young United States: some years previous to the events recorded here he had been offered — and he declined — the bishopric of Natchez, Mississippi; that he was a man of learning and letters can be gleaned from the biography he wrote on Father Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin, the apostle of western Pennsylvania, the first book ever published on that illustrious priest of princely Russian blood, and a copy of which Dr. Heyden inscribed and gave to Father Bernard during the weeks he entertained him as his guest.1

At any rate, the whole project of abbey lands in Pennsylvania proved to be a dismal failure. Well it was that Prior Clement had persuaded Dom Bruno not to send a large group of monks along with him. Meanwhile Brother Macarius had informed the prior of the generous offer Bishop Loras of Dubuque — apparently the only American bishop who hitherto had shown a friendly attitude toward the Irish Trappists — had made to him the previous November,  p42 and he also described in glowing terms the lands he had inspected in Ontario near Kingston. After a consultation among the five members, it was decided that Brother Ambrose, the agricultural authority, accompanied by Brother Macarius should proceed to Iowa to examine the Dubuque farm, while Father Clement would start for Kingston, Canada, to inspect the three hundred acres of land, already purchased by Brother Macarius for the Trappists, and then to await there the return of the two brothers from Iowa before making a final decision.

Father Bernard McCaffrey, sick and discouraged, accompanied Brother Cyprian Slattery to the Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky, where he was to remain the next six months. And so ended abruptly the dream of a new Cistercian abbey in Pennsylvania.

Two days after the brothers had departed Prior Clement left Bedford and wearily took himself back to Harrisburg, and back again to Philadelphia, somewhat depressed by the prospect of the long journey before him, one of almost a thousand miles through a strange land and in the midst of the rigors of a fierce winter, the like of which he had, of course, never experienced in Ireland. And then another peculiar blow confounded him. He had imagined that the Brothers Ambrose and Macarius were now well on their way to their destination west of the Mississippi, but on calling at the house of a mutual priest-friend of the Trappists in Philadelphia he was handed two letters that had just arrived from these two reverend gentlemen informing him that this was certainly not the case. Brother Macarius wrote that he had decided after all to return to Kingston, Canada, as that place held out, in his opinion, the most favorable future; Brother Ambrose stated in his letter that he had no choice but to accompany his companion, since he, Brother Ambrose, was penniless and Brother Macarius carried the purse, and that he thus could neither return to join the prior nor go on to Iowa alone.

A further peculiar fact is that Brother Macarius before he left Bedford sent a telegram to Bishop Mathias Loras, and whether this action was taken with Father Clement Smyth's knowledge cannot definitely be stated. The telegram sent on March 3, 1849 — and, by the way, one of the first ever to reach Dubuque — read: "Have you sent the money? If not, do not send it. Brother Ambrose and I leave immediately for Dubuque. We have the sanction of the Abbot and the consent of the Monks to build a great Abbey at your place if it answers. Answer immediately at Bedford." From the notation made  p43 by Bishop Loras on this telegram, still in the old Dubuque diocesan files, it appears that he answered this telegram. By what strange mental process Brother Macarius so suddenly changed his plan and went on to Kingston is difficult to understand.

Meanwhile Prior Clement resumed his journey toward the frozen north, battling through storms that became veritable blizzards after he left the city of New York to which place he had gone upon leaving Philadelphia. From Albany on to Lake Ontario all of his travels were by stage coach in rickety vehicles whose sides were usually half open to the fierce wintry blasts. After a week of this arctic torture he arrived at long last at Cape St. Vincent, a village on the American shore of Lake Ontario separated by about sixteen miles from the British side. Here he encountered what proved to be about the most perilous part of his entire journey. Most of the passengers and all the pilots were reluctant to venture out on this lake of ice which was now broken and open in some sections. Finally one old pilot was induced, with his horse and sled, to convey the prior and a couple of passengers to the opposite shore. The horse broke through the ice once but floundered out immediately and was on his legs as active as ever. The long sheets of ice frequently bent as though they were highly elastic. Fortunately, the intelligent steed appeared so much accustomed to the ice that whenever he came to a crack he leaped over it with the greatest facility taking sleigh and passengers with him quite safely.

From out on the lake Prior Clement could see the city of Kingston standing clear on rising ground, and as he approached it, his eye was attracted by the Catholic cathedral, a large and beautiful Gothic structure. Sententiously he wrote: "Above the cathedral was the Royal flag of England, displaying in its crimson folds, as it proudly floated on the breeze, the Cross, the glorious emblem of man's redemption, waving defiance to the Orange firebrands who live just in the vicinity of the Church, and distilling around the triumphant song of victory in favour of Catholicity in Orange Kingston and silently reproaching the Saxon peer and the Saxon peasant for rejecting that glorious emblem which was the pride and the boast of their Catholic ancestors." The presence of that British flag waving from the Catholic tower was later explained to him as necessary "to awe Orange bigotry and to prevent Orange enthusiasts from daring to lay violent hands on the Church of God, where Irishmen had then met to adore the God of their forefathers and to hear an appropriate eulogy on the life and  p44 virtues of the great St. Patrick, the illustrious Patron and renowned Apostle of their dear Native land" — for this day of his arrival, as he a loyal and native son of Erin had almost forgotten, was the 17th of March, the feast of St. Patrick. But even then as he passed through the streets to call on the bishop, he was astonished to see so many of his countrymen neatly dressed, each wearing a green sash around his waist or a broad green baldric around his shoulder and across his breast, proudly displaying their national emblem, the "Shamrock so green." In answer to his inquiry for such a display "in a far distant land," he was told that "Irishmen both Catholic and Protestant (Orangemen excepted) together with the Scotch in Kingston and its vicinity, had assembled on that day, with banners and Music, to honour the great Patron of the green emerald Isle, forgetting all National antipathy, all Religious prejudices."

The prior was warmly received by the Coadjutor Bishop Phelan of Kingston, and soon Brothers Ambrose and Macarius were among those who welcomed him. Hoping that now at last he could secure the proper location and the good land needed for a Trappist foundation, he accompanied Brother Macarius to see the farm he had purchased for the order. Brother Ambrose had already warned him that it was not suitable for the community, and the prior, after viewing the place, agreed with him. Only one hundred of the three hundred acres was good land, the site was inaccessible, there were no roads and no bridges in the wilderness of that day ten miles from Kingston, the streams that had to be crossed were deep and dangerous. And this was but the prelude to a series of similar disappointments. As week followed week the monks drove about the wild country inspecting various sites which always were painted in the beginning as most attractive locations for their new monastery, and which in each instance were found by the shrewd and judicious agricultural expert, Brother Ambrose, as entirely unsatisfactory for a promising Trappist foundation. Two of these prospective sites had the picturesque Indian names of Cananoque and Tiandanaga, but these intriguing appellations added not one whit to their value. Finally, Brother Macarius Keegan, apparently resentful at the stubborn course of events and piqued because the farm he had selected and purchased had not been accepted, left Kingston for Mount Melleray Abbey with the implied declaration of never again returning to America.

 p45  It was also during this time that Prior Clement wrote to Abbot Bruno Fitzpatrick in Ireland requesting the use of certain new monies in addition to the liberal funds he had already received, an action which not only displeased the abbot but likewise suggested the ideas which led to the prior's subsequent replacement by another monk as superior of the American colony of Trappists. All this time the prior and Brother Ambrose were hospitably entertained at Kingston College by Father Angus Mac Donnel, the vicar-general, and the prior was frequently pressed into service in hearing the confessions of the prisoners in the Ontario Provincial Penitentiary. Father Mac Donnel, as a further token of his kindness, proposed another offer: he had succeeded with Bishop Phelan in getting for the monks four hundred acres of what he considered very good land, and in addition he donated a parcel of one hundred acres more which had been in his own possession. This land was however quite a distance away — one hundred and twenty miles from Kingston, near a town called Alexandria. Brother Ambrose proceeded immediately to reconnoiter this new situation and wrote back that some of the land was good but other parts were swampy and indifferent, and requested the prior to come and satisfy himself on the matter. Prior Clement arrived at Alexandria and the two of them at first were pleased with the examination.

Unfortunately, however, the prior overevaluated the good points Brother Ambrose had indicated, and forgetting all about the many strictures he had also enumerated, he travelled back the long journey to Kingston, where hoping that this at last was to be the permanent site of the abbey lands, he purchased provisions and other necessaries for their new establishment. With much toil he managed to load on board a steamer on the St. Lawrence river about two thousand pounds of stocks and stores including a stove and other heavy articles, and on the evening of that day he debarked with his cargo at Cornwall about thirty miles from Alexandria. Here with extreme difficulty after two days of search he induced a waggoner to convey him and his load to Alexandria. On his arrival there what was his dismay to find Brother Ambrose so dissatisfied with the lands that he was compelled to tell the prior frankly that they would not support the expected community. This was about the most disappointing and most painful blow that Father Clement Smyth had so far sustained. He simply dared not undertake, as he put it, "to be  p46 responsible for the consequences of settling on the farm and of bringing a Community from Mount Melleray to what they would perhaps term Mount Misery." He was forced to sell all his purchases, bag and baggage, to the Catholic pastor of Alexandria, who had kindly kept the two monks at his own house as long as they remained in that locality.

Riding back on the St. Lawrence steamer to Kingston, on May 10th, the prior, discouraged at all he had gone through, unburdened himself to Brother Ambrose, and made the statement that "the only thing remaining to be done was to return back to Ireland, that all future attempts would prove like the past, perfect failures." This same sentiment he had previously written in his letters to Abbot Bruno Fitzpatrick and this fortified the abbot in his belief that Prior Clement lacked the fortitude necessary in a leader of the attempted American colony.

The only unexplored offer that still remained was that of Bishop Mathias Loras of Iowa, an offer that had been highly spoken of by Brother Macarius despite the fact that he had spurned it because of his preference for Canada as a Trappist foundation. So without further delay the prior sent Brother Ambrose to the far West with Dubuque as his destination. The weather was now mild and navigation had commenced on the Great Lakes thus affording a facility of travelling by water. Brother Ambrose Byrne left Kingston on May 14th, 1849. Prior Clement had debated seriously with himself as to whether he should accompany him. Despondent over the failures of Father Bernard's and Brother Macarius' projects, fearful that Brother Macarius' report on Iowa was as misleading as his descriptions of the Kingston lands, and believing that expenses could be saved by allowing Brother Ambrose to travel alone, he permitted himself to be persuaded, probably by Father Angus Mac Donnel and other friends, to remain at Kingston and to await further word there from the West. He acknowledged later however that although, as it turned out, he could not have accomplished more than Brother Ambrose did, the wiser and more dutiful course would have been to accompany him.

The prior, still residing at Kingston College, was in hopes of receiving a letter from Brother Ambrose at least in ten days. But week after week rolled by and the prior's heart sank daily as each post reaching the college brought no intelligence, cheering or otherwise, from Iowa. Brother Ambrose, it was learned later, had written directly  p47 to Mount Melleray, Ireland, and had neglected to send a single line to Father Clement who worried "whether he was dead or alive or on horse-back." Finally the prior decided to pay a visit to Boston where his nephew, a young physician, had a successful medical practice. At Boston he was not only aided financially by his nephew, but was offered by him a small farm for the community. Father Clement could not accept this until he heard further from the West, and so after six days he returned to Kingston in high hopes that at last there would be encouraging news from Brother Ambrose and Dubuque.

The Author's Note:

1 At the same time that Mathias Loras, Vicar-General of Mobile, was appointed Bishop of Dubuque (1837) "the Holy See named as the first Bishop of Natchez Rev. Thomas Heyden, then pastor of St. Paul's Church in Pittsburg. When Father Heyden became acquainted with this appointment, distress and perplexity seemed to disturb his soul. Should he make the sacrifice that would be entailed in leaving his comfortable home to become bishop of a diocese where there were no priests, no churches, and where nothing but problems and hardships would await him? It seems to have taken him a long time to decide. The Natchez congregation wrote him expressing delight at his appointment and urging him to accept. His personal friends wrote him — some of them advising him that he should not accept; other urged him that he should accept the office as being given him by the will of God." — Cradle Days at St. Mary's at Natchez (1941) by Bishop R. A. Gerow.

Page updated: 15 May 13