Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

This webpage reproduces an article in the
Illinois Catholic Historical Review
Vol. 8 No. 2 (Oct. 1925), pp106‑136

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!

 p106  The Trappists of Monks Mound​*

The motorist speeding away from East St. Louis over the Collinsville road is but a few miles out of town when he begins to pass through what has been described as the greatest field for archaeological research in the United States. Here, on either side of the modern concrete highway, and over an area of two thousand squareº acres rise scattered groups of earth-mounds of varying shapes and dimensions, silent memorials of some strange aboriginal tribe. Some six miles out of East St. Louis the motorist has on his left, at but a few yards remove, the most imposing of these mounds, known variously as Big or Cahokia or Monks Mound. It is all very interesting, fascinating rather, one should say, this array of monuments of a vanished race, with their inevitable atmosphere of mystery and their secrets to challenge the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the investigator. The investigator has recently been at work in the person of Professor Warren C. Moorehead, the archaeologist, who is doing for the mounds of St. Clair County what the late Lord Carnarvon did through a long period of years for the tombs of Egypt's kings. No spectacular discovery of the mummy of an American Tutankhamen in its chamber of buried treasure is indeed to be looked for by the persevering explorer who pierces the hidden recesses of the Cahokia mounds; but the game has its allurements, and its profit too, in a scientific way, for it behooves science to know, if it can, the why and the wherefore of these outstanding earthen remains. At all events, the public is interested in the Cahokia explorations, the University of Illinois is supporting them, and the erection of at least a part of the mound district into a State Park is among the probabilities.​a

The foregoing paragraph serves no other purpose than to suggest the interest which may be presumed to attach to the topic of this paper, as being connected historically with the Cahokia mounds. During the years 1809‑1813 a community of monks of the Order of La Trappe lived, I may say flourished, under the shadow of the largest of the mounds, which ever since has been popularly known as Monks Mound. The good monks came and went, leaving behind  p107 them scarcely a trace of their residence on Illinois soil. In the history of this great commonwealth their names may be said to be writ in water, were it not that at least the outstanding fact of their one‑time habitation in St. Clair County is guaranteed against oblivion in the historic name of Monks Mound. Of the episode of Illinois history which thus centers about the State's greatest archaeological wonder, only fragmentary and in some respects misleading accounts have hitherto appeared. We shall venture here on a retelling of the episode, with as much authentic and accurate detail as available contemporary sources make possible, using especially for this purpose certain letters which the Superior of the Trappist monastery at the Mound (Notre Dame du Bon Secours) wrote thence to the Bishops of Baltimore and Quebec.

But we shall first endeavor to get a mental picture of the towering mass of earth which is to be in a measure the physical setting of our story. Printed descriptions of the Big Mound are numerous. It may perhaps answer our purpose best to reproduce a brief one from the pen of the traveller, Henry Brackenridge, who pictures the Mound as it appeared in 1811, at the very time the monks were cultivating its surface, with their monastery almost immediately alongside. Harking back though it does to so remote a period, this description is a substantially accurate one of the Mound as it appears today.

When I reached the foot of the largest mound, I was struck with the degree of astonishment not unlike that which is experienced in contemplating the Egyptian pyramids, and could not help exclaiming, "What a stupendous pile of earth!" To heap up such a mass must have required years and the labor of thousands. It stands immediately on the bank of the Cahokia, and on the side next it is covered with lofty trees. Were it not for the regularity and design which it manifests, the circumstance of its being on alluvial ground, and the other mounds scattered around it, we could scarcely believe it the work of human hands, in a country which we have generally believed never to have been inhabited by any but a few lazy Indians. The shape is that of a parallelogram, standing from north to south; on the south side there is a broad apron or step about half‑way down, and from this another projection into the plain about fifteen feet wide, which was probably intended as an ascent to the mound. By stepping round the base I computed the circumference to be at least six hundred yards, and the height of the mound about ninety feet. The step  p108 or apron has been used as a kitchen-garden by the monks of La Trappe, and the top is sowed with wheat.​1


The story begins, continues and ends around the name of Urban Guillet, born in 1766 at Nantes, France, of Ambroise Augustin Guillet, Knight of Malta, and Marie Anne Quellec.​2 In 1785 La Trappe, the historic monastery of the Reformed Cistercians, opened its doors to this young Breton, who was the last accession to the community before the outbreak of the French Revolution. That great upheaval brought the monks (called Trappists after the name of the monastery) under the ban of the Paris authorities, with the result that they were forced to retire into foreign lands. A party of twenty-four, Guillet being of the number, under the leader­ship of Father Augustin L'Estrange, who was to merit for his remarkable services in behalf of the Order the soubriquet of "Savior of La Trappe," found a refuge at Valsainte, a one‑time Carthusian monastery some fifteen miles distant from Fribourg in Switzerland. Here Guillet heard one day with astonishment from the lips of a dying confrere, Brother Palaemon, a Piedmontese, the strange prediction that he would live to be a Superior in the Order. To Brother Urban no contingency  p109 seemed more remote, for he was in shattered health and the only prospect before him appeared to be an early grave. Now it befell that the Abbot one day seemed Brother Urban to his presence, for he had a matter of importance to communicate to him. It was customary for the monks of La Trappe when thus summoned before their Superior to remain kneeling while they received his orders. This Urban did, but so weak of body was he that he had perforce to be assisted to his knees by the Abbot. "What would you say," the latter addressed him, "were I to send you on business outside the monastery?" As an obedient religious, the young Trappist could return only one answer. "I would go," he replied, at the same time sadly perplexed how one in his practically dying condition could manage to survive outside the monastery walls. "Then," spoke the Abbot, "you will leave tomorrow for Hungary." Without help of anybody, Urban rose at once to his feet and forgetting the crutch which he was accustomed to carry, started off at a running gait for his living quarters in the monastery not without great amazement on the part of the onlooking brethren. A cripple for eight years, he felt so far cured as to be able to endure the fatigues of the road. "From that time on," he says in relating the incident, "I never had any difficulty in walking."

The pedestrian journey to Hungary, whither he led a colony of Trappists, was the first chapter of the many similar ones that were to make up the Odyssey of his eventful life. Soon he came into relations with great personages of the day. Francis II, Holy Roman Emperor, and especially his sister, the archduchess of Prague, took the monks under their protection, the latter on one occasion herself personally befriending the young boys in Urban's party, when an attempt was made to separate them from the monks. The Trappists, it must be explained, had planned to enter the field of education, hoping in this manner to secure candidates for the Order, though the schools they afterwards opened were by no means restricted to this class of students. In Russia, whither circumstances forced them to retire from Hungary, they were welcomed by the Czar, the Czarina, and their son. But Jacobin intrigue, so it was believed, followed them at every turn, preventing them from making a permanent settlement anywhere. How the Trappists came into touch with George III of England is not known; but Urban declares that the sovereign named promised them six thousand dollars for the purchase of property in Kentucky, only the war that broke out between France and east preventing him from standing to his word. Certain it is at all events that William Pitt, England's famous Prime Minister, granted  p110 Dom Augustin, the Trappist Superior-General, an annual pension of 200 pounds.

Meanwhile Urban, now invested with the full powers of a Superior and accordingly, in conformity with monastic usage, henceforth to bear the title Dom, was directed by Dom Augustin, to lead a colony of monks to America. Having assembled a party of thirty‑six, seven priests, eighteen lay‑brothers and the rest students, Dom Urban set sail from Amsterdam May 24, 1802 on the Sally, a Dutch vessel flying the American colors as a safeguard, for France and England were then at war. Having gone far out of its course to avoid English pirates, the Sally put in at Baltimore September 25, after a voyage of four months, during which frightening storms, lack of food, and other distressing conditions made life wretched for the passengers.

At Baltimore the Sulpicians of St. Mary's College received the Trappists with the most cordial hospitality, offering them as a home an improved property known as Pigeon Hills, situated a few miles from Conewago in Adams County, Pennsylvania. This property had belonged to a Frenchman, who on returning to France gave it in trust to the Sulpicians to be disposed of as they saw fit. The school opened here by Dom Urban ended in failure, the boys whom the Trappists had brought with them from Europe (most of them Hollanders) proving recalcitrant and finally deserting altogether. Dom Urban thereupon moved his community to Kentucky, the trip, which was a distressing one, being made down the Ohio in flat-boats. Most of the monks arrived at their destination in a helpless condition from fever. In Kentucky two houses were opened, one on Pottinger's Creek near Bardstown, the other on Casey Creek in Casey County The hand of death now fell heavily on the monks. Five priests and three lay‑brothers fell victims to disease and were laid away in the little cemetery at Holy Cross.

Though Father Joseph Marie Dunand and some fellow Trappists had come from France to re‑enforce the ranks of their brethren in Kentucky, the situation of the latter at length developed into one of acute distress. A school which they opened, the first Catholic school in Kentucky, was not without wholesome effect on numerous sons of the pioneer families of the State, though the monks' slender acquaintance with English proved a serious bar to its success. So it was that an invitation extended by John Mullanphy​b to Dom Urban when the two met in Baltimore in 1808, to settle in Florissant, some sixteen miles northwest of St. Louis in Missouri, seemed to come at a most opportune moment. As an inducement Mullanphy, who was just then beginning to lay the foundation of the great fortune that was  p111 to bring him celebrity as Missouri's first millionaire, offered the Trappists two houses in Florissant together with 120 acres of land rent-free for a year. One of the houses, located on the west side of the Rue St. Charles directly across from the Place D'Armes had been owned and occupied by François Dunegant, founder of the village and its commandant during the entire Spanish régime.3

Among the objects which Dom Augustin had in view in despatching a community of his monks to America was that of opening up to them a field for the education of Indians.​4 Not white boys only, but youths also of the native tribes of the country were to be admitted to the monastery school. Already in 1806, one year after his arrival in Kentucky, Dom Urban was in correspondence on the subject with the veteran mission of Illinois, Father Donatien Olivier. The latter wrote August 6 of that year to Father Stephen Badin. "Father Guillet, Superior of the Trappists, has made known to me his wish to have some Indian children in his community. I am not losing sight of it. The chief of the nation, who lives at Kaskaskia, has promised me to ask his tribesmen to send them some."​5 Very likely it was the prospect of finding Indian boys in numbers in that quarter that turned Dom Urban's thoughts toward Illinois even before he had given himself a fair chance to succeed in Kentucky. For we must note here that the Abbot's frequent shifting of residence did not by any means commend themselves to the well-wishers of his community. The two pioneer priests of Kentucky, Fathers Stephen Theodore Badin and Charles Nerinckx had intimate dealings with the Trappists during their stay in Kentucky, and sought to relieve them in the difficulties they encountered. Both were one in commending the edifying demeanor of the monks and the unfailing regularity with which, amid the most painful circumstances, they observed the rigorous manner of life which they professed; but both also agreed that Dom Urban was not proving a success in his administration of the community's affairs. "They are poorly situated," Father Nerinckx wrote of the Trappists in November, 1805, shortly after their arrival in Kentucky: "St. Bernard will have to help them for, in my opinion, Father Urban, their Superior, is not the man in the right place."​6 The opinion of Father Badin (who elsewhere  p112 says of Dom Urban that "he means well") is conveyed in a letter of March 10, 1808, addressed to Bishop Carroll of Baltimore:

I wish them [the Trappists] well, because of the edification they may render to the church; but after wasting a deal of money, after a residence of four or five years in America, after many valuable offers and efforts to establish them, their existence appears as precarious now as it ever was. Their Superior, governed by that young man who flatters him and should rather be a novice than a counsellor, is displeased with the tract or rather tracts of land, which to purchase or connect he has been incessantly travelling, apparently leading the life of a post‑boy rather than that of a Trappist. He intends to send a colony to the Illinois; he is in debt for five or six thousand dollars and must soon be at law. The evil is owing also to his overweening confidence in himself and his distrust of others. I had procured him valuable friends, more capable than I of advising him in the purchase of land, etc. But he advises with nobody. Acquainted as I am with the language, manners, business and difficulties of the country, I would esteem it rashness to attempt the tenth part of the affairs into which the Reverend Father has imprudently involved himself. But unhappily his miscarriage and almost unavoidable ruin must ultimately redound to the disgrace of the church, unless St. Bennett [Benedict] and St. Bernard renew some of the miracles wrought formerly in favor of their children.​7

Whatever may have been Father Badin's opinion of the expediency of Dom Urban's contemplated settlement in the Illinois country, he at all events lent him aid in carrying it out. On the occasion of a visit to St. Louis in the fall of 1808 he approached the Governor of Missouri Territory, Meriwether Lewis, on the subject of a Government bounty in land for the Trappists as being engaged in education. The Governor required two certificates to the effect that they  p113 were so engaged, one from a resident of Baltimore, the other from some one in Kentucky. "All I desire," Dom Urban wrote to Bishop Carroll, November 12, 1808, "is a certificate from your Lordship attesting that I and my confreres do in truth make profession of educating youth and that our means do not permit us to purchase land for that purpose."​8 A few weeks before (October 15) he had written to the same prelate asking him for a letter certifying "that I have come to America particularly to engage in the education of youth, Indian as well as white, and that I have been constantly taken up with this task without remuneration for the last four years."9

It will be recalled that John Mullanphy offered Dom Urban two houses and 120 acres of land in Florissant rent-free for a year, it probably having been stipulated that in event of permanent occupancy the property was to be acquired by purchase. But a rival to Mullanphy now appeared in the field in the person of Nicholas Jarrot of Cahokia, the historic French settlement on the Illinois side of the Mississippi. Jarrot, who had been a steward in the Sulpician Seminary at Baltimore, had come in 1795 to Cahokia where he acquired prominence as the principal landholder of the district. Governor Edwards described him in 1812 as "one of the most intelligent, wealthy and respectable French citizens."​10 His real-estate holdings in St. Clair County were extensive, scores of tracts to which he claimed title being listed in the American State Papers. A four-hundred acre tract situated in the mound-district and including within its limits the Big Mound itself was now offered by Jarrot to Dom Urban, apparently as a gift. Were the monks to settle here, they might look forward to enlarging the Jarrot donation by land obtained gratuitously or at a nominal price from the Government. In fact, Dom Urban appears to have taken up this matter with William Henry Harrison, the future President, then Governor of Indiana Territory, of which Illinois, at this period constituted a part. At all events personal investigation of the Florissant and Cahokia offers was necessary if their respective claims to choice was to be ascertained; for which Dom Urban undertook a journey West, without waiting for the certificate he had solicited from Bishop Carroll. He had in his company the Prior, Father Joseph Marie Dunand, and a lay‑brother, the  p114 party arriving in St. Louis on Christmas Eve, 1808.​11 On December 28 Dom Urban and Father Dunand were at Florissant, where the latter baptized in the village church. The Trappist Superior would seem to have taken up again with Governor Lewis the question of a Government subsidy in land; but nothing was effected as he was still without the certificate that should have accompanied his petition. Within the next few months, Meriwether Lewis, who with his associate William Clark, had written into history a few years before America's greatest journey of exploration, passed from the scene, having at the very height of his brilliantly expanding career met a mysteriously tragic death in a backwoods Tennessee village. On January 6 Dom Urban and his confreres started back for Kentucky, no choice having been made between the Mullanphy and Jarrot offers, except a provisional acceptance of the former, pending a more satisfactory acquaintance with conditions on both sides of the Mississippi. Arrived in Kentucky, Dom Urban despatched to Bishop Carroll, January 28, 1809, a brief account of the results that had attended his Western trip:

It sº only four [?] days since I returned from the Illinois and our trip has been so distressing that the Father Prior [Dunand], whom I brought with me to help me select a tract of land, has told me that not for all the world would he begin the journey over again unless he saw therein the will of God. In spite of the cold, we had to pass a number of creeks by swimming. On no day did we find a sufficiency, I will not say of meat, for we never eat any, but not even of bread. One may easily judge that it is not a pleasant thing for Religious who eat only once a day and who in travelling are often forced to limit themselves to bread and water not to find even the necessary amount of this poor nourishment after having travelled the whole day long. It is true that having received your certificate only after my return, I have made no arrangements with the Governor of St. Louis [Lewis] nor with the one at Post Vincennes [Harrison]. Both are desirous of having me, and the habitants on either side of the river [Mississippi] contend among themselves as to who will have the college. I have found on each side of the river a suitable site for a monastery, but have been unable to proceed to a sale owing to the self-interest actuating both parties. Those of St. Louis say that the Post side of the river is unhealthy, while those of the Post say the same of the St. Louis side. This is why I contented myself with accepting two houses and 130 arpents of land near St. Louis for a year only so as during this time to get at the real truth of the matter and build at the place which will suit best.​12

 p115  III

On April 23, 1809, the main body of the Trappists, including all of their number except Dom Urban himself and three other monks, left Kentucky for Florissant. In the party, which was under the conduct of Father Dunand, were also a number of young Kentucky boys, who had apparently attended the Trappist school just broken up. The monks, so Bishop Spalding declares, boarded and educated the boys under their charge gratuitously up to the age of twenty‑one, with a view to securing some at least of their number as recruits for the Order. Shortly after the departure of the monks from Kentucky Father Badin wrote to Bishop Carroll: "On the 23 of April the good Trappists left this state. I follow them with my best wishes to the country they are going to edify."​13 The route followed by the monks was by the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to a coal-hill on the right bank of the latter known as La Charbonniere and situated a few miles southwest of Florissant. Here they disembarked from the flat-boats in which they had made the trip and traveled overland to Florissant, where they were arrived before the end of May.

The Trappist community now assembled at Florissant counted besides Father Dunand, two other priests, Father Bernard Marie Langlois, a Canadian, who had joined the community in Kentucky, and Father Ignace, who belonged to a sort of auxiliary organization founded by Dom Augustin L'Estrange and known as the Third Order of La Trappe. Only a short stay in Florissant, so it would appear, sufficed to convince Father Dunand that here was not the place to settle down permanently; for in the fall of the same year, 1809, the Trappist body with the exception of Father Bernard, two of the lay‑brothers and the school-boys, moved across the Mississippi to the Jarrot property at Big Mound and there made preparations for a permanent residence. Failure to provide themselves with good drinking-water by digging a well now almost proved their undoing. They drank freely of the water of a near‑by stream, presumably Cahokia Creek, which was so filled with big fish, Dom Urban wrote, that the fish died in large numbers with resulting contamination of the water. As a consequence, the monks were taken down one by one with a dangerous fever, probably typhoid in character. When Dom Urban arrived on the scene in November, 1809, there was no work going on at the Big Mound, for his community were waging a  p116 grim fight for life. The Superior himself had left Kentucky October 21, with two other monks, a batch of school-boys, and a large drove of cattle and horses, making the journey overland to Cahokia. What with dumb beasts and mischief-loving lads to look after, the sorely tried Superior had a "man's size" job on the way, as he records graphically in a letter written to Bishop Plessis of Quebec a few weeks after his arrival at the Mound.

We left overland to the number of three religious and eight children and their teachers with forty head of stock, including horses, oxen and cows. The persons who had so sharply opposed our departure, repenting of their mistake, were the first to encourage us to remain; but it was too late nor did they know that by their bitter talk they had put us under the necessity of setting off without the necessary money. For three weeks the weather was very fine, but so hot that the dust and drought made us suffer much. Our best horse fell sick as we were leaving and remained lying for two days without eating or drinking. On towards the middle of the trip several of our mounts, as they were worn out and had their backs all galled, refused service, so that it became necessary for one after another of us to travel on foot. One of the wheels of our conveyance broke in twelve pieces. Twice the conveyance upset on the detestable roads and once it broke down. Frequently big‑sized gangs of adventurers on their way to Louisiana kept us company. They stole from us and exhausted the water in the springs, while their animals left without fodder at night, threw themselves on our own. The country-folk who lived in small numbers along the way seemed to have had the cue to sell their commodities for three times more than they were worth. These drawbacks together with the high cost of provisions so thoroughly depleted our purse that at the end of the journey we were reduced to the extremity of sharing one little biscuit between four and had only nine cents left to pay our passage over the Cahokia River. The journey lasted a month. It was a lucky thing the last week was rainy, for our horned cattle and several of the horses refused to go any further.

Still, I was the only one attacked by fever (it lasted only two days); which was not surprising, seeing that I was obliged to stand watch almost every night and had made the journey at least three times. Then, too, every time we stopped or started off again, or whatever other people's stock got mixed up with our own, I was obliged to count them. Sometimes the mixing‑up would begin just when only half were counted. As a result, I had constantly to be going back and forth, the more so, as our animals not getting on well together, we were divided into four bands distant a quarter of a mile from one another. Moreover, I had only three intelligent persons with me, the children requiring to be watched as much as the horses. We finally arrived without bread and money at Cahokia where fortunately I had a good friend. The first person I met there informed me that our Father Prior was very sick. Although this was not a pleasant  p117 bit of news, I thought I was getting off very well with only one person sick; but on coming up to the monastery, I found quite a different condition of things. I observed a priest with death painted all over his figure, carrying with difficulty to some others sicker than himself a little soup which he had made with still greater difficulty. All were dangerously sick and were lying in a wretched shack, without windows or chimney, and with the wind blowing in on every side. Three old planks suspended over a pot made the kitchen. We scattered some hay on the ground, which we covered with the shabby canvas that had served us for a tent on the journey, while the canvas-cover of our conveyance served as a roof. They had begun digging a well, but their strength giving out, the well remained unfinished. We finished it, while, pending its completion, I put into the water some of the good vinegar I had brought along to correct the water along the way. I procured them whatever relief I could, especially good bread which my friend of Cahokia, named Nicholas Jarrot, has furnished them up to this day, refusing at the same time to be paid for it. The majority have recovered and with the aid of the three religious I brought along with me, they are beginning to build. Only the Father Prior, another priest and a lay‑brother continued to be very sick.​14

Such was the situation at the Big Mound in December, 1809. The Trappist community was still divided, the greater part of it at the Mound, but a part also remaining at Florissant. "It is true," Dom Urban wrote to Bishop Plessis, "that until we are settled down, we shall accomplish no good and yet we are still divided." However it was expected that within a month's time when the cabins would have been finished, Father Bernard with the boys would come over to the "Cahokia side, which is," so Dom Urban declared, "our true place of residence though we have there only 400 arpents."​15 How to extend his holdings, for a larger extent of land seemed to be necessary to the success of his plans, was the problem that now engaged the attention of the Superior. To secure Government land either free of cost or at a low figure per acre was, under the circumstances, the obvious step to take. Ninian Edwards, the first Governor of Illinois Territory, had been installed in office in June, 1809, a few months before the arrival of the Trappists in Illinois. Now only in his thirty-second year he had, in order to take up his new charge, vacated the high office of Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals of Kentucky. In him the monks found a sympathetic friend.

"The governor of Illinois, though not a Catholic," wrote Dom Urban in his letter of December 14, 1809, to the Bishop of Quebec, "has a great liking for us and it is chiefly he who is holding me here.  p118 He is doing all he can to prevail on the Government to increase our land and offers me letters of recommendation of which he prefers that I be the bearer.

I should very much like to be able to transport myself to Quebec for a day and consult there with your Lordship, for never have I been so at a loss what to do as at this moment. We are on an excellent piece of land near the river L'Abbe, nine miles above Cahokia, but the land we hold is much too small in size for our establishment. The Governor of Illinois, who was my neighbor in Kentucky, my great friend [Jarrot], all my confreres now residing with me, and in general all my friends advise me to petition the Government for land. Although I don't like making this petition I dare not withstand all the worthy people here, in fact, I might say, all the inhabitants of Illinois and Louisiana, for such is the wish of the public. I have already drafted a petition on paper; but there are many difficulties in the way. 1. Every one counsels me to go and present my petition in person to Congress; but it seems to me too risky a thing to leave my brethren before they are reunited, which cannot be until the Mississippi is thoroughly frozen over, and then I should have to leave immediately. I should prefer to write, but am assured that my presence is necessary as there will be difficulties to overcome. 2. Several, but these are not the best informed as to Government policy, advise that the land be asked for gratis; but certain former members of Congress, who consequently understand its policy, tell me that I should obtain nothing at all this way. On the other hand, I shall find no difficulty in asking to buy on ten or twelve years credit. If I take the former course, the individuals of greatest influence with the Government would have nothing to do with the matter, believing themselves certain of refusal; on the contrary, by taking the latter course I am assured of their support. But how shall I venture to go into debt? It is true indeed that I am assured of getting land right away at two dollars an acre and of being able within four or five years to sell part of it at eight or nine dollars an acre; which would suffice to pay for the part I should keep. But, once more, the debt would be certain, and though it be easy for me to obtain another postponement, the debt will have to be paid some day, while the sale I hope to make, though very probable, is not certain. 3. I haven't a dollar and no time to go and beg any, for I should have to set off without delay. I cannot make the journey alone, which doubles the expense, and we have no habits, either I or the one who would accompany me. Besides all this I cannot leave before paying $145 dollars which the Father prior must settle for before Christmas, since, owing to the fact that we arrived here too late to sow our corn, he was obliged to buy some for 145 dollars.

So far I have decided on nothing and am waiting for the Governor, who is kept at St. Louis by the ice. He tried three times yesterday to pass over with twenty men; but the ice‑floes carried the barge down. If I stay here and our enterprise does not succeed, everybody will blame me. If I undertake the journey, those who decryed me so  p119 loudly will be scandalized at it and say that they are right in calling me a gad‑about.​c1 God alone knows (unless I deceive my own self), how I detest journeyings and worldly company. Whatever be the success of this petition, we are determined to remain at Cahokia on our 400 acres of land; maybe we shall be able to buy some in the course of time, supposing the Government does nothing, for we are tired of travels during which as a matter of sheer necessity our rule is only half-observed."​16


The scene now shifts from the Big Mound to the nation's capital, whither Dom Urban at the earnest solicitation of his community went early in 1810 for the double purpose of having his title to the Jarrot property confirmed by Congress and of obtaining from that body some additional land by grant or purchase. Father Badin had ventured in a letter to Bishop Carroll to characterize Dom Urban as the "wandering abbot."​c2 Probably had the latter known how to use to better purpose the opportunities that lay at hand and make the most of actual conditions, discouraging though these often were, he might have achieved a permanent American house for the patient monks that followed him as guide. Be this as it may, surely it was no mere wanderlust that urged the good abbot to his frequent journeyings and shifts of residence. For these he knew indeed that he was an object of blame, unwarrantably so he thought, even in quarters otherwise most sympathetic to him and his community. In explanation of his trip to Washington he wrote thence to Bishop Plessis, May 1, 1810:

"I see very well, as your Lordship points out to me, that I am blamed somewhat and that you think, were you my Bishop, you would have prevented me from making this journey. This does not at all surprise me. . . . My community, afraid they may be forced to vacate, hasn't the courage to build or clear the ground; they beg me to go to Congress to get a guarantee of our title. What ought I do under these circumstances? . . . Bishop Carroll on seeing me also thought I did wrong to make this trip; but he soon changed his opinion in the matter and gave me an excellent letter of recommendation along with a certificate of great advantage to me. Msgr. Du Bourg, President of St. Mary's College, his Lordship the Bishop of Georgetown [Rt. Rev. Leonard Neale] and in general all who have any knowledge of Congressional procedure, are agreed that I could not get out of making this journey."

 p120  "To come back to your letter, I will say you are right in thinking that 400 acres of land are enough to keep us occupied for many years; they would be enough for ever, were we to limit our numbers to a very small community without educating children. But should the Government reject our title, it will be necessary then to move again, and I know there are a great number of rejected titles. Besides that, even if they sufficed for a while, they would not suffice for ever, and when all the wood should be used up, it would be necessary to abandon this little establishment and run about looking for another one, which we might not find; for we must not dream of buying land in the vicinity after the decision of the government, since there are good many people eager to settle down near us, which would soon double the price of the land. You have seen above that several families of adventurers have already come to settle near us and even on our 400 acres and that they steal all they can. It is such considerations, taking as they do all courage from my confreres, to go on with the establishment before securing a title, that have led them to beg of me to undertake this journey. I could not put it off to another year, because the Land Commissioners having finished their examination of titles and having to appear shortly before Congress to make their report, the validity or nullity of the respective land-claims are going to be published, etc. . . . I do not believe there is another tribunal in the world where one will see so many men ready to oppose the least requests that are made. I have had to answer and must still answer a number of questions which I could never have anticipated by letter and which no one could answer without knowing our rule and the intentions of the community or without being able to give pledges in its name. The distance between the two places would never allow of so many pourparlers."​17

The second session of the 11th Congress was in progress and the democratic administration of James Madison was holding office when Dom Urban arrived at the seat of government. A note of $500 on which he was relying to pay his expenses became worthless as a result of a bankruptcy and he entered Washington with scarcely a dollar in his pocket. How he secured board and lodging while there, he nowhere explains. There was no resident Catholic priest in the capital at the time, though in near‑by Georgetown he may have found lodging with the Jesuits. Probably, the greater part of his stay in the East was spent at Baltimore, where friends were not lacking and whence it was a matter of only forty miles to the capital. Dom Urban's petition under both heads was referred to a Senate committee of which Senator Brent of Virginia was chairman. Before these shrewd, hard-headed American politicians of the day, either Democrats or Federalists in party affiliation, appeared now the unworldly  p121 figure of the exile monk of La Trappe. Surely we must admire the courage that enabled him, with his imperfect knowledge of English, thus to face the lawmakers of a strange land and return the answers and make the explanations which they called for. With the naivete and ingenuousness that we find outstanding traits in the personality of Dom Urban, there went also an adventurous resourcefulness that carried him through situations of no small difficulty for one of his antecedents. As to his petition to Congress, the members of that body appear to have divided on it according to party lines.

"I have consulted a number of Senators and national representatives. . . . The Federalists are of opinion that since I wish to buy, I run no risk of having my application for a large quantity of land refused; they think, too, that having a good title, I shall be able to re‑sell a part of the land at a higher figure to pay for the rest of it. They add that if I petition for a small quantity people will look upon my establishment as an affair meriting no consideration. The best heads think that way about it, and I myself am inclined to favor such a line of action, though it has its dangers. The Democrats, on the contrary, maintain that if I ask for a great deal of land, they will take me for a speculator in public lands and so I shall obtain nothing at all."​18

Dom Urban, having been given to understand that 4000 acres would not be an amount large enough to draw on him a suspicion of being a speculator in public lands, filed a petition for that amount. On April 2, Senator Brent, as chairman of the Committee to whom the petition had been referred, reported the petition to the Senate in the following terms:19

That the order of La Trappe is represented to the committee to be of the Roman Catholic religion, and of very high antiquity. It consists of monks of severe habits and rigid discipline. That one great object of their order is the gratuitous instruction and education  p122 of children, either in literature, agriculture, or the mechanical arts. That every person, upon entering into the order, is subjected to religious vows, for the due observance of the customs, habits, and discipline of the order.

Amongst these vows are the following: To observe celibacy, to avoid riches, to employ their time in labor, and the gratuitous instruction and education of children, etc.

That this order was formerly established in France, not far distant from Paris; that, during the revolution there, upon the suppression of the monasteries, the petitioner and his associates sought an asylum in the United States, and first settled themselves in the State of Kentucky, where they established their order, and persevered in the observance of all the rights, customs, etc. thereof; that they have since removed into the Illinois territory, about four miles from St. Louis, where they have again established themselves upon a tract of four hundred acres of land, a donation from N. Jarrot; that they have made considerable improvements upon this land, and have now thirty monks and thirty-five scholars in the establishment; the scholars are educated gratuitously, and principally supported by the cultivation bestowed by the order upon a portion of that tract of land; that, although the order of La Trappe is strictly Roman Catholic, male children of all descriptions and denominations are equally permitted to enjoy the benefits of their instruction; the only rule of exclusion being the incapacity of the child.

The petitioner has presented to the committee numerous testimonials of the innocence and good morals of the order, and its utility in affording an opportunity of instruction to the poor children in their neighborhood, and even to the aborigines of the country, several of whom they are now instructing in the agricultural and mechanical arts.

The petitioner has some apprehensions of the validity of the title of the four hundred acres of land upon which the establishment is made, and is desirous of having the same confirmed by the United States. He is also desirous of purchasing four thousand acres of the public lands on a credit of twelve years, for the purpose of enabling their order to extend their establishment. The committee are of the opinion that the establishment is a useful one in that part of the country, in affording an opportunity for instruction to children, who would otherwise be destitute thereof, and therefore entitled to the patronage of Congress, at least to the limited extent prayed for by the petitioner.

The committee, therefore, recommend the following resolutions:

Resolved, That the United States relinquish to Urban Guillet, for the benefit of the religious order of La Trappe, their right to the four hundred acres of land mentioned in his petition.

Resolved, That provision be made, by law, for selling to Urban Guillet, for the benefit of the order of La Trappe, four thousand acres of land adjoining their present establishment in the Illinois territory,  p123 for two dollars per acre, upon a credit of twelve years, without interest.​19a

The three readings of the bill took place successively on April 2, 7, and 14. No record of the debate, if any, which it occasioned, is available; but the bill amended and bearing the title "An Act Concerning the Society of the Order of La Trappe" passed the Senate on April 14, it being ordered "That the Secretary requests the concurrence of the House of Representatives in this bill." In its final stages in the Senate the measure seems to have been looked after by Senator Gilman of New Hampshire. It never came to a vote in the Lower House, no mention of it occurring in the House Journal after the first reading on April 16. As far as Congress was concerned, Dom Urban's petition under both heads was a failure. However, the latter gives a somewhat different account of the outcome, saying that he succeeded at least in securing confirmation of his title to the Jarrot property. This favor he must have secured independently of Congressional action, probably through the Land Office or one of the Boards of Land Commissioners then functioning. From Washington just before Congress adjourned Dom Urban wrote to Bishop Plessis:

"Here we are already at the 1st of May and tomorrow Congress adjourns with my affair left unfinished. They have confirmed my 400 acres, something that will at least compensate me for my journey; for my brethren will not be forced to vacate; but as to permission to attach other lands thereto, that is carried over to the next session. There are too many affairs of state to allow of any thought being given to mine, and there would have been danger of having it thrown out altogether if it had been brought up at a time when heads were heated by discussion. Two deputies have assured me that all agree privately to grant the request but that it is necessary to await a more favorable moment. I ask of Congress merely permission to locate around my establishment 4000 acres of land taken from military grants still available which I shall be able to procure; and I hope to purchase a good part of them in exchange for horses, which plan will suit me very well, for I should not know where to get the money for 4000 acres."​20

 p124  The 11th Congress adjourned on May 2, 1810. Many important matters, as the charges of treason against General Wilkinson and the unwholesome conditions in the American camps around New Orleans (our second war with England being then in progress)​d had been taken up for consideration. One will easily believe Abbot Urban's explanation that "affairs of state" of greater moment than his little petition had crowded the latter out. At all events the title to his 400 acres had apparently been confirmed and that was something gained. For some time after his return to Illinois, the Abbot seems to have busied himself with the preparation of a second petition to Congress, this time asking to be authorized to buy out holders of military land-grants lying adjacent to his 400 acres, these grants to be paid for not in cash but in horses. There is no evidence that this second contemplated petition was ever presented to Congress while it is doubtful whether all legal steps looking to the title to the Jarrot 400 acres were ever actually taken by the monks. At all events, on the departure of the latter from Illinois the property in question reverted to the donor.


As to the manner of life led by the Trappists at Monks Mound, it appears that it did not depart except probably in accidental details from the general routine followed in other monasteries of the Order. Great abstemiousness in food and drink and unbroken silence are perhaps the outstanding practices associated in the popular mind with this austere religious Order of the Catholic Church; and these practices we know were strictly observed at Monks Mound. In fact, that Dom Urban's community adhered even amid the most trying circumstances to all the rigorous prescriptions of the Trappist rule (apart from the necessary relaxation indulged in while on journeys) is attested by contemporary observers. Since some account of Trappist life must enter into any satisfactory treatment of our topic we shall find it to our purpose here to cite the words of one competent to speak on the subject, the present Abbot of the Trappist Monastery of Gethsemani, Kentucky:

". . . Out of the time of Divine Office, before which nothing is to be preferred and when not engaged in manual labour, the monks devote themselves to prayer, study or pious reading, for there is never any time granted for recreation; these exercises always take place in common, never in private rooms. The hour for rising is at 2 A.M. on week-days, 1:30 on Sundays, and 1 on the more solemn feasts; whilst the hour for retiring is at 7 P.M. in the winter, and  p125 8 in the summer; in this latter season there is a siesta given after dinner, so that the religious have seven hours' sleep in the course of the day; about seven hours also are devoted to the Divine Office and Mass, one hour to meals, four hours to study and private prayers and five hours to manual labor; in winter there are about four hours devoted to manual labor, the extra hour thus deducted being given to study.

The monks are obliged to live by the labour of their hands, so the task appointed for manual labour is seriously undertaken, and is of such a nature as to render them self-supporting; such as cultivation of the land, cattle-raising, etc. Dinner is partaken of at 11 A.M. in the summer, at 11:30 in the winter, and at 12 on fast days, with support or collation in the evening. Food consists of bread, vegetables, and fruits; milk and cheese may also be given in Advent, Lent, and all Fridays out of Paschal time. Flesh-meat, fish, and eggs are forbidden at all times, except to the sick. All sleep in a common dormitory, the beds being divided from each other only by a partition and curtain; the bed to consist of mattress and pillow stuffed with straw, and sufficient covering. The monks are obliged to sleep in their regular clothing; which consists of ordinary underwear,​e a habit of white, and a scapular of black wool, with a leathern cincture; the cowl, of the same material as the habit, is worn over all. Enclosure, according to canon law, is perpetual in all houses. It is never allowed for the religious to speak amongst themselves, though the one in charge of a work or employment may give necessary directions; and all have the right of conversing with the superior at any time, except during the night hours, called the 'great silence.' "​21

As a pertinent reflection on this authentic description of Trappist life, we may be permitted to note that the unusual mortality among the monks of Dom Urban's community during their stay in the United States is not necessarily to be attributed to the severity of their rule. The rigors of a new climate, improper housing, the frequently recurring epidemics of fever and other sicknesses of the period and, finally, the difficulty of obtaining the minimum of sustaining food which even a Trappist must have to preserve health, such conditions go far to explain a death-toll which we have no reason to suppose would under other circumstances have risen so high. Reynolds noted that many of the monks he met at the Mound looked healthy and robust; and, for one thing, we do not read that the average life‑span of a Trappist monk of today is shorter than that of other classes of professional men. It is a common-place of medical teaching that over-eating kills more men than under-eating; and the experience of ages is behind the homely dictum "if you would live long, eat little."

 p126  The improvements made by the monks were described by Brackenridge as considerable. They put up some eighteen cabins, very probably all of logs, one of which served as the chapel, another as refectory, a third as kitchen and so for the various needs of the community and farm. Gaillardin, the Trappist historian, says that collectively the cabins presented the appearance of an army-camp. The principal cabins seem to have been built on a smaller mound a short distance west of the Big Mound, fifty yards according to Brackenridge and two hundred and fifty according to Thomas and Wild.​21a The Big Mound itself was not built on by the Trappists, though they raised wheat on its surface and cultivated a vegetable garden on the terrace or apron at its southern end. But it was planned to use the topmost surface as a building-site for the permanent abbey when means should be at hand for its erection.

Besides running a farm for their own subsistence and for the raising of produce which might be exchanged for other commodities, the monks conducted a sort of watch-making establishment. The fire which destroyed their monastery in Kentucky towards the end of 1808, and with it the best part of their library, fortunately left their watch-making equipment untouched. In the fire, however, was destroyed a surveyor's compass, which, Dom Urban notes, would have been of great service to his men at the Mound.​22 Here Brackenridge found in 1811 a better watch-making outfit than any he saw in St. Louis. Of interest in this connection is an advertisement which appeared in the Missouri Republican January 21, 1811.

"Notice. — Several persons having showed to the monks of La Trappe a desire to purchase watches, if they would sell them trade, the said monks in order to satisfy everybody, give notice to the public that until the end of the year 1811 they will sell watches, clocks, and other silversmith's work, and also fine horses, for the following articles in trade, viz.: wheat, corn, linen, beef, pork, cattle, leather, tallow, blankets, etc.

"Urbain Guillet,
"Superior of the Monks,
"Cantine Mounds, nine miles above Cahokia."

"N. B. — The above-mentioned articles will be sold at a lower price to whoever shall pay cash."​23

 p127  Few incidents appear to have marked the quiet, unobtrusive flow of monastic life while the monastery was maintained. The great New Madrid earthquake of 1812 with its recurrent shocks lasting six months put the monks on edge, at it did no doubt the other residents of the Illinois country.​24 The booming of cannon at the battle of Tippecanoe, in November, 1811, which put the coup de grace to Indian resistance in the Northwest, is said to have been heard distinctly by them, though a distance of some two hundred miles separated them from the scene of conflict.​25 Probably the great stretch of new, uncultivated country that lay between provided unusually favorable conditions for the transmission of sound waves. Though depredations and murders by Indians in St. Clair County were not uncommon at this period, the monks themselves were never molested. The whole population of Illinois Territory in 1812 was about 12,000, the Indians outnumbering the whites three to one.​26 North of Edwardsville there was nothing but a wilderness, home of the redmen and prowling beasts. At the outbreak of the War of 1812 the ancient cannon of Fort Chartres, of seventeenth-century make, were removed thence and planted at Fort Russell on the northern outskirts of Edwardsville. But the whites kept the redmen successfully at bay and the Indian menace eventually melted away. In the parties organized at intervals in St. Clair County to repel Indian hostilities, the young men of the monastery (the lay‑students, no doubt, not the monks) are said to have been represented. At the Mound itself the Indians were often visitors but never for unfriendly purposes. The chanting of the monks impressed them and they listened with awe to the strange music that arose amid the burial-grounds of their forefathers.27

Though they were not engaged to the ministry by rule, circumstances  p128 made it incumbent on the Trappists to discharge the duties of pastors on behalf of the Catholic residents on both sides of the mid‑Mississippi. During the decade 1808‑1818 there was no resident priest at St. Louis and in fact in the entire Missouri Territory above St. Genevieve, while in Illinois there was outside of the Trappist community but a single priest, the veteran missionary, now almost incapacitated for work, Father Donatien Olivier of Prairie du Rocher.​28 Dom Urban officiated at Cahokia, where for a while he refused to conduct services until the congregation repaired the sadly dilapidated roof. But he was also frequently on the other side of the river in ministerial visits to St. Louis, St. Charles, Florissant and Portage des Sioux. This was especially the case after the death in November, 1810, of his confrere, Father Bernard Langlois, who together with Father Dunand was very zealous in visiting the Missouri parishes. Dom Urban, it would appear, did not ride horseback without difficulty, owing probably to the chronic rheumatism from which he suffered. He notes in a letter that every time he crossed the Mississippi involved an outlay of three dollars for the services of an attendant to help him mount his horse.​29 That these trips were not pleasant adventures may be gathered from Dom Urban's own words:

"Often at St. Charles and St. Ferdinand and further on I was in great distress; I could not eat anything before nine o'clock at night, sometimes even eleven. I had time only to take my repast and say tierce, sext, none, vespers and compline, which were finished just at midnight. This present year there have been so many sick in every direction that we hardly know where to go. Having come one night in August [1811] to attend some sick in St. Louis, I met on returning in the morning, fourteen carts, which were carrying fourteen sick persons quite unconscious and in such imminent danger that I had to stop on the highway and administer to them the last sacraments; and this just in time, for one of them died almost immediately. I myself had the fever very badly and not being able to eat anything, had difficulty in getting to the church, where, finding some little work to do, I was unable to hold out any longer. Two hundred steps from the church my strength gave out and I fell on the street where I remained for more than an hour without any one passing by. Finally four passers‑by carried me off."​30

While the monastery of Notre Dame Du Secours was thus maintaining a precarious foothold under the shadow of the Big Mound,  p129 it was visited by John Reynolds, the future Governor of Illinois, as also by Henry Brackenridge, the traveller and explorer, both of whom have left on record interesting particulars regarding the monks. As far as known, these are the only contemporary accounts at first hand of the Trappist establishment in Illinois that have come down to us. It is to be regretted that the monks have not been portrayed for us by observers more sympathetic than these two proved to be; but the real significance of the manner of life practiced by exponents of humanitarian service such as these is not readily grasped from a viewpoint of religious convictions different from those which the monks themselves professed. Be this as it may, both Reynolds and Brackenridge noted points of interest in what they saw. According to Reynolds, the monks made considerable improvements, introducing into the country a good breed of cattle and were, many of them, excellent mechanics. They brought into Illinois the first jack, but so general was the prejudice at that time against mules that the animal was never used for breeding. Many of the monks seen by Reynolds were robust men, badly clothed, but stout and healthy-looking. He noted that they observed silence, pointing at objects when they wished to obtain information. Of Dom Urban he wrote that "he was considered a man of talent and true piety. I have often seen him reading in a book on horseback." The good monk was apparently on these occasions reading his breviary, the official prayer-book of the Catholic clergymen.​31 Interesting in this connection is a statement, of date some thirty years after the departure of the monks from Illinois, to the effect that they were the first to discover coal in the bluffs east of the Mound. "Their blacksmiths complained of want of proper fuel, and on being informed that the earth at the root of a tree, which was struck by lightning, was burning, they went to the spot and on digging a little below the surface, discovered a vein of coal."32

Brackenridge's account of the Trappist monastery at the Mound and its inmates is the most detailed extant. The date of his visit was 1811.

"The buildings which the Trappists at present occupy are merely temporary. They consist of four or five cabins on a mound about fifty yards from the large one, and which is one hundred and fifty feet square. Their other buildings, stables, cribs, etc., ten or fifteen in number, are scattered about on the plain below. I was  p130 informed that they intended to build on the terrace of the large mound. This will produce a fine effect, especially if painted white; it would be seen five or six miles across the plain, and from some points of view ten or twelve. They have about one hundred acres inclosed in three different fields, including the large mound and some others. On entering the yard I found a number of persons at work, some hauling and storing away the crop of corn, others shaping timber for some intended edifice. A considerable number of these were boys from ten to fourteen years of age. The effect on my mind was inexpressibly strange at seeing them pass and repass in perfect silence. What force must it require to subdue the sportive disposition of boyhood! But nothing is so strong as nature. I admired the cheerful drollery of a poor malattoº lad with one leg who was attending the horse-mill. As the other boys passed by, he always contrived by some odd gesticulation to attract their attention. He generally succeeded in exacting a smile. It was a faint gleam of sunshine which seemed to say that their happiness was not entire obscured by the lurid gloom that surrounded them.

"Fatigued with this scene, which I contemplated apparently unobserved, I ascended the mound which contains their dwellings. This is nearly twenty-five feet in height, the ascent aided by a slanting road. I wandered about here for some time in expectation of being noticed. It was in vain that I nodded to the reverend fathers or peeped into the cabins. In the course of fifteen minutes, Father Joseph, a sprightly, intelligent man in the prime of life, who, I learned, had the government of the monastery in the absence of Father Urbain,º came up to me, and, after some conversation, invited me into the watchmakers' shop. I was not a little surprised to find here a shop better furnished than any in St. Louis. Part of it was occupied as the laboratory and library; the library, I confess, but indifferent. A few medical works of no great repute, and the rest composed of the dreams of the fathers and the miraculous wonders of the world of saints.

"Two men were at work, and two boys appeared also busily employed. One poor fellow of ten or eleven years of age, seated by a stove and employed in making strokes upon a slate, attracted my attention and pity. He appeared to have just risen from the bed of sickness, or rather from the tomb.

"Father Joseph inquired whether I had dined, and being informed in the negative, had something prepared. My fare was simple, constituting entirely of vegetables, though not less acceptable, for it was given with good will. Having returned thanks to the good fathers for their hospitality, I took my leave."​33

 p131  VI

Every enterprise to which the well-meaning Trappist Superior had put his hand since coming to America had ended in distressing failure. The issue at Monks Mound was to be no different. With truth could Dom Urban write thence to Bishop Plessis that ever since the year 1805 he had met with reverse on reverse. In 1810 the monks met with a total failure of crops. The same year was marked by a virulent epidemic, very probably of bilious fever, which was a frequently recurring and especially malignant malady in the West in the early decades of the last century. If Bishop Spalding's figures are correct, the Trappists while at the Mound lost by death two priests and five lay‑brothers.​34 One of the priests was Father Bernard Langlois who died November 28, 1810, the other one being apparently Father Ignace. The former, however, as we learn from Dom Urban, died not of the prevalent fever, but of the stone, from which he had been a sufferer for years.

Letters from the Trappist Superior to Bishop Plessis sketch briefly the epidemic of 1810.

"The country of Louisiana and the Illinois has been visited by a fever which spared few. Many died of it, in particular, five of our brethren. Still, the number of dead is very small in comparison with that of the sick. As almost the entire community was sick, we were reduced to great extremity and obliged to sell a chalice, though we had only two, a part of our altar-furniture and even the anvil of our Brother blacksmith. Seeing that we hadn't strength for all the jobs, I was obliged to have an outsider build a room twenty feet long for our sick and as the price of his labor I gave him a mare. I gave up another mare to get a stove and window-panes for said infirmary. And so, though without money, our sick will be a little better off this winter than they were last. We have four sick-cases left.

My last also announced to you the death of four of my confreres, namely: 1, Brother Isaac, a priest, prior and master-watcher; 2, Brother Eloi, a lay‑brother and quarter-master [marechal]; 3, Brother Marie-Joseph, a young Canadian named Desmarais in the world, an excellent workman, who was only an oblate. All three were very necessary to the monastery, for although I have other good watchmakers, I am very much at a loss to find a Prior. I have no other quarter-master and don't know where to get one. The fourth was a young Kentucky child, if not the best, almost the best of the number."​35

 p132  As a consequence of the numerous reverses that overtook them, the Trappists at length fell into a state of acute poverty and distress. Dom Urban informed Bishop Carroll November 16, 1811, that he had been wearing the same cassock or religious habit for thirteen years and using the same bedcover for even a longer period of time. Their dwelling-house was so intensely cold on occasion that the food froze while being served at table. The Superior writes, with obvious distress over the circumstances, that he did not have a dollar to give to one of his lay‑brothers, Henry Reiselman, a Hollander, who was about to leave the monastery to enter the Society of Jesus at Georgetown in Maryland.​36 Twelve years later, Henry Reiselman returned to the West, being one of Father Van Quickenborne's party of Jesuits who arrived in St. Louis, May 31, 1823, just a century ago, to establish an Indian mission which has since developed into the Missouri Province of the Society of Jesus. And so it was that, discouraged and worn out by this final chapter of disappointment and failure, Dom Urban, apparently on his own initiative decided to return East. Dom Augustin arrived in New York in December, 1813, to direct at close range the affairs of his spiritual children in America, while Dom Urban withdrew with his community from the Mound in 1812 according to Governor Reynolds and in March, 1813, according to Bishop Spalding.​37 What became of the youths who were being educated by the monks there is nothing in contemporary sources to indicate, though in all probability some of them at least accompanied the monks East as postulants or candidates for the Trappist Order. In 1810 some of their number had been petitioning for admission, but as they were all under eighteen, Dom Urban declined to admit them. Their teacher, a young man of twenty-four, had also expressed his desire to become a Trappist.​38 As for the school at the Mound we are not to conclude that it was an entirely blank page in the history of education in Illinois. "A number of pupils from the neighboring towns," wrote Lewis Foulk Thomas in 1841, "resorted to them [the Trappists] for instruction, some of whom are now among the most accomplished merchants and citizens in the entire country."​39 From the same authority we have this tribute to the monks. "About twenty-five years have elapsed since these austere fathers abandoned the mounds, but the older inhabitants of the neighborhood still speak of their many acts of kindness and charity and cherish their memories  p133 with the most filial affection." The year after this was written, Charles Dickens visited Monks Mound, afterward penning in his American Notes some ill‑tempered sentences anent what he calls the fanaticism of the monks, whose philosophy of life he failed sadly to comprehend.40

The return journey of the Trappists, a highly adventurous one, was made by keel-boat down the Mississippi and up the Ohio. At Fort Massac they were challenged by the sentries, the War of 1812 being then in progress.​41 In Maryland they met another community of Trappists whom Dom Augustin had sent over from France. These were helped in their effort to make a settlement by the indefatigable Dom Urban, who himself now made a fresh attempt, it would seem, to find a suitable site for his monastery, this time on an island near Pittsburgh. The attempt was no more successful than the previous ones, nor than the final one, which he appears to have made just before his return to France, on a farm at his disposal by Father Quesnel, the Vicar-General of Philadelphia. Meantime, we find Dom Urban early in 1814 in New York, where with Dom Augustin and some brother-monks he conducted a school and asylum for orphan boys in a house recently vacated by the Jesuits who had made in it the unsuccessful experiment of a classical school for boys. The house stood on the site now occupied by St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, a site described in a contemporary print as the most delightful on Manhattan Island. Here, then, along a suburban road that was to develop into the famous thoroughfare of the world's largest city, Dom Urban and his fellow-monks pursue for a while the rôle of educators. From the Collinsville road in Illinois to Fifth Avenue, in New York, is a far cry, but it was a farther cry some hundred and ten years ago when the Trappist Superior led his disheartened followers eastward through the intervening wilderness.42

In October, 1813, Bonaparte went down in decisive overthrow at Leipsic. Then came the Bourbon restoration and the retirement to Elba. It was the signal for the return of Dom Augustin and his exiled followers to France, whither they went with a huge sigh of relief  p134 after the incredibly painful chapter of their experiences in the United States. A party of them under Dom Urban sailed from New York, October 24, 1814, in the "Gustavus Adolphus," reaching La Rochelle early in December. That mishap, the inevitable attendant of these Trappist wayfarers, might not be lacking, their ship was cast by a storm on the island of Re, but apparently managed to recover itself and continue its course. Commissioned by his Superior to seek a site for a new La Trappe, Dom Urban began a fresh series of journeys which was interrupted by the return of Napoleon from Elba. The monks promptly scattered to find shelter under the roof of relatives or friends. Dom Urban himself took refuge with his brother in whose house had the unique consolation of meeting his mother for the first time since infancy. Born in San Domingo and educated in France, Madame Guillet, wealthy Creole, had left the infant Urban in the care of relatives in France to return to her island-home for the settlement of her estate. The infant had grown to manhood and entered La Trappe when Madame Guillet returned to France nor did circumstances ever permit of a meeting between mother and son until at this juncture when Urban found himself a guest under his brother's roof. Providence had fashioned the tissue of events that the son might prepare the mother for the last sad journey. Fortified with the Church's sacraments, received at the hands of her Trappist son, Madame Guillet died May 21, 1815, at the age of seventy‑two. The following month the sun of Napoleon's glory suffered definite eclipse at Waterloo and the Hundred Days were over. Dom Urban straightway resumed his quest for a permanent residence for his monks, choice being finally made of Bellefontaine (Maine et Loire) an old monastery of Feuillants, in the immediate vicinity of Cholet, which was itself only two hours distant from Nantes, the birth-place of Urban Guillet. Two years had been spent in the search and a considerable sum of money begged up and down the country. Preparations were being made to negotiate the purchase and the money, carefully concealed in his saddle-bags, was being taken by Urban for safekeeping to his brother's house. Surely the hand of Providence had never rested lightly on Dom Urban. And now, as the day of his earthly wayfaring drew to a close, it pressed on him of a sudden with especial rigor. He had stopped at an inn for refreshment in the course of the journey of which we just made mention when, on remounting his horse, he discovered to his horror that a thief had reflected the contents of the saddle-bags and made away with the money. The fruit of two years' toilsome begging through the cities and villages of France had vanished in a moment. One feels sure that the indomitable  p135 Abbot rose superior even to this crushing reverse. But it was the final tax levied on his apparently inexhaustible fund of patience. He had run his course. Following close on the heels of the incident just related a mortal illness, aftermath of the unnumbered physical hardships and exposures he had known, overtook him and he died at a hospital in Cholet, April 2, 1817. Around his pathetic figure is written a chapter of fascinating interest in the story of nascent Catholicism in the United States, while the name Monks Mound passing down the years assures to the residence of him and his heroic followers on Illinois soil a place among the historic memories of that great commonwealth.43

Rev. G. J. Garraghan, S. J.

St. Louis, Mo.

Bibliographical Note

The chief manuscript sources drawn upon for this sketch of the Trappists of Monks' Mound are the letters of Dom Urban Guillet, of which there are some thirty divided almost evenly between the Archdiocesan archives of Baltimore and those of Quebec. For the Quebec letters the author has relied on certified copies obtained directly from the archives or else on the texts as reproduced in the Canadian periodical, La Nouvelle France (Quebec, 1911‑1918). Some unpublished letters of Father S. T. Badin (Baltimore Archdiocesan Archives) have also afforded data. Printed accounts, (most of them treating the settlement at Monks' Mound as an incident only in the general fortunes of the French Trappists in the United States), are: Flick, The French Refugee Trappists in the United States in Records of the American Catholic Historical Society, I:86‑116; Spalding, Sketches of Kentucky, 162‑195; Maes, Life of  p136 Father Nerinckx, 100‑112; Webb, History of Catholicity in Kentucky, Louisville, 1884, 191‑199; Epistle or Diary of Father Joseph Dunand in Records of the Americanº Historical Society, 26:328‑346, 27:45‑64 (tr. from French by Ella M. E. Flick); Thomas and Wild, The Valley of the Mississippi Illustrated in a Series of Views, St. Louis, 1841, pp52‑56; The Catholic Encyclopedia, 3:786‑791; Scharf, History of St. Louis, City and County, I:102 (Brackenridge's account); Reynolds, My Own Times, embracing also the History of My Life, Belleville, 1855, p99; Alvord, The Illinois Country, p458; Garraghan, St. Ferdinand de Florissant: The Story of an Ancient Parish, Chicago, 1923; Gaillardin, Histoire de la Trappe ; Dom Augustin de Lestrange et les Trappistes pendant la Révolution (Grande Trappe) 1898; Vie du R. P. Urbain Guillet, Montligeon 1899; Abbé Lionel St. George Lindsay, Un Précurseur de la Trappe du Canada: Dom Urbain Guillet in La Nouvelle France, (Quebec 1911‑1918).

The Editor's Note:

* Reprinted from the March, 1925 number of Records of the American Catholic Historical Society.

The Author's Notes:

1 Scharf, History of St. Louis City and County, 1:99. Two excellent accounts of the Cahokia Mounds, covering the results of the recent excavations, are Warren K. Moorehead, The Cahokia Mounds, with 16 plates — a preliminary paper (University of Illinois Bulletin, April 22, 1922), and A. R. Crook, The Origin of the Cahokia Mounds (Bulletin of the Illinois State Museum, Springfield, 1922). Actual surveys of the Monks' Mound differ in results, according to the lines followed by the surveyors. B. J. Van Court, cited in Moorehead, op. cit., p16, writes: "In my survey I did not follow the irregularities of the mound, but made straight lines enclosing the base. The largest axis is from north to south and is 998 feet, the shortest from east to west is 721 feet. The height of the mound is 99 feet. The base of the structure covers 16 acres, 2 rods and 3 perches of ground." Bushnell's measurements are north-south, 1,080 feet, west, 710 feet, with a height of 100 feet.

"There are eighty mounds in this great Cahokia group, scattered over an area of about two thousand acres; but the extreme limits of this old city are still unknown. The largest of these mounds, known as the Cahokia Mound, is by far the largest ever raised by prehistoric races within the boundaries of what is now the United States. This mound is about 998 feet long, 710 feet wide and rises above the surrounding country to a height of over 90 feet." Science, April 20, 1923.

[decorative delimiter]

2 The particulars of this and the following paragraph are borrowed for the most part from a letter of Dom Urban's to Bishop Plessis (Baltimore, September 4, 1809) detailing his career as a Trappist. Cf. also Catholic Encyclopedia, 3:786‑791; Records of the American Catholic Historical Society, 1:36 et seq.

[decorative delimiter]

3 Garraghan, St. Ferdinand de Florissant: the Story of an Ancient Parish, pp103‑111.

[decorative delimiter]

4 Guillet to Carroll, Bardstown, Ky., October 15, 1808.

[decorative delimiter]

5 Annales de la Propagation de la Foi (Louvain ed.) p392.

[decorative delimiter]

6 Maes, Life of Father Nerinckx, p101.

[decorative delimiter]

7 Badin to Carroll, March 10, 1808. The following incident seems to lend color to Father Badin's complaint that Dom Urban allowed himself rashly to be involved in financial difficulties. Bishop Carroll on one occasion gave the Trappist a letter introducing him to his kinsman, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, and commending his request for a loan of $400. The latter promised to lend Dom Urban the money in six months, only, however, in the contingency that he would be able to recover certain debts. But Dom Urban went ahead on this conditional promise and on the assurance of certain friends that they would pay the interest on the expected loan, and purchased a $400 tract of land in Kentucky. Later Charles Carroll informed Dom Urban that he could not lend the money and so the Trappist was left with the unpaid property on his hands. Guillet to Plessis, March 27, 1807, in La Nouvelle France, 10:542.

[decorative delimiter]

8 Guillet to Carroll, November 12, 1808.

[decorative delimiter]

9 Guillet to Carroll, October 15, 1808.

[decorative delimiter]

10 Edwards (Ninian W.), History of Illinois from 1778 to 1833. Life and Times of Ninian Edwards, p331.

[decorative delimiter]

11 "Diary of Father Dunand" in Records American Catholic Historical Society, 26:334.

[decorative delimiter]

12 Guillet to Carroll, January 28, 1809.

[decorative delimiter]

13 Badin to Carroll, January 7, 1809.

[decorative delimiter]

14 Guillet to Plessis, December 14, 1809.

[decorative delimiter]

15 Guillet to Plessis, December 14, 1809.

[decorative delimiter]

16 Guillet to Plessis, December 14, 1809. The river L'Abbe (mentioned also in American State Papers, Public Lands, Vol. 2, passim) is apparently an old name for Cahokia Creek.

[decorative delimiter]

17 La Nouvelle France, 15:134 et seq.; 210.

[decorative delimiter]

18 La Nouvelle France, 15:209. According to Dom Urban, the Committee before which he appeared asked him how much land he wished to have, adding that he might have it either gratis, but with certain obligations to fulfill, or for payment, in which case he would be free of all obligations. Many of his friends urged him to apply for a free grant, but he objected on the ground of inability to meet the conditions. He would be required so it seems to admit day‑scholars into his school; to keep a certain number of boys until the age of twenty‑one, and those not of his own choice, but such as were presented by Government; and finally to allow government officials or trustees the right of inspection of the monastery-school. It is possible that Dom Urban misapprehended some of these obligations as explained to him. At any rate, he declined to apply for a free grant of land. La Nouvelle France, 15:208.

[decorative delimiter]

19 American State Papers, Public Lands, 2:106.

[decorative delimiter]

19a Journal of the Senate and House (Seaton and Gales, ed.) Benton in his Abridgment of the Delegates of Congress makes no mention at all of the Trappist bill.

[decorative delimiter]

20 La Nouvelle France, 15:214. According to the Trappist writer in the Catholic Encyclopedia, 3:791, the application for a grant of public land on credit, while favored by President Madison and other government officials, met with opposition of religious bigotry.

[decorative delimiter]

21 Catholic Encyclopedia, 15:25.

[decorative delimiter]

21a Thomas and Wild, op. cit., 55. Dom Urban expresses himself in a letter to Bishop Carroll as though the Jarrot property was not a donation to the monks. However, the petition addressed by him to Congress in 1811 expressly calls it such.

[decorative delimiter]

22 Guillet to Plessis, December 14, 1809.

[decorative delimiter]

23 Missouri Gazette, January 21, 1811, cited in Scharf, History of St. Louis City and County, 1:99.

[decorative delimiter]

24 Alvord, The Illinois Country, p458. "An almost continual earthquake lasting from the night of December 15‑16 to the present, February 19, makes very much towards bringing back the people (to their religious duties). I was just within an inch of being crushed by a falling chimney. A great number of houses were considerably damaged, but no one was killed. The earth, so you say, has opened in several places, particularly three miles away from our monastery. From this last opening nothing comes up but sand and water. Fortunately our poor cabin of wood and mud can undergo a long shaking without any danger. These undressed trees lying one over the other cannot be separated except by a considerable effort. There are houses of stone and brick that had to be abandoned." Guillet to Plessis, February 18, 1812, in La Nouvelle France, 17:188.

[decorative delimiter]

25 Spalding, Kentucky Sketches, p173.

[decorative delimiter]

26 Davidson and Stuve, History of Illinois, p245.

[decorative delimiter]

27 Spalding, op. cit., p173.

[decorative delimiter]

28 Dom Urban communicated to Bishop Carroll in 1810 a petition on the part of the people of the Illinois Country for "a good Jesuit missionary." Guillet to Carroll, November 16, 1810.

[decorative delimiter]

29 Guillet to Carroll, October 16, 1811.

[decorative delimiter]

30 Guillet to Carroll, October 16, 1811.

[decorative delimiter]

31 Reynolds, My Own Times, Embracing also the History of My Life, p99.

[decorative delimiter]

32 Thomas and Wild, op. cit., p55.

[decorative delimiter]

33 Brackenridge's account, as embodied in Scharf, History of St. Louis, City and County, 1:101, is an abridgment of an article contributed by him to the Missouri Gazette of St. Louis and reproduced by him in extenso as an appendix to his Views of Louisiana, pp287‑291. Though a travesty on Trappist life in its religious aspect, the author expressed surprise that the article gave offense to the "good Fathers."

[decorative delimiter]

34 Spalding, op. cit., p173.

[decorative delimiter]

35 Guillet to Plessis, November 18, 1810, La Nouvelle France, 16:229.

[decorative delimiter]

36 Guillet to Carroll, November 16, 1811.

[decorative delimiter]

37 Spalding, op. cit., p174; Reynolds, op. cit., p99.

[decorative delimiter]

38 Guillet to Plessis, March 15, 1810 (1811?).

[decorative delimiter]

39 Thomas and Wild, op. cit., 55.

[decorative delimiter]

40 Dickens, American Notes, Chapter XIII.

[decorative delimiter]

41 Spalding, op. cit., 175.

[decorative delimiter]

42 Catholic Encyclopedia 3:791. The movements of the Trappists after their return to the East are obscure, apart from their stay in New York, of which there is no doubt. The two attempted settlements mentioned in the text are indicated in apparently reliable accounts. At the time Dom Augustine arrived in America, Dom Urban was thinking of acquiring property in Virginia, La Nouvelle France, 17:222.

[decorative delimiter]

43 La Nouvelle France, 17:227 et seq. It is pleasant to consider that Dom Urban's almost life-long efforts to establish a fixed home for his community were in the end crowned with success. Despite the loss of the money he had collected, Bellefontaine par Saint‑Leger-sous‑Cholet came into the possession of his fellow-monks either before or shortly after his decease, and of this new La Trappe, maintained down to our own day, Dom Urban is gratefully remembered in Trappist history as the valiant and illustrious founder. To Bellefontaine as parent-stock Canada owes the three Cistercian foundations of Notre‑Dame-du‑Lac (Oka) Quebec, Notre‑Dame-des‑Prairies (Saint Norbert, Manitoba) and Notre‑Dame-de‑Mistassini, an offshoot of Oka. In 1910 Dom Jean-Marie Chouteau, Abbot of Bellefontaine (1911), visited the houses of his order in Canada. Dom Urban, as the reader may recall, was for a space the only clergyman serving Laclede's young settlement of St. Louis; and so, by a curious assn, we find the Abbot of the La Trappe of Bellefontaine, Dom Urban Guillet's foundation, bearing the name of the most historic family in the pioneer history of the metropolis of the Mississippi Valley.

Thayer's Notes:

a The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site (see its website) is a U. S. National Landmark and a World Heritage Site.

[decorative delimiter]

b A formal biographical sketch of John Mullanphy is given in the Catholic Encyclopedia; a vivid first‑hand description of the man and his home environment can be read in H. M. Brackenridge's Recollections of Persons and Places in the West (1834), pp269‑271; the author calls him Melanthy.

[decorative delimiter]

c1 c2 To most of us today this might seem to be just a bit of amusing portraiture; but to anyone bound by the Rule of St. Benedict or familiar with it, it's a very serious accusation. In the opening chapter of that Rule, Benedict classes monks into four kinds, the worst of which are gyrovagi, "wanderers" (or in that translation of the Rule, the excellent "landlopers", rendering perfectly the colorful baroque quality of the Latin word).

[decorative delimiter]

d A curious slip on the part of the writer. The War of 1812 would not be fought until, well, 1812. A further inaccuracy, though minor: the congressional adjournment on May 2 (or May 1), 1810, was not of the 11th Congress, but of the 2d session of that Congress; there would be a third session later in the year.

The shocking story of Gen. Wilkinson and the insalubrious camp at Terre aux Boeufs near New Orleans is detailed at some length in J. R. Jacobs' biography of the general: Tarnished Warrior, pp251 ff.

[decorative delimiter]

e But I read in my copy of Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (Image Books edition 1970, p465), where he speaks of his admission to the novitiate in the very same abbey of Gethsemani in 1941, sixteen years after the article you are reading: "It took me a few minutes to figure out the complications of the fifteenth-century underwear that Trappists wear under their robes . . ."

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 1 May 19