Don Alberic Dunlea
Denis Dunlea was born in the parish of Moranimey, County Cork, Ireland on March 8, 1833. He entered Mount Melleray Abbey on August 6, 1859 and was sent to New Melleray as provisional superior on September 13, 1883. Six years later he was replaced by Fr. Louis Carew, who appointed Fr. Alberic to be his prior.
In summing up the six years that Fr. Alberic was superior, Br. Kieran Mullany wrote: “He began in earnest with improvements of great importance, and went to work with an energy that was truly surprising. He placed all his confidence in God. Fr. Alberic had every prospect of doing well. How could it be otherwise, when to instruction he added example, invariably teaching the community the practice of virtue more by his actions than by his words. First in every exercise, he was an inducement that was irresistible.”
By 1897 the monastery’s huge debt was cleared and Fr. Alberic was elected abbot on June 7. In 1912 he defended New Melleray from an editorial in a Dubuque newspaper which claimed that the utility of monasteries passed with the dark ages.
In reply, Fr. Alberic wrote:
Dear Mr Editor: An article appears here in a local paper regarding this monastery, which was not written with a friendly hand. In what school of asceticism the writer qualified as a competent judge of the utility of our lives, I know not. Our serviceability, he says, passes with the dark ages…. This sage of ours informs the public that we are contributing little or nothing to the welfare of society; that for seventy years we have done little more than serving ourselves and piling up titles to land. What does he think of the mountains of food and provisions which we laboriously produced and furnished to keep alive the multitudes in this nation during those near to seventy years whilst in all probability he did not produce a spoonful?
Our people came here at an early date, forty or fifty in number, hardy, industrious men, more given to labor than to traducing their neighbors, and the signs of their industry could be seen all around them. The country being a wilderness at that time and land being had almost for the fencing, these enterprising men acquired title to a considerable share of it. Several of those titles we have given up and some we retain. We monks possess lands according to our rules, that laboring in them and earning our bread by the sweat of our brows, we may not be a burden on the Church or on the people, and that we may live in peace, out of the reach of malevolent critics…. For our old and grand Order and its practises I make no apology to this writer nor to anyone else, and if this “light” of the 20th century go back to the dark ages, he can find much in them wholesome and profitable to his poor soul. As for us, we have a right to live in solitude, and that right we assert.
In summing up this period, a brother of the abbey wrote the following under the title “Recollections of New Melleray Abbey as it was at the beginning of the twentieth century.”
When Rev. Father Alberic entered on his office he found himself confronted with difficulties which hardly any other man would have the courage to grapple with. There was a debt of about a quarter million dollars, and the new monastic buildings were not half finished. The new superior set to work with a courage and a determination which nothing could shake. At the very first he made up his mind not to seek any pecuniary aid from the faithful. The debt was contracted in connection with the monastic lands, and he wanted to make the farm itself pay the debt. Himself and his brethren set themselves earnestly to work to gain this end. They cut off and avoided all expenses which were not indispensably necessary. They lived parsimoniously, were satisfied with plain food, coarse habits, and worked very hard.
It took many years to pay off the large debt and establish the community on a solid financial basis. When Abbot Alberic had accomplished this work, he had nearly attained the Scriptural age of three score and ten. He felt he did not have the requisite obilities to complete the monastic buildings. That work he left to his successors.
His Personal Life
As to his own interior life, and all he did for the spiritual welfare of his community, a large volume could be written, but in this short sketch we cannot say much. In Mount Melleray Abbey, Ireland, Father Alberic had led a very austere and holy life for many years. During Lent and for six or seven months of the year, he fasted on one poor meal a day. He filled more than one very important office in this monastery. For several years he had been Master of the Choir Novices. Two later abbots made their novitiate under him. In New Melleray, though there were several confessors in the house, most of the community of their own free choice selected the abbot for their confessor and spiritual director. His room opened on a public corridor along which religious and guests frequently passed. Nevertheless, of a certain hour on every Saturday evening after the end of work, several members of the community were to be seen kneeling on this corridor outside the abbot’s room waiting for their turn to go to confession. I often saw this sight, and I saw some with tears flowing from their eyes as they were preparing for confession. There is good reason to think that among the poor hardworking brothers of New Melleray, at this time, there were men whose lives were as innocent and holy as those of the ancient hermits of the desert.
Abbot Alberic had not the reputation of being a great preacher, but his discourses to the community on Sunday in chapter were excellent. They were highly spiritual, solid, clear and concise. He was never prolix. This was true also of his daily explanations of the Rule of St Benedict. I remember him once contrasting the spirit of the world with the spirit of the Gospel: “Indulge yourself, gratify yourself in everything, and follow the line of least resistance. This is the wisdom of the flesh and the spirit of the world. Deny yourself, mortify yourself, crucify yourself for the love of God. This is the spirit of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” He always practiced what he preached and never asked others to do anything which he was not willing to do himself. At the common manual labor he worked as hard as any of his monks and lived the common life as they did. All who lived with him and saw his life-style could not fail to perceive that he was profoundly humble.
Though Dom Alberic led a very mortified, austere life, he was, nevertheless, like all the saints, very considerate, kind towards others, and good-natured, It was his charity towards the members of his community that endeared him to all. It may be well to mention that it was well known that he had a great love for his old Irish monastic home, and for the green hills of Erin, and that to leave the monastery of his profession and his native land for another monastery in a foreign country, was for him almost a heroic sacrifice. He was once heard to say towards the end of his life: “Often when I woke up in the morning and realized that I was an exile in a foreign country, thousands of miles away from Ireland and from Mount Melleray, my heart felt as if it were breaking.
The last survivor among the brothers from Abbot Alberic’s time was Br Bernard Fitzgerald who died at Assumption Abbey, Ava, in 1973. He wrote: “Abbot Alberic lived only eleven months after I came to the monastery; he was just getting over a sick spell. He was quite tall, but stooped or rather bent with age; had a long white beard, and in walking he used to slide his feet along the floor. I suppose this was due to his age and infirmities. Old Br Nicholas told me that he was a very austere man. We used to have the dormitory in what is now the chapel, and it was very hot in the summer time. I remarked that he had a very hot place to sleep—no window there. Br Nicholas said that he kept the same couch all the time that he was there, until his death, although there were plenty of empty couches.
Abbot Celsus O’Connell of Mount Melleray remembered that as a novice he had seen Dom Alberic at Mount Melleray on one of his trips to the General Chapter. He said Dom Alberic spoke French fluently and related the following story he heard. Abbot Alberic was on a train going to the abbatial blessing of Dom Edmund Obrecht of Gethsemani. Dom Edmund and a bishop were sitting some distance behind Abbot Alberic, but they did not recognize him. The bishop was very impressed with his piety and remarked that there was a holy priest. He asked Dom Edmund to get him, but Dom Alberic didn’t care to see the bishop and stayed where he was. Abbot Camillus Claffey of Roscrea, Ireland, told me he remembered old monks talking about Fr. Alberic as novice master at Mount Melleray—how he only drank water in the refectory, and when working in the garden with the novices, he kept ahead of them all.
Dom Alberic died February 4, 1917. An obituary from the newspaper states that: “Wherever this saintly religious was, he always showed himself the true monk, always attached to his beloved solitude and to recollection and estranged from the ways of the world.”