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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 5

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 7

 p48  VI

Dom Bruno Leads the Charge —

The man most interested in the success of an American colony of Irish Trappists was beyond any doubt — and naturally so, too, because of his position as abbot of the community — Dom Bruno Fitzpatrick. Inheriting the mantle of Dom Vincent Ryan of Mount Melleray and, really, also that of Dom Antoine de Beauregard of Melleray, he was made of that stern but sparkling stuff that has always formed the sinews of the fighting and praying knights of the Faith. For a long year he had seen the dream-walls of his cherished Cistercian foundation beyond the Atlantic smashed one after another by every bitterly disappointing report and letter that came back across the sea. It was a challenge to his holy zeal: he determined to march into the breach himself and by his own energetic action to cut the Gordian knot of all American obstacles.

Brother Macarius had left Kingston bitterly desolated by the fact that his farm had been refused as the site for the new American abbey. As a cabin passenger in a mail steamer he arrived in Ireland three weeks later, about April 20, 1849. He was determined to  p49 present his arguments on the American situation to the abbot with all the eloquence and force at his command. The pleading of his cause was helped considerably by an unfortunately worded letter from Prior Clement which had reached Mount Melleray shortly before his return. In this letter the prior had given his views which were entirely contrary to those of Brother Macarius, and in summing up his discouraging experiences he had used language, one sentence of which, at least, offended the abbot acutely. "Had I known," he wrote, "the circumstances before I left Mount Melleray as well as I now do, I would not have been so easily dislodged as I was." The abbot read this letter in public chapter to the community, and then declared that Father Clement was not qualified for his important charge and was unfit to be superior of the new filiation. This naturally afforded Brother Macarius the opportunity he needed to stress more strongly his views in favor of the Canadian foundation.

The decision that Dom Bruno then arrived at was that an American filiation was so important, and at this critical time so necessary for the brothers, that he himself should leave for the new world and make the negotiations and whatever decisions were now so imperatively required. He was well aware by this time of the general import of Bishop Mathias Loras' generous proposal in Iowa and was favorably inclined toward it. His deep sense of justice as well as prudence, however, made him listen with patient consideration to the claims of Brother Macarius. Before completing preparations for his departure he appointed Father Francis Walsh, a pious and circumspect priest, as prior of Mount Melleray who was to remain at home until the abbot's return, and he also designated Father Walsh as the superior of the new monastery when it would be established. He then chose for his companions on his American expedition Father James Myles O'Gorman and the four brothers: Timothy Duggan, Joseph Nolan, Barnaby Grace, and, of course, the experienced traveller and business agent, Macarius. Of these, Brother Timothy was the oldest; born in 1793 he had been professed in the French abbey of Melleray before his exile to Ireland.

Another new difficulty suddenly faced the abbot, a difficulty that might have seriously threatened the formation of a foreign affiliate at that time. It will be recalled that Mount Melleray Abbey had recently been united to the Congregation of La Grande Trappe in France. The permission to erect new Cistercian affiliates should have  p50 been approved by this Congregation, but the news of this new rule of permissions had reached Mount Melleray too late — at least, not till after all the preliminary labors had now already been performed in America. All this Dom Bruno carefully and patiently explained in a letter penned in French to the abbot of La Grande Trappe who was vicar-general of the Congregation, as he and his monks were waiting at Liverpool for the departure of their boat. "For that matter, I shall not excuse myself to the General Chapter;" wrote the humble Abbot Bruno Fitzpatrick. "I want to accept in advance all the penances you wish to impose upon me."

And then he cogently explained his necessarily quick departure: "Our unhappy Ireland is devouring its inhabitants, and everywhere you hear the cry: Sauve qui peut! . . . If you ask me why I am going myself to America, I will give you the reason in a few words. I have given 500 pounds sterling to Prior Clement to begin with, and there he is, losing courage, and instead of asking for brothers, he asks for more money. Famine is pressing in on us on all sides, and it is an enemy far more terrible than Louis Philippe. I cannot give him any money, but I want to send the brothers so as not to see them dying of starvation. The Bishop of Dubuque is willing indeed to give us 450 acres of land, but Prior Clement does not like the United States. There is a year almost lost and nothing as yet done for my first children. The diocesan bishop has blessed my project and it seems to me that I am doing the will of God. Certainly, I have already suffered a little . . . I am taking with me five brothers of whom one is a Priest. The forty or fifty brothers will not leave [for America] till after my return, it being then understood, of course, that you have no objections."

This letter was written on the 11th of May, the day before Dom Bruno and his little company of monks departed on the Caledonia, a mail steamer, for the city of Boston. This was coincidentally almost the same day that on the American continent Brother Ambrose was leaving Kingston for his voyage through the Great Lakes with Iowa as his destination. On the Caledonia, when it was learned by the monks that their vessel would stop at Halifax, Nova Scotia, to deliver the European mail, Brother Macarius urged that they should call on Bishop William Walsh of that city who had been very kind to him when he had made his collections for Mount Melleray in the Halifax diocese. That frank annalist of New Melleray at Dubuque,  p51 Brother Kieran, from whose pungent writings one must frequently quote in this Iowa Trappist tale, made this remark: "It would be well for the Abbot had he left Brother Macarius at home, he would be spared many a sore pang by doing so, twice he was very near losing his life on that Brother's account." Brother Macarius dragged the abbot and brothers with him to pay their compliments to the bishop who received them warmly, but on their return to the wharf they were horrified to find that the Caledonia had sailed on to Boston without them, and carried in her hold all their baggage. As no other vessel was to sail southward for a week they were obliged to hire a carriage to take them to Digby, a distance of one hundred and twenty miles, and then proceeded from there in a one‑masted open boat across the Bay of Fundy, another seventy miles. A sudden squall struck the boat and the passengers were compelled to keep emptying the water thrown in upon them. Landing at Eastport in the state of Maine they secured a ship which took them to Boston where they found the Caledonia as well as their baggage.

Father Clement Smyth was visiting his nephew in Boston at this very time, but Abbot Bruno and his party, unaware of this, started on their overland journey to Kingston under the persuasive guidance of Brother Macarius. They travelled by the "Eight O'Clock Cars" to Albany and continued on to Oswego on the source of Lake Ontario, four hundred miles from Boston. Here a steamer took them the next hundred miles to the city of Kingston. The optimistic influence exerted on the party by Brother Macarius in favor of the farm he had bought at Kingston for the order induced them to bring along a beautiful cooking stove and other utensils. Hospitably received by Bishop Phelan, they were again made home at Kingston College.

The very next day they set out to see the lands Bishop Phelan and Brother Macarius had chosen for the new monastery. It was the first week of June and the weather was hot and oppressive. On their arrival they found the heavily timbered lands full of swamps, but they decided to stay overnight in the little cabin that Brother Macarius had erected there. The heat and the swarms of mosquitoes made the night a most painful one, and in the morning the brothers were sufficiently alarmed by the sudden illness of Dom Bruno to send Brother Joseph on a furious gallop into Kingston to inform Bishop Phelan. The latter at once sent out his carriage to convey the abbot  p52 back to the college where he speedily recovered. All this, of course sounded the death-knell of any Kingston monastery foundation.

It was at this time that Father Clement returned from Boston, and arriving at the College of Kingston the news of the presence there of the abbot and his companions struck him, as he wrote later, like an electric shock. He was affectionately embraced by Dom Bruno and Father James and the brothers who accompanied them. The abbot spent a few days more in Kingston awaiting word from Brother Ambrose or expecting his possible return. He had sent a telegraphic letter to the brother in Dubuque but had heard nothing in return. Brother Ambrose previously had written him a long letter about Iowa, but naturally had addressed it to Mount Melleray, Ireland. Brother Macarius, as soon as he arrived in Kingston with the abbot, had written or telegraphed Brother Ambrose in Dubuque, informing him of Dom Bruno's arrival, and urging him to return to Kingston immediately and to give up the Iowa project in favor of Bishop Phelan's offer in Canada. Whether this message was mentioned by Brother Macarius to the abbot is highly conjectural. At any rate, nothing daunted by this silence of Brother Ambrose, the abbot then decided to leave for the West himself and took with him as his only travelling companion, Brother Barnaby.​1 Before his departure, which took place on the 15th of June by steamboat for Toronto and the Lakes, he gave instructions that on the arrival of the first letter of invitation from Iowa the remaining monks were to follow after.

Such a letter arrived six days later. It was addressed to Abbot Bruno Fitzpatrick in the unmistakable handwriting of Brother Ambrose. Father Clement broke the seal and as he and his companions read its contents, they found them a most flattering and encouraging description of the proffered lands near Dubuque. A fairy land they were, wrote Brother Ambrose, in whom exaggeration was seldom a fault; rich and beautifully diversified were the lands with hill and dale, with enchanting wood and verdant, rolling prairie "through whose shady valleys a lovely Creek in a long, meandering course wended its way into the dark and slow-moving waters of the Mississippi." Small wonder it was that new hopes sprang up in the hitherto doubting minds of the brothers, and that their impatient desire to  p53 start on their western journey would suffer no delay. On Missouri, the 23d of June, they left Kingston for Buffalo and the Lakes.

But not all departed: one remained — poor Brother Macarius. Wounded to the quick by the abbot's refusal to accept the site he had so assiduously schemed and labored for, he at this time parted company with the brothers and "walked no more with them," remaining in Kingston until his pious and pestilential death only two years later. Of this strange monk one can most appropriately remark, "De mortuis nil nisi bonum," for of him Father Clement Smyth who knew him so intimately and recognized his failings as well as his virtues wrote while he was still living, as "a man as void of reason as he was of malice in his designs or of guile in his intentions." It was he who for years had so devotedly drawn the funds from the laps of the rich in such widely separated places of the globe as the British Isles and Canada and the United States and had turned them over to Mount Melleray Abbey when they were so desperately needed even for survival; and it should not be forgotten that it was Brother Macarius who had first arranged to meet with Bishop Loras and Father Cretin and induced them to make the original generous offer which has led to the existence of New Melleray Abbey of today.

The route taken by Abbot Bruno and Brother Barnaby was apparently much the quicker one. The second group tarried long enough to be awed by the majestic Niagara Falls and leaving Buffalo on the 27th of June went by steam ship through Lakes Erie, Huron and Michigan, just as Brother Ambrose had done before them, a passage usually lasting five days to Chicago. From Chicago the railroad took them forty miles as far as Elgin, from where the stage coach or the "mail stage" as some of the conveyances were called, carried them a fast two days' travel to Galena, Illinois. Steam boats constantly passed back and forth between Galena and Dubuque on the Iowa side, a few miles to the north.

At Chicago Father James and Father Clement had sent the two brothers, Timothy and Joseph, with the luggage to Davenport from where they later proceeded to Dubuque by steamboat on the Mississippi. Abbot Bruno and Brother Barnaby reached Dubuque almost a fortnight before the others, and proceeding to the episcopal mansion, were greeted with warmth and received with delight by the Iowa vicar-general, Father Joseph Cretin. It was there that the abbot listened with rapt attention when Brother Ambrose, notified of his  p54 arrival, hastened to meet him and informed him of the success of his efforts. A number of days later when Father James and Father Clement went from their steamboat to the City Hotel, they rested a day before presenting themselves at the bishop's house at twelve o'clock at noon on the 6th of July, and here the entire group shared in all the humble comforts of that hospitable mansion.

Dubuque was a lusty young city of hardly more than three thousand inhabitants in 1849, but at that it was the second largest city in the state. Iowa had just been admitted as the twenty-ninth state of the Union two and a half years before. The monks in their black and demure civilian garb, arriving on the steamboats in the bustling Dubuque harbor, were a congruous part of the colorful and motley element that was pouring into Iowa at that time. The gold rush to California was on. Arriving daily into the port on their way to the various points in the West, were adventurers, homesteaders, farmers, ambitious new settlers of Iowa and hundreds of others merely passing through. Dom Bruno with his Irish and French background, and his companions with their training in European culture, had seen strange sights in this new world — at Boston and New York, at Kingston and at Chicago. This was a different spectacle at Dubuque, where a mixture of Americans and Europeans, spurning the steamboats and stages and the new railroads, came with their own wagons and on foot overland and crossed from Illinois into the new state. During the early days of their arrival the monks saw long processions of emigrant wagons carried over to the Iowa shore by flatboats and ferries. The "long blue wagons" — the old Conestogas — were beginning to give way to vehicles of greater capacity. The wagons when landed on the Iowa side, were again yoked up to their steeds brought over on other boats — and these steeds were oxen, mild-eyed, soft-toed, and slow.

Some of the wagons had four or five yoke of oxen, while heavier wagons had eight or even ten yoke of oxen drawing them. Practically all of them were of the covered wagon type — they had canvas tops. Some were clean and brightly painted, but most of them were muddy and dirty. When the brothers, Timothy and Joseph, arrived from Davenport and struggled to carry off from their steamboat the luggage of the little community which had been confided to their care, they found themselves among the immigrants coming off the flatboats with their cattle and sheep and hogs and crates of chickens and geese, and barking dogs everywhere.

 p55  It was here that Dom Bruno and Father James and Father Clement stared with curiosity as they saw for the first time the stream of Mormons, many with packs on their backs and women pushing wheelbarrows and followed by their children, all on their way to Utah. They gazed at the native Americans from the poorer sections of the East mingling with European newcomers all seeking what they themselves were seeking — free land, Congress land, any land, in order to settle in the new state of Iowa. Bishop Loras doubtless explained these sights to the interested Trappists. He visioned the great West peopled with the Catholic immigrants flocking to America. He wished to draw them from the crowded slums of the Eastern cities where they were hewers of wood and drawers of water, and make them self-reliant and independent farmers of the generous Northwest where lands were cheap and natural resources unlimited. Unfortunately the narrow-visioned prelates of the Atlantic seaboard, Bishop John Hughes of New York prominent among them, frowned on his efforts among their peoples, and the fair promise of his colonization plans was considerably blighted. A stupendous opportunity was lost thereby for a great Catholic commonwealth in the West.

And Dom Bruno, gazing at this still semi-wild valley of the Upper Mississippi, would have been astonished had he known that thirty‑two years before his arrival, another Trappist superior had tarried in these precincts, the first priest in history to carry on missionary work in this part of the valley. He was Prior Joseph Marie Dunand, one of Charles Dickens' "mad monks," formerly of Monks' Mound and St. Louis. Born in Lorraine, he had served as a grenadier in the Republican army of France during the Revolution. In 1791, horrified because his squad had been ordered to execute a priest, he deserted and fled to La Val Sainte in Switzerland where he became one of Dom Augustine de Lestrange's Cistercian followers. He was one of the group which had come to the United States in 1805, and when the remnants of this community returned to France later, he was permitted to remain in the vicinity of St. Louis as a missioner. In pursuance of his work he came up the Mississippi river, past Dubuque Mines, as far as Prairie du Chien, in 1817. Welcomed by the military officials of Fort Crawford, he made Prairie du Chien his headquarters for a month. "I administered holy baptism to a great many, large and small," he wrote later in his diary, "among whom were many half-breeds and savages . . . Protestants came every day to the instructions; even the Jews were converted. The savages of  p56 different nations were exact in attendance of Mass; the savage women brought me their children in groups, some to be baptized, others that they might behold a Makita Courage, that is to say, a black robe." The parish records at St. Gabriel's Church, Prairie du Chien, show that from April 1, 1817, to May 3, 1817, Prior Dunand, called by the people "Père Prieur," baptized 135 persons, Sioux, Winnebago, and Fox Indians from the Dubuque Mines.

From Prairie du Chien that Trappist prior made several missionary excursions inland, on some of which he doubtless entered the Iowa wilderness. To show in what a hopeless and savage condition this part of the Northwest was just three decades before the arrival of Dom Bruno and his monks at Dubuque, this one instance of several revolting scenes witnessed by the missioner is recounted here:

"One day, when again going up the Mississippi, I arrived with my canoe and the men who accompanied me, near a house which the Indians had set afire. The father and mother whom they had scalped were lying dead before the door. Besides this, they had massacred seven children, most of them girls . . . With much confusion I viewed this burning house and the bloody corpses, when a sight, sadder still, at least more apt to excite pity, caught my eye. A poor old man, nearly sixty-five years of age, came before me having been scalped and left for dead by the savages. 'Father Joseph,' he said to me, 'save my soul! save my soul!' (speaking in the English language). We took all possible care of him but at the end of a few days he died."

Abbot Bruno knew nothing about the past history of this locality in which he found himself; but it was about the future that he had been apprehensive. This far excursion into the western wilds to establish a Trappist monastery was a daring thing, to put the matter mildly, and in this strange, new land how would it fare? Now, however, that he had met Bishop Loras and his vicar-general, he threw all fears aside; and as he listened to the story of Brother Ambrose, who had been the "precursor in the wilderness" for the community, his heart beat still more hopefully.

The Author's Notes:

1 Brother Barnaby Grace's nephew, a Dominican, later became the second bishop of St. Paul, Minnesota, (1859‑1884) — the Right Reverend Thomas Langdon Grace, O. P.

Page updated: 15 May 13