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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 6

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 8

 p57  VII

— While Brother Ambrose Holds the Fort

Brother Ambrose Byrne was a simple and pious Trappist lay brother. He was also a shrewd and experienced agriculturalist. And above all he was endowed with more than the usual amount of common sense, sane judgment and prudence. He gave his clear‑cut opinions about the land-sites in Pennsylvania and in Canada and he refused to be swayed from his decisions. He made the long and lonely journey from Kingston to Iowa with a completely open mind. Brother Ambrose, it should be mentioned, had made his Trappist vows in old Melleray in France, and was one of those who suffered exile for the Faith in 1831.

The week of his arrival in Dubuque was not merely a red‑letter one for the Church in Iowa, but one that could actually be marked on the calendar with initials of fire. For during that fateful week of May, 1849, a fire broke out at the mother-house of the Sisters of Charity of the B. V. M. a few miles southwest of the city whose location was actually contiguous to the lands which Bishop Mathias Loras was holding in escrow for the Trappist community. This convent, which when rebuilt was to be a close neighbor and generous friend of the Cistercian house for many years in the future, had its  p58 academy and chapel burned to the ground through the action of an irresponsible incendiary. Although the books and other effects of the students of the academy were saved, nearly all the personal apparel and household goods of the twenty-three Sisters who resided on the premises were lost in the buildings destroyed.

The smoke and confusion of this conflagration — quite a catastrophe at that time in sparsely-settled Iowa — tended to obscure completely the presence of the humble monk who had arrived as a guest at the bishop's house. After a couple of days the vicar-general, Father Cretin, who was directing the affairs of the young diocese during the absence of the bishop, became suddenly aware of the identity and purpose of his visitor and immediately demonstrated an acute interest in Brother Ambrose and his mission. Bishop Loras, who had been in Baltimore attending with the other bishops of the United States the Seventh Provincial Council, was at this moment, coincidentally enough, finishing a visit with other Trappists. On his return journey to Iowa he had stopped at the monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky which had been founded just the year before by a colony of Cistercians from Melleray in France. Unaware, of course, of the Trappist guest in his own home, he discussed with his Kentucky friends the possibility of securing some religious order of men for his diocese. From Gethsemani he departed for Keokuk and Burlington in the southern part of his Iowa see.

Father Cretin, sufficiently confident in his own mind that the bishop's lands would prove highly satisfactory to this expert agriculturalist of the Cistercians, arranged to have Brother Ambrose go alone and at his leisure carefully inspect the proffered sites. He further arranged to have him driven out to the "Twelve Mile House," where the proprietor of this tavern and hostelry, Mr. Lemuel Lytton, would act as his guide. The highway leading out to this inn was a splendid one; it was the famous Military Road constructed as a part of the government road from Dubuque to the northern boundary of Missouri. Mr. Lytton was a distinguished looking Protestant gentleman originally from New England and several of his children were in later years to enter the Catholic Church under the catechetical instructions of the Trappist priests. Mr. Lytton had saddle horses and he and Brother Ambrose rode about over the lands through the tall prairie grass. He informed the brother that there were other prairie lands yet unclaimed and lying close to the bishop's holdings which could be procured for the "congress price" of one  p59 dollar and a quarter. Pleased by this piece of news the brother was further gratified when he galloped over with Mr. Lytton to the fine timber lands only a few miles distant. The two men parted company that evening at the Twelve Mile House, and the happy Trappist brother the next day wrote a glowing account of all that had happened to Dom Bruno at Mount Melleray. As the abbot had already departed for America, the new prior, Father Francis Walsh, read the letter in public chapter to a breathlessly interested assemblage of monks.

Father Cretin was, of course, delighted with the highly favorable impressions made on his visitor. He admired the character of this Trappist brother and he wrote to this effect to Bishop Loras at Burlington: "A Trappist brother, Brother Ambrose, much more respectable than his predecessor [Brother Macarius], has been awaiting your return to make a decision on the subject of the offer you have made them." But the enthusiasm of both these gentlemen was rudely jolted by the arrival of a letter from Brother Macarius. The latter reported the news of his return to Canada in the company of Abbot Bruno, and requested Brother Ambrose to leave Iowa for Kingston, implying, one would certainly suspect, that the matter of the Cistercian foundation was swinging over now entirely in favor of Bishop Phelan's proffered site. While Brother Ambrose hesitated about his next move, Father Cretin made use of a shrewd and able ally in presenting his arguments. Father Terence J. Donaghoe, the chaplain and spiritual director of the Sisters of Charity who had so recently suffered the calamity of the fire, proved to be of invaluable assistance at this moment.

Since both this reverend gentleman and the Sisters under his charge were to have relations of generous charity and deep friendship with the New Melleray house and its members during the early years of its existence, a clarifying word of introduction should be recorded here. Father Donaghoe and Father Cretin had been old friends. Indeed they had been fellow students at St. Sulpice in France and had been ordained in the same class in Paris. When the then tiny community of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, originating in Dublin, Ireland, had come to Philadelphia in 1833, Father Donaghoe had become their sponsor and adviser. The Sisters' superior was Mary Francis Clarke, a nun of illustrious and virtuous life, after whom Clarke College in Dubuque today is named. The community grew and prospered, and in 1843  p60 at the cordial and insistent invitation of Bishop Loras, Father Donaghoe and the entire sisterhood moved to Dubuque, with the intention at that time of placing some of the Sisters on missions among the Indians of Iowa.

Two of the postulants had remained behind to care for the Philadelphia convent until it should be disposed of. Father Donaghoe had made a return trip to Philadelphia just at the time the great anti-Catholic agitation, the Know-Nothing movement, was breaking out in the city. On May 8th, 1844, St. Michael's Church and Father Donaghoe's house were both burned down; and in the afternoon a mob attacked the convent. Mrs. Mary Baker, a postulant and a convert, was in charge of the convent and with her were two young girls. During the disorders Mrs. Baker was struck down by a brick hurled by the mob, but she and the girls were finally saved by a group of resolute Irishmen who had come to their rescue. A few minutes later the convent was reduced to ashes. Father Donaghoe remained in the East for a year, instituting suit for the recovery of financial indemnities for the burning of the Sisters' convent and his church. Through his efforts the Sisters received about $6,400 from the city of Philadelphia as compensation for the destruction caused by the rioters, and, incidentally, most of this money had been used for the erection of the buildings which had burned down during the week of Brother Ambrose's arrival in Dubuque.

Now, in this month of June, 1849, Father Donaghoe used his eloquence on Brother Ambrose in behalf of Iowa and Bishop Loras, and what success he was having is related in this letter sent to the bishop at Burlington:

Brother Ambrose from Melleray arrived here and expected to find you at home. He is one of the few to be met with for judgment and prudence, a priest came with him and remains at Kingston upper Canada. The Bishop endeavors to induce him to settle there — 20 monks or more are to come out — Br. Macarius desires that Br. Ambrose should come on to Canada as the Abbot has arrived in Canada — Father Cretin opposes it until he hears from you — The good Father Cretin is all on fire to have the monks now — my opinion is still the same — furthermore I told him — the monk, that your approbation to settle in the Diocese was more than the largest offer made by the Bishops east or in Canada and that too if you had not been so kind — I have his whole Confidence  p61 — I now wish you to write me a letter to hold him here — it is all he wants to justify the call made on him by Br. Macarius from Canada who appears to be too much influenced by his Canada friend — In one word — It will be a blessing for your Diocese to have them settled within it. Jerry and Doogan [farmers] would give up their lease I am told — but inter nos I would undertake if I were allowed freely by you and the Abbot — to make an establishment for 40 monks that would astonish ourselves — and all others — Our ever Blessed Mother will aid us —

The means will not be wanting — If left to me I would go out West with land warrants not to be had for $112 — but in the first instance I would have you continue your grant of the 500 acres and leave the rest to Providence.

In a postscript Father Donaghoe mentioned to Bishop Loras that he had received a letter from him from "Latrappe, Kentucky," and added: "Your heart shows that you love religious orders. God provides for them territory, 'Domini est terra,' and now is your time to induce thereby a Catholic emigration. I am delighted I can aid in the good work — write as this excellent monk is uneasy."

Thus, for some time Brother Ambrose despite assurances from his friends at Dubuque continued to remain uneasy until suddenly to his astonishment and immense relief, Dom Bruno and Brother Barnaby arrived on the scene to be Father Cretin's guests. This was about June 23rd, and so it was more than five months since the brother had seen his abbot. As soon as the latter had heard Brother Ambrose's gratifying report, a report that warmed the cockles of his heart, he insisted on going with him the next day to study the location and view the rich but wild uncultivated prairies. Shrewd speculators had naturally heard rumors of the possible monastic establishment and had seen the visits to the new lands in the vicinity of the Twelve Mile House of Brother Ambrose, and now that the abbot himself had appeared, there was grave fear that these land brokers might buy up the leases. Immediate action was imperative; whether it was by the advice of Father Cretin or by his own suggestion the resolute Dom Bruno and Brother Ambrose immediately slipped down the river to Burlington to get the final consent and full approval of Bishop Loras to the foundation and lands. The result of this quick and vigorous action may be seen in the following jubilant letter of Father Terence Donaghoe to the Bishop:

 p62  Dubuque June 28th eve of St. Peter and St. Paul — 1849

My dear Bishop

As soon as Brother Ambrose reached me with your important commission I started for Dubuque determined to fill up the measure of your liberality. I scarcely breathed to mortal until I had 4 land warrants secured although they had raised 30 dollars each within 5 days — The Surveyor and Brother is now harnessing their buggy and I take these moments to write — we have a certified land plat which I obtained and I am now looking at the 16 forties within our grasp — alias 640 acres — alias one mile square — your 500 and 120 — Bt of Yount — or $250 of Br. Macarius money — total 1260 acres secured — Glory be to God —

I am now satisfied there is little land in 12 miles of Dubuque that is not entered — speculation was on the stretch but the Abbot going down to see you blinded them imagining that nothing would be done until he would return. We took advantage of it — I was sorry that I did not see him but now he will rejoice in the Lord.

Yours devotedly in Christ

T. J. Donaghoe

Here comes the buggy —

The figures given here by Father Donaghoe in his hastily scribbled letter to the bishop were only approximately correct in one or two instances. At this time Bishop Loras turned over 440 acres of land to the Trappist brothers as a gift. 480 acres were secured through three land warrants paid for by the order, and another 80 acre addition was bought by the monks from a local farmer, Jeremiah Healy. It was sometime later that Bishop Loras donated a 160 acre tract of timber land. The money of Brother Macarius referred to in the letter was a fund of the order left with the bishop when the brother had visited him in November of 1848 and was mentioned by him in his telegram to Loras sent in March of 1849 from Bedford. This sum was used now, naturally, by the monks in purchasing their new lands.

About the beginning of July Dom Bruno returned from southern Iowa with Bishop Loras and it was probably at this time that he decided to give the name "Our Lady of New Melleray" to the foundation he was establishing. On the new lands were two small frame  p63 buildings acquired with the acreage, and in one of them, about fifteen feet square, the monks immediately prepared for their housekeeping. The account book of the order was commenced on Independence Day, and it may be of interest here to quote from that book only the entries of that particular day with the heading which reads:

"The following are the expenses incurred in the establishment of New Melleray since its Commencement

"1849 . . .
July 4 To Purchase of 480 Acres of Prairie
by 3 Land Warrants at 145 $ per
To Land office entrance &c of Do 6.50
To Land office for plat of range 1.00
To Jerry Healy for purchase of 80 acres 100.00
To Deed and Record of the above 2.40
To Kitchen Stove &c. $22 Tin Work 26.00
To one table and eight chairs 9.50 "

And a few days later was entered the purchase of "1 cow and calf" from Cornelius Duggan for fourteen dollars.

Thus when Prior Clement Smyth and Father James Myles O'Gorman were welcomed on their arrival at the episcopal stone mansion on July 6th they found that practically all arrangements for the new monastery had been completed with despatch by the abbot and Brother Ambrose — the bishop's hearty consent and cooperation procured, the sites selected, the lands bought and recorded, the housekeeping arrangements started. Father Clement was still titular prior, nominally at least, and the abbot had not as yet designated a new superior for the Dubuque monastery.

The small dwelling on the new lands served the little community as an oratory, a refectory and a dormitory. Abbot Bruno, except when he was the guest of Bishop Loras, resided with them, sharing the wants and privations that were inseparable from such a pioneer institution. He helped Brother Ambrose draw the plans for the erection of a larger building, some sixty feet by twelve, in anticipation of the new group of monks which was soon to be sent for. For this new and humble monastery the ceremony of laying the cornerstone was as simple and direct as most of Dom Bruno's actions. The latter pointed with his cane to where it should be located, and what served as the corner-stone — an oak sill squared in the woods — was laid on July 16th. Along with Brother Ambrose, the two brothers, Joseph and Timothy, assisted by a hired carpenter performed the  p64 labor on the building which was sufficiently completed for partial occupancy by the following November.

And then down went Dom Bruno with a serious illness that frightened everyone. Whether it was a recurrence of the sickness that attacked him at Kingston, whether it was an entirely new disease, or whether it was the dread cholera, — who could tell? The cholera was taking its toll of victims at the time, not only in Dubuque, but everywhere up and down the Mississippi. The Sisters of Charity were called into the city from their convent near the New Melleray monastery to nurse the numerous patients. Sister Mary Catherine Byrne was assigned to the abbot's case. He recovered and later wrote the Sisters' chaplain, Father Donaghoe: "Under God, Sister Mary Catherine saved my life; and my gratitude to her and to all the Sisters will be as lasting as my life."

Finally restored to health, he and Bishop Loras arranged for the signing of the last documents connected with the formal establishment of the Iowa Cistercian house, and the most significant is given here:

"We, the undersigned, on behalf of ourselves and of the actual and future Superior and Members of the Communities of Mount Melleray, Ireland, and of New Melleray, Dubuque, Iowa, do hereby promise that the 440 Acres of Land given by the Right Reverend Doctor Loras, Bishop of Dubuque, shall return to him, or to his Successor for the time being, in case that the Monks should ever leave the locality lately known by the name of St. Anne's, and now called New Melleray, they being allowed only the value of their improvements upon the land.

"We likewise engage, that within twelve months after the death of the Right Reverend Doctor Loras, 300 Masses shall be celebrated for the repose of his soul."

Dubuque, Iowa

6th August, 1849

Barthw Bruno Fitz Patrick
Abbot of Mount Melleray, Ireland

Timothy Clement Smithº
Prior of New Melleray

James O'Gorman
Priest of New Melleray."

 p65  On the reverse of this document is written in Bishop Loras' hand: "440 acres given to the Cistercian fathers. Aug. 6th, 1849. 300 Masses promised. 150 before his death, 150 after the same." And beneath this in a strange hand, apparently written after the bishop's death, are the words: "All said." In connection with Clement Smyth's signature two things are to be noted: first, the strange spelling in this instance of his own name, "Smith"; secondly, his title, that of Prior of New Melleray. And as prior he remained until shortly before Abbot Bruno was to leave America. The abbot then offered to continue him in that office, at least, presumably, until Father Francis Walsh, the prior of Mount Melleray in Ireland should arrive in Iowa. Father Clement thought it better, however, to resign the priorship, and this he did in a humble and respectful manner. Dom Bruno then appointed Father James Myles O'Gorman as the superior of the new monastery.

Toward the end of August the abbot left Dubuque to return to his abbey by way of France and La Trappe where he was to attend the meeting of the General Chapter of the Cistercian Congregation. Sometime before his departure, about August 18th, he wrote to Mount Melleray with instructions to Prior Francis Walsh to send on immediately to the new Iowa Trappist house fourteen members — three choir brothers and eleven lay brothers; and he named the particular brothers whom he selected for the colony. On one of his last Sundays in Dubuque, he preached an eloquent sermon in the Dubuque cathedral. Then, knowing that Bishop Loras was soon also to visit Europe to secure priests and financial help for his diocese, he pressed him cordially to be his honored guest and that of the community in Ireland.

At last the little community at Dubuque was actually established; the monastery of Our Lady of New Melleray was launched and under the superior, Father James, there now were two other priests, Father Clement and Father Bernard McCaffrey who had recently come on from the Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky, and the four brothers, Ambrose, Joseph, Timothy and Barnaby. They were the nucleus of the great hoped‑for abbey of the future, and they were compelled for the time-being to lead a life of rough and pioneer hardihood. The new superior was foremost in every humiliating employment and imparted a new stimulus to the minds and wills of his brethren. They all suffered somewhat from the burning heat of a summer sun with which they had hitherto been unacquainted.  p66 Brothers Joseph and Timothy were actively engaged in building the new frame monastery; Brothers Ambrose and Barnaby were indefatigable in their labors in the fields; and the three priests when they were not helping either on the structure or with the farm work, were honorably employed as cooks in the kitchen. They received food and generous help from St. Joseph's convent nearby; lacking an oven, their bread was baked for them by the Sisters of Charity during that year of 1849 as well as during the greater part of the next two years. Quam dilecta tabernacula tua, Domine virtutum.a

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The Remains of What Was the Original New Melleray Abbey Building Started in 1849.

Thayer's Note:

a Psalm 83 (84):2.

Page updated: 15 May 13