Closing of the Year

The end of the year is an opportunity to review some of the events that closed out our year. We did venture into some significant efforts to reach out in vocational awareness. At the end of October, we hosted a Come and See discernment weekend for men considering vocations. Four men, ranging in ages from 25 to 49 and coming from four different midwestern states, participated in this program. They were introduced to monastic life and the stages of discernment and formation involved in pursuing a vocation. This was the first Come and See program we have offered since the Covid pandemic.

In mid-November (16th-18th), Br. Joseph drove with one of the Mississippi Abbey sisters to the Fully Alive Conference in Indianapolis, IN. This was sponsored by the National Catholic Youth Conference as an opportunity for meeting, worship, and catechesis. A number of religious communities and dioceses sponsored booths to acquaint young people with vocational possibilities available in the church. On December 31st, Br. Joseph and Br. Paul Andrew drove with two sisters from Mississippi Abbey to a SEEK24 conference being held all week in St. Louis. It is sponsored and organized by FOCUS, a group which supports Christian living on college campuses. It is another opportunity to make young people aware of monastic life as a possible vocation in the church of today. The absence of our major organist and cantor has required us to make some simplifications in our liturgy for this week.

Fr. Brendan will be traveling to Ireland on January 6th to participate in some meetings and discernment concerning the future of several monasteries in Ireland. He is the current father-immediate of a grouping of Mt. Melleray, Mellifont, and Roscrea. The abbot general, Dom Bernardus Peteers, will be guiding these discussions. The few monks are scattered over three monasteries and they will be looking for ways to join them more closely together. Incidentally, we do have one Irish monk from Mt. Melleray visiting with us. Fr. Donal Davis arrived in November and will be staying until March when he will return home.

Our guest house had been closed for the annual Christmas break, from December 17th to January 2nd. For the second year, we will be welcoming the Jesuit novices of the Midwest province. With their novice director and staff, they will be staying again for a full month, until February 1st. If this group is as fervent as last year’s, we can anticipate their regular attendance and participation at our Liturgy of the Hours. Our annual Christmas party with the OLM sisters was suddenly cancelled due to one of their community’s testing positive for Covid. A neighborhood family, the Burkes, generously provide the food for our supper together. They kindly served the monks anyway, and brought over ample portions for the sisters to eat in quarantine. A disappointment nonetheless. Wait until next year.

The Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays preempted our monthly Information Forums, so there is less news to share on that front. We have completed the transformation of a pantry/bread-cutting room into a comfortable and inviting space for our twice-weekly informal sharings after the eucharist. This has proved to be a practical way for meeting and exchanging news of the monumental and trivial. Our best wishes and prayers for a peaceful and joyful New Year.

October Information Forum

The community met on Thursday, October 26th, for our monthly Information Forum to exchange current news and events. We had hosted three sisters from Mississippi Abbey from October 4th through the 10th. They shared in our community exercises and prayer for those days. The purpose was to allow them to view and suggest ways we might improve some of our practices to foster a greater sense of shared community living. They brought a different perspective to our habitual patterns and forms of life. Mother Rebecca, the abbess, has been appointed “Mother Immediate” of our community, and this afforded her the opportunity to know the community on a more immediate and close level.

They addressed the community at the end of their visit and shared some general observations. They were especially impressed with our liturgy and the prayerful and orderly atmosphere in the monastery. Their suggestions emphasized communal engagement in the monastic practices, e.g., common lectio and common work. We need to make explicit the support and common sharing that tends to remain implicit and unspoken. One implementation of their advice is a common lectio and mediation period in church after the office of Vigils, beginning Monday the 30th. The community will remain in church for twenty minutes and share the time and space in personal meditation and prayerful reading.

On the vocation front, four men will be coming this weekend (October 27-30) for a Come and See Program. This is an opportunity for men discerning a religious vocation to share more closely in the life of the community with personal discussions about the monastic life. We haven’t offered such a weekend program since the Covid pandemic. Br. Joseph joined two of the Mississippi sisters in addressing the local Serra Vocation Club. They made presentations on the monastic life and their personal vocation stories. The Serra Club is a lay organization which supports vocational work in the archdiocese.

Speaking of the archdiocese, Fr. Brendan represented the community at the installation of our new archbishop, Thomas Zinkula, on October 18th. A man with local roots, he had been bishop of Davenport, Iowa. Following the call of Pope Francis and of our own Abbot General, the community will observe a day of prayer, penance, and fasting on Friday, the 27th, for an end to the horrific violence between Israel and Gaza. We will celebrate a Mass for Peace and Justice with special readings and sparse fare for meals. The annual Memorial Mass of the Dead will be celebrated on November 7th for all those buried in Trappist Caskets or Urns during the past year.

Several maintenance projects are still in process. New speakers are being prepared for our refectory. The solid stone walls present an acoustic challenge for clear listening. The pipes of the heating system in the church need to be realigned at a slant to prevent the banging sound that trapped water causes. Some security locks and systems will be installed in our guest house kitchen area to provide greater safety for our employees. The room being prepared for our informal meetings after mass twice a week is still far from ready. We have been using a visiting area in the infirmary in the meanwhile. These gatherings have been very successful opportunities for casual exchanges and sharing before we head off to work assignments.

The garden was very productive this year and we were able to exchange what we had in abundance with the sisters at Mississippi Abbey, who reciprocated with produce they had. It is a question of balancing what happens to be your surplus now against their present need, and one day they may have something to spare that will supply your own need (2 Corinthians 8: 14). We had some generous help in harvesting the apples, and now have a good supply for the coming months. The local farmers have been reporting very good yields in spite of close to drought-like conditions this summer. The earth is the Lord’s and its fullness.

September Song

It has been a long time since any news items have been posted so it might take a while to catch up on what has been happening. We will just move chronologically backwards in time, and not attempt to report events with respect to their importance or significance. The instigation for resuming this belated communication was the resumption of the regular Information Meetings in the community. It has been several months since the last “regular” meeting, but the intention is to resume them at monthly intervals.

The meeting on September 21st reported on various efforts in progress that had begun some time ago. A “Come and See” vocational program is scheduled for October 27th to 29th. We have not held one of these since the Covid virus forced a shut-down of all forms of hospitality. We are cooperating more fully with our sisters at Mississippi Abbey in vocational promotions.

A long-time employee (23 years), Larry Smith, will be retiring at the end of September. He had been employed at our carpentry shop and provided wood-working craftmanship for community needs. Trappist Caskets will now take over that work. Our grateful thanks to Larry for his service over the years. Br. Paul Andrew gave a tour of the monastery to around 14 employees of Trappist Caskets to familiarize them with the life of the monastic community and increase mutual understanding within the branches of our one family.

Produce continues to come to the kitchen from our garden, and the orchard is the next target for harvesting. We will be getting help from a couple groups who will split their bounty between them and us.

Moving back in time. The community had its annual picnic with the sisters of Mississippi Abbey on September 14th. This is usually held on July 16th, the anniversary of the founding of New Melleray. But scheduling conflicts forced it back to this later date. The weather was perfect and many were able to have lunch and conversation outside on the porch adjoining the infirmary. The conversation outlasted the eating.

Our Brother Robert Simon died (81) on August 16 of this year. He had been in a local nursing home for the past two years and needed skilled assistance. He had been the community organist and welcomed visitors in the porter’s office of the guest house. In healthier days, he was an avid bicyclist. His funeral was delayed until the 23rd of August so that his family could attend.

Two other members of the community are now in Stonehill Community Care Center. Br. John O’Driscoll had asked to enter because of difficulties of mobility due to his blindness and Parkinson’s. We had been trying to care for Br. Gilbert who is suffering from dementia, but we were unable to find help during the night hours. In fact, he seems to be thriving with the increased stimulation from an active social environment.

The most significant events were the visit of the Abbot General at the end of January, our visitation from Dom Peter McCarthy in June, and the meeting of the Commission of the Future in July. The death and loss of membership has created a fragile situation in the community and there is a need to look at the possible alternatives ahead. While there is a good spirit and life in the community (Abbot General), we lack resources in formation and leadership. Chief emphasis has been put on strengthening relationships within the community and creating a more welcoming environment to receive new members. Several steps to implement this have already been initiated. In the absence of a common work, monks tend to work separately and little emphasis had been put on even informal communication. We have begun several forums for sharing at personal levels and plan a more formal level of discussion of the core monastic values which bind us as a community. We are also interacting and cooperating with the sisters at Mississippi Abbey in areas of initial and on-going formation.

April Information Forum

The end of April was given a formal farewell through our monthly Information Forum. Little emerged on the liturgical front except to express satisfaction with having the sisters from Mississippi Abbey join us in the Easter Vigil Service. Though intentionally shortened, the service lasted almost two hours. We shared a breakfast in the refectory with our sisters after the conclusion of the liturgy. Their voices added a welcome volume that rivaled celestial choirs.

Activity on all fronts seems to be moving at a moderate pace. There seems to be a post-Covid increase in groups coming on retreat. Installation of air conditioning in the Guest House kitchen has been delayed, and we hope it can be completed before the onslaught of summer days. A new hot water system which is ecologically efficient has been installed. Some complicated renovation of our electrical system will require the total blackout of the monastery for a couple afternoons. The dates are To Be Announced, but we are girding ourselves for the shift in our M.O. KEEP OFF THE ELEVATOR.

Garden work has not yet begun in real earnest. Spring tree planting is in full gear to compensate for the delays caused by a wet fall. Ecological interest in the monastery’s activities will be drawing a group of students from Grinnell College and from Creighton U. Fr. Brendan gave a brief tour of the monastery to about 26 Mennonite children. Several Mennonite families have moved from Pennsylvania into the local area.

Trappist Caskets seems to be doing well, although it experiences ebbs and surges in sales. One of our employees in the monastery infirmary, Gale Brown, died suddenly on the 16th of April at age 76. He had been employed here for 46 years, first on the farm and then in the infirmary. He was buried in one of the Trappist Caskets in the local Holy Family cemetery. Four of the monks attended his funeral services at Holy Family Parish, the church across the road from the monastery.

For several months, the monastery has been on an altered schedule, rising at 4:15 instead of 3:15. This change required some related changes in our schedule. We had a brief discussion about our experience of this change and will take a community vote in a few days on whether to keep this change or return to the former schedule.

March: Lion or Lamb

Death of Br. Thomas: Br. Thomas (George) Imhoff died on the evening of March 23rd at the Stonehill Care Facility in Dubuque at the age of 94. He was transferred from the monastery to this nursing home on February 2nd of this year. His health had deteriorated to that point that he needed constant assistance for the most basic activities, more than we could provide at the monastery. This was not a happy move for him, and he much preferred to be back in the monastery. He entered New Melleray in 1950, but, still in simple vows, was sent down to the beginning foundation of Assumption Abbey in Ava, Missouri. When that monastery closed, he chose to return to New Melleray. He lived a life of austere and simple prayerfulness, one uncomplicated by changes and adaptations. His funeral and burial were celebrated Monday the 27th, at an 11: a.m. liturgy, attended by his sister and her family as well as guests and friends.

Our monthly Information Forum was held on the morning of March 23rd. The time for our Easter Vigil was set at 4:30 a.m. Since we are unable to provide a celebrant for our Trappestine Sisters of OLM, they will be joining us for this service. The service is open to the public, but it is at an inconvenient time for most schedules. A Day Mass will be celebrated at 10:30 a.m.

The new windows have been installed in basement areas, giving a greater sense of light and simple beauty to this functional living space. The work on modifying and ventilating the guest house kitchen area is still in process. The weather has permitted more work to be invested in pruning in the orchard for a more bountiful harvest next fall. Fr. Jonah had accumulated an extensive personal library from his studies and work in counselling in the Guest House. We have been incorporating some of them into the monastery library, the novitiate library, and the Guest House collection. Others we have made available for free in the Gift Shop.

Br. John O’Driscoll has asked to move to Stonehill Care Facility and made that move on March 30th. Br. John is legally blind and feels that his eyesight is deteriorating. A more serious problem is his Parkinson’s disease which makes movement very slow. Although his vision is impaired, he was able to maintain a level of independence since, with familiarity, he had memorized spaces and distances in the monastery. He thinks that he will be needing more and more assistance as time goes on and has asked to make this transition now. Our prayers are with him in his new home.

February Information Forum

We are trying to reschedule monthly information forums. They help keep everyone au courant with events in the community and offer the opportunity for questions and exchanges. Sometimes the very events themselves squeeze the forums off the calendar.

Local liturgists are already thinking ahead to the Easter Vigil and planning for the Triduum. Since the death of Fr. Jonah, we will be unable to provide a celebrant for the Vigil at Mississippi Abbey. The sisters have accepted an invitation to join us for this service. The actual time has not yet been set.

While there are some inquiries concerning vocations and a fairly steady participation in our Monastic Center Program, no one has currently made application to join the community. Our novice, Br. Philip, has been forced to temporarily leave to take care of his ailing mother. We hope they will be able to resolve that situation and free Br. Philip to return. Three long-term guests in the community are proving invaluable in the assistance they provide.

Some major renovations are occurring in the Guest House kitchen. It can be a stifling work environment in the summer, and we wanted to install air conditioning there. But we presently have three gas ovens with perpetual heat from their burners. To make air conditioning feasible, we now plan to install electric ranges, but that will entail increased electric power needs. It is, however, a move which also has ecological and economic benefits.

Some tree planting has been begun, but the dry fall had delayed a major effort which now has to wait for spring. Several grass areas have been burned off and are ready for planting prairie grass. The program to increase watershed conservation around the springs and creeks on our property is moving ahead, although it will be a multi-year process.

The liveliest discussion was a debate on whether to install clear or frosted windows in the basement areas of our wardrobe and laundry. Those seeking greater privacy with frosted glass lost the day to those promoting the transparency and visibility of plain panes.

January’s Events

During the cold days of January, the community kept its blood in warm circulation through several events and meetings. Early in the month, the community agreed to the transfer of a section of its property to the archdiocese. The local parish church, Holy Family, was on property still owned by the monastery. Holy Family cemetery was already owned by the archdiocese, so the total transfer was less than an acre. But this needed the approval of the professed members of the community.

On January 17th, the community held its annual meeting of Trappist Caskets and its board of directors. This was moderated by our lawyer, David Curtiss, and included David Schueller and Sam Mulgrew as representatives of Trappist Caskets. It is a formal but smooth meeting which would be the envy of any totalitarian government.

On January 23rd, we were given a presentation on stress by Sr. Louise Mousel, CHM. Sister was a psychiatrist before joining the Humility Sisters. She addressed the growing incidence and causes of stress, ways to diagnose and then cope with the effects it can have on our bodies and emotions.

On January 27th, our new abbot general, Dom Bernardus Peeters, arrived for his first visit here. Before his election as abbot general, he had agreed to preach a retreat at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. Seeking to make the trip to the States as worthwhile as possible, he decided to visit New Melleray and Mississippi Abbeys (geographically closest) at the end of the retreat. Dom Peter McCarthy, our Father Immediate of Guadalupe Abbey, wished to take advantage of this visit and the experience of the abbot general and also came to New Melleray. In his short stay (four days), Dom Bernardus met with the House Council, individually with each member of the community, and then again with the whole community. He offered a report and summary of his impressions of the community which was quite thorough and perceptive. His comments will be helpful in preparing for our next regular visitation this summer by Dom Peter.

Br. Philip Ross, our novice, has had to return home to help his mother who had suffered a serious medical emergency. It will be necessary for him to stay with her for a while as caregiver while she recuperates. We keep united with them in prayer.

Adieu to 22

The ending of 2022 created a bit of a logjam of events for the community. The extremely cold weather kept many people wisely indoors. Only a small handful of six guests braved the elements to join us for midnight mass. We gathered in an open area of our infirmary (the sunroom) after the services to sip on eggnog and sample Christmas sweets and exchange greetings with one another. This is one of the nights of broken sleep that can make it more difficult to be alert and cheery on the following day. The morning mass at 10:30 was more fully attended by guests, neighbors, and friends and we were happy to share the celebration of the Christmas eucharist with them.

We were surprised by the death of Fr. Jonah (75) on the evening of December 27th. He had just returned from a retreat and celebrating Christmas liturgies with the sisters at Mississippi Abbey. Although not feeling well, he thought it was something a little rest would cure. We called the local paramedics from Epworth at 7:30 who responded very promptly and with the best of medical attention, but his heart had given out in spite of this care. To accommodate his relatives living in Des Moines, we postponed the funeral eucharist until 11:15 a.m. All of the sisters from Mississippi Abbey joined us, as well as another nearly 100 persons who overfilled the guest church. Several priests of the archdiocese concelebrated as well. He had had a very active ministry as confessor and spiritual counsellor in our guest house, as well as being the liason between the community and the Associates of the Iowa Contemplatives. Although a bit wet and muddy underfoot, the weather for the burial in our cemetery was beautiful and contributed to our reflective and affectionate commitment of Fr. Jonah to the earth.

Since the Guest House was still closed for the Christmas interim, we were unable to offer any hospitality to our guests. Since it was past dinnertime (12:30), guests were left to find sustenance on their own. We were able to invite the sisters to share a small dinner of pizza and salads with us before they returned to their Abbey.

In recent years, the Burke family had been hosting a Christmas party in our guest house dining room for both the monks and the nuns of Mississippi Abbey. This had been suspended in recent years because of COVID, but they generously offered to provide a dinner again this year. Originally scheduled for Friday, the Feast of the Holy Family, it was delayed a day because of Fr. Jonah’s funeral. It is a rare opportunity for everyone in our communities to meet each other and share in a festive gathering. We were able to say adieu to 2022 and welcome the New Year.

Death of Fr. David Wechter

Fr. David Wechter, a past abbot of the community of New Melleray, died on December 4th of this year. He had currently been serving as chaplain to a group of Carmelites hermits in Houston, MN and it is there that he died after complications of a pulmonary illness. He had served as chaplain there from 1981-2022, while also serving on the local diocesan marriage tribunal. He had studied Canon Law in Rome after entering the monastery. He was also well known as a spiritual director and confessor in the area. His funeral mass was celebrated on Saturday, December 10th in the cathedral of the Winona diocese, with Bishop Robert Barron presiding. Fr. Brendan and Fr. Ephrem represented the community at this mass, and then drove the body back to New Melleray for burial in our cemetery that afternoon. The community gathered for a simple service of commendation and burial. We will celebrate a memorial mass at a later date.

At our community chapter meeting on the following Sunday, we were able to share our memories of Fr. David. After studying Canon Law in Rome, he was asked to stay and serve as a socius to help guide and direct the many Cistercian monks who were coming to study in Rome at that time. He served as superior of our daughter house in Ava, Missouri (Assumption Abbey) and from there was elected abbot of New Melleray from 1967-1976. That was a time of enormous change in our Order, our community, and the Church. Fr. David shepherded the community as it responded to the call to renewal from the Second Vatican Council. Our liturgy moved from Latin and Gregorian chant to the vernacular (English). The Order had allowed transitioning from common dormitories to the use of private cells, and this meant not only reconstruction of physical spaces, but also a reconstruction of the way we lived together and the opportunity for more personal solitude. In the process of reexamining our financial support and work, we found it necessary to engage in a more fundamental discernment of the bases of our life together. This resulted in a two-year and multi-layered Self-Study Program which involved the community in intensive dialogue. And as if all that were not enough, the renovation of our church was carried out from 1974 to 1976 with its dedication in July of 1976.

Fr. David had felt called to a more hermetical form of life for some time, and the community reluctantly allowed him to resign as abbot to follow this movement of the Spirit in his heart. He was chaplain for some time at Mississippi Abbey, our neighboring Cistercian sisters. In 1981, he moved further north to be chaplain to a small group of Carmelite nuns living as hermits, first in Wisconsin but later moving to Minnesota. He returned annually to visit the community and remained a member of the community in good standing under the official category of a Hermit Living Off the Property.

November News

After a long hiatus, the community resumed meeting for its Information Forum. These had originally been planned as monthly gatherings, but events and circumstances pushed them into the shadows. It is hoped that they will again become a regular part of our schedule.

The fast approach of Advent will move us into planning for Christmas celebrations. Some details have been set. The Guest House itself will be closed from December 18th until January 7th. This will give time for thorough cleaning and a respite for those involved in providing hospitality there. Christmas Day will occur on Sunday, pushing such feasts as the Holy Family and the Baptism of Christ from Sunday to weekday celebrations. The vigil of Christmas will be celebrated privately to maximize our energies for the mass itself at midnight. The rest of the day’s schedule will be:

Lauds 7:00 a.m.

Tierce 9:00 a.m.

Morning Mass 10:30 a.m.

The positioning of our altar in the center of the church will disturb former arrangements for placing the crib scene, trees, and other decorations. This has reduced available space. We will need some creative rethinking to avoid screening the liturgical functions from view with a decorative forest.

The meeting was an opportunity to bring everyone up-to-date on current projects in the monastery. We are waiting for final arrangements for the removal of the last two corn bins from our farmyard. There has been extensive work repairing the heating system in the Infirmary. This wing has an independent system for heating and cooling which had been malfunctioning. The call system for the Infirmary also had to be updated. This allows the monks in the infirmary to summon help or assistance from those on duty.

Br. Robert continues to reside at Accura Care Center in Cascade. He had a health scare this past week, and was taken to the Emergency Room, but all the tests showed no need for concern. Br. John returned from a short stay at the hospital and Stonehill Care Center after a serious infection incapacitated him.

Our forester, John Schreider, has put together a formal proposal for increasing buffer areas on the three creeks which run through our property. Part of this plan would be to plant more trees in these areas. Trees could not be planted this past fall because of the extreme dryness of the land, but we have the new plantings ready for the thaw in 2023. Apparently, we have the second largest tree farm in Iowa.

Two long-term guests participated in the meeting. These two men are planning to stay with us in the community for a year. We have had a couple other long-term guests who resided with us for shorter periods. This program seems to be working well. The men live with us and share our monastic life without making any formal commitments. It is our attempt to share contemplative monastic life within a broader context of participation. We are encouraged and enriched by their interest and eagerness for monastic living.

Br. Paul Andrew, the Vocation Director, remarked that there have been a number of inquiries by men who are still in remote stages of vocational discernment