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

Schedule Changes

The monastic day receives its structure from the hours of prayer which express and support our search for the Living God. These communal celebrations of our joining together in Christ’s pray to the Father define and regulate our experience of time and are sometimes called the sanctification of time.

Changes in our schedule or hororium are very significant in the community’s life. That is why we make changes with caution and care. But we have initiated a serious change in keeping with recommendations from the Committee of the Future which met last fall with the community. Given the reduced numbers in the community and the aging of our population, they suggested that we look for ways to simplify and accommodate to reality the ways we live together. We have been making efforts to do this in the liturgy and in our work. A further step has been to make some alterations in the daily schedule. We have begun to move the rising time in the morning from 3:15 a.m. to 4:15 a.m., with Vigils beginning at 4:30 a.m. The liturgical schedule for the weekday is:

Vigils 4:30 a.m.

Lauds 7:30

Eucharist 8:00 a.m.

Tierce in private

Sext and dinner and the rest of the day as normal.

On Sunday, Lauds will be celebrated at 7:00 a.m. and Eucharist at 9:00 a.m.

An unfortunate consequence in changing the time of daily Eucharist from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. is that some of our neighbors who come to celebrate the eucharist before going to work will no longer be able to do so. We will review this change after three months to evaluate its effects.

On the local scene, the shortage of pilots has caused American Airlines to suspend all flights between Dubuque and Chicago. The nearest airport for flights is now Clinton, IA. Even Greyhound buses are no longer scheduled directly from Dubuque to Chicago. They are routed through Madison and Milwaukee or through Davenport.

News of August

The travels of our superior, Fr. Brendan, continue to consume much of his time and energy. After completing the visitation of Gethsemani Abbey in July, he performed the same service for our sisters at Mississippi Abbey from the 7th to the 13th of August. With not much down-time to catch his breath and do his laundry, he left again on August 23rd to briefly visit three of our communities in Ireland before continuing on to Assisi, Italy for the next session of the General Chapter. Several of the Irish communities have agreed to combine their energies by having one superior, one house of formation, and one house to care for the infirm. This new arrangement is meant to respond to the decreasing resources available in each community by pooling and concentrating efforts to continue monastic life in each community. This has meant that a Father Immediate from outside these communities would be needed to pastorally oversee how this new configuration is functioning. Fr. Brendan had been superior of one of the communities (Mellifont) and has some familiarity with the situation in Ireland. He has been appointed as Father Immediate and made an introductory visit to each house before the Chapter. We can only pray and hope that this innovative arrangement will benefit these monks.

The community met with John Schroeder, the man who has been hired as Forester for our property. Our forests are a complicated ecological system which requires professional expertise that we no longer have in the community. John describe himself as an “ecologist” and wise and intelligent stewardship is imperative in these days of ecological crisis. John gave a thorough, educational, and persuasive presentation of a proposal to create a 300 foot buffer surrounding the three creeks that are on our property. These areas would create wetlands which would function as a “kidney”, purifying water from chemicals and pollutants that enter these creeks. Trees could be planted to help deter erosion and raise the water temperature. The downside of this proposal is the removal of significant acreage from its present tillage. This would mean a considerable loss of income and would hardly be welcomed by those who rent the farm land. The community was generally favorable. It’s the right thing to do. But details and implications will have to be examined.

For the first time in recorded history, the community plans to initiate the practice of taking a COMMUNITY HERMIT DAY. In the past, monks were free to arrange for personal “hermit days” when they would be free from all obligations to the Office and work. A couple of primitive, one-room hermitages in the woods were available, or they might use a retreat facility at Mississippi Abbey. But with lessening numbers in the community, most have been reluctant to absent themselves from community exercises and put a greater burden on others. However, this practice of a community Hermit Day is common in other houses, particularly those of the sisters.

The day that we will inaugurate this practice is on Monday, September 5th (Labor Day). The present idea is to repeat the Hermit Day on the first Monday of each month. The only scheduled community exercise will be the eucharist, at 7:00 a.m. There will be no other offices or common prayer in church on that day. Meals will be available at the regular times, but monks are free to come and select their food at anytime it is out. Obviously, this means that the cook is not totally off the hook and some other tasks (scullery dishes, etc.) will still need attention. If the earth seems to wobble on its axis a bit that day, you will know the cause.

July Events

The community celebrated the 173rd anniversary of its founding and the 46th anniversary of the dedication of the Abbey Church on July 16th. Fr. Brendan was the presider at the liturgy and gave a homily which honored the role of this sacred space in forming our lives together as a dwelling for the Spirit of God. It had been our custom for the past number of years to invite the community of Our Lady of the Mississippi to join us for a festive picnic on this day. To make the picnic accessible to the more elderly in our communities, we had moved the location of the picnic from the outdoors to the porch and kitchen area of the infirmary. Due to the interference of COVID, we had to suspend this practice for the past two years. But this year, the communities were again able to share a meal and lively conversations which invigorate and strengthen our mutual ties.

On the following Monday, July 18th, we celebrated the funeral mass for Fr. Kenneth Tietjen. Although he had died on July 13th, we delayed the funeral so that some of his family members could attend. His twin sister was unable to travel from Ohio, but his niece and nephew and their children were able to participate in the liturgy. They had been very devoted to him and were happy to be able to say their final good-byes. The weather and sunshine contributed to a memorable scene as many of our neighbors and friends joined in our final prayers and the burial.

Fr. Brendan’s busy schedule has taken him to Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky to conduct their regular visitation. (After the closure of Melleray Abbey in France, New Melleray assumed the paternity of Gethsemani Abbey.) This visitation had been postponed for several days to allow them to emerge from a siege of COVID affecting a number in the community. Fr. Brendan left by car on Friday, the 22nd and hopes to return within a week or so.

June News

This has been a busy time for Fr. Brendan, our superior. In the middle of May, he traveled to our daughter house in England, Mount Saint Bernard. Dom Joseph, the abbot, had submitted his resignation which was accepted by the Abbot General and his council. Mount St. Bernard is facing a number of critical issues and the responsibilities were taxing Dom Joseph’s physical and emotional health. In addition to the problems of diminishing human resources in the community, the buildings of the monastery are in drastic need of repair. They no longer meet requirements of the local fire code. Electrical wiring is inadequate, the roof needs replacement, etc. The monastery was designed by Augustus Welby Pugin, a noted British architect (“God’s Architect”) and is listed on official registrars.

After consulting with the community, Fr. Brendan appointed Fr. Peter Claver (81) as the new superior. Fr. Brendan was invited to attend the Regional Meeting of the Isles which was held at the same time. He returned to be present for the scheduled meeting of the Commission for the Future of New Melleray Abbey, May 31st and June 1st.

The Commission for the Future is a group of five experienced persons, together with two monks of the local community, who are invited to assist the community to look realistically at its situation, not only from a human point of view, but especially from the point of view of faith. An experience of fragility should be accepted as an invitation of the Lord to choose life by entering into the Paschal mystery. (Statute on the Accompaniment of Fragile Communities) The members of this commission are: Dom Peter McCarthy, OCSO (our delegated Father Immediate); Dom Gerard D’Souza, OCSO, of Genesee Abbey, Archbishop Jerome Hanus, OSB (retired archbishop of Dubuque and currently residing at Conception Abbey, MO); Mother Rebecca Stramoski, OCSO, abbess of Our Lady of the Mississippi; Mr. David Schueller (a long-time financial advisor of the community); and Dom Brendan Freeman, superior of New Melleray and Fr. David Bock, representing the monks of the community.

The Commission met for two days in an attempt to assess the difficulties and realities the community is facing. It shared its observations and discernments with the community in a meeting at the end of the second day. All the members of the Commission were present for any questions or comments. The following day, Dom Peter met individually with all the monks who were free to give their personal responses and reactions. The whole discernment process led by Dom Peter was universally affirmed as constructive and realistic. The Commission will return again next year to reflect with us on our responses and developments.

The major thrust of the report was to direct the community’s thinking and planning to anticipate an even smaller community of ten monks in the near future. A serious issue is our capability of receiving and offering an integral monastic formation to new entries. Do we have the resources to provide leadership from within the community? We have already been adjusting our liturgy and the use of buildings and space to the decreased population in the community. The positive ground of hope for the future is the unity and mutual support that presently exists among us. Our challenge is to reimagine the ways we live together as a place of eminent, continuous formation so that our structures do not overburden us but serve the spirit which unites us in Christ.

Fr, Brendan again left on June 15th to attend the U.S. Regional meeting at Villa del Mar, California. This is a retreat house which overlooks the Pacific Ocean. He is due back home on the 24th. Our new Abbot General, Dom Bernardus, has been attending all the regional meetings in preparation for the General Chapter (Part II) from September 1st to 25th in Assisi, Italy. No doubt the choice of Villa del Mar as the venue for our regional meeting was intended to provide a consistent cultural ambience for the discussions. Bona sera.

Memorial Mass for Fr. Xavier

And God Pitched His Tent Among Us.

A huge tent had been erected in front of the monastery buildings to accommodate the numbers who would come to celebrate a memorial mass for Fr. Xavier Dieter on Saturday, May 8th. We were uncertain as to how many persons would attend this service, but prepared seating for 400 in a semi-circle around an altar on a raised platform. This proved to be a slight margin of excess for over 300 people who were able to be present.

After days of rain and gloom, the sun and mild weather provided a perfect climate to gather together in the open and liturgically celebrate the life and death of Fr. Xavier. A large contingent of his own family and relatives formed the core of the congregation which was expanded by friends and acquaintances from a broad spectrum of those touched by Fr. Xavier’s life and ministry. Music for the liturgy was provided by talented members of his family. Fr. Brendan presided and preached the homily which wove together humor, memory, and spirituality. Fr. Xavier’s niece, Rose, gave a eulogy at the end which answered the question, Who Is Fr. Xavier?

Following the eucharist, the whole congregation processed to the cemetery where more prayers and songs joined us at his burial site. Light refreshments and an opportunity for personal sharing concluded the day for most of us. Others continued their conversations.

We continue adjusting and tweaking our seating arrangements in our church. The re-positioning of the lectern at the front and center of the church made an immense improvement in our ability to hear and understand what was being read or said. But this then separated the lectern from the community gathered at the west end of the church. The current solution is to return the community to sitting at the east end of the choir stalls (where they had been before our initial shifting and moving of the altar). This seems to resolve the problem of the separation of the community and lectern. We have also decided to retain the practice (adopted because of COVID) of keeping an empty stall between members of the choir. It helps to give the sense of “occupying” the length of choir stalls, rather than being bunched together with large empty spaces. Stay tuned for the next change. Monks on the move.

End of April

Several items of news waited until the end of April to emerge into the spotlight. On Sunday, April 24th, Fr. Kenneth fell in his infirmary room and complained of severe pain in his right leg. He was taken by ambulance to the Emergency Room for tests and Xrays. They neglected to Xray the lower part of his right leg, and he was sent home. The pain persisted, so we brought him back to the Emergency Room on Monday. This time, they discovered two fractures in his ankle. The doctors decided to put a cast on the ankle, rather than performing any surgery. He was taken to Stonehill Care Center here in Dubuque. When he is able to put weight on his leg, he will be given a program of physical therapy. He seems very content with the care he is receiving and keeps in frequent contact with the abbey via visits and phone calls.

With the restrictions and distancing required by COVID now becoming less necessary, we have been reassessing the arrangements of liturgical furnishings in the church. We had added extra choir stalls, moved the altar to the base of our presbytery steps, and placed the lectern used for the eucharist and divine office at the center of the church. Unfortunately, this placement of the lectern greatly diminished the ability of half the church to hear what was being proclaimed. Considering the importance and centrality of the celebration of the Word in all our liturgical services, this problem needed attention.

Discussions on our House Council led to the following decisions. For one month (beginning May 1st), the small altar on the ground floor will be removed and we will resume celebrating the eucharist at the main altar. This allows us to return the lectern to the east end of the church. The whole speaking system had been designed for the lectern to be in this position. This has raised the level of aural comprehension to more than acceptable levels. Views of the altar and eucharist are no longer blocked by the lectern. The downside of these changes is that presiders and ministers with any physical infirmities will have difficulty in mounting the several steps to the altar. And the placement of the lectern at the east end of the choir area means a longer hike for those who must go to the lectern for readings.

After one month, we will experiment with an alternate placing of the altar and lectern, bringing both closer to the middle of the church and closer to the guest section. Some choir stalls will be removed with this option to draw all the participants into closer proximity. The monastic architecture of the church was designed to create a space which would lead one into an openness where God is met. But this sometimes is at odds with desire for space which binds us more humanly to one another.

Information has already been posted on the Memorial Mass for Fr. Xavier this Saturday, May 7th. We hope the weather will cooperate by providing comfortable and dry conditions for the celebration in a large tent in front of the monastery. The family will have an opportunity to share their memories at the end of the service.

Death of Fr. James O’Connor.

The senior monk of our community, Fr. James O’Connor, made his final flight into the home of his Heavenly Father on April 8th. At 97, he had been a monk for 73 years after serving in the Air Force during World War II ( he flew 35 combat missions) and studies at De Paul University in Chicago. He died from complications after a fall in his room in the infirmary on March 22nd. He had been a philosophy teacher for young monks and spent his later years on top of a grass mower. He had been the author of Monastery Seasons, a newsletter which was widely popular and sorely missed when he was no longer able to compose its crisp columns. His funeral was held on a bright and brisk Saturday morning, April 9th. His cousin and some members of his family were able to attend. A touching end to the service was the somber playing of military taps as his body lay at peace.

We are happy to announce the presence of a new observer, Charles Wuebner (age 42). Charles had previously spent some time with us and has now begun the process of closer discernment of his vocation. He was a practicing lawyer in the state of Texas (near Dallas). We ask you to join our prayers that he may respond whole-heartedly to what the Lord is asking of him.

In preparation for the next session of the General Chapter in September of this year, each community has been asked to prepare a house report which will be the subject of the Chapter’s reflections and decisions. The reports are meant to be concise and condensed, while giving a true picture of the concrete reality of each community. Four questions were presented: l) What would you like to share about the life of your community over the last 5 years? Can you share a positive initiative undertaken or an experience your community had in the last 5 years? 2) How do you live communion within your community and with the Order as a whole? 3) Does work, as an important value of our monastic life, help integration in the community and fraternal collaboration? Is it a source of life for each member of the community? 4) What is the impact of secularization and globalization on your common life? The community met one Thursday morning and made suggestions in response to each question. A summary report was drawn up and presented to the community on the next Thursday. With a few minor corrections, this report was accepted and forwarded to the Generalate in Rome well before the due date.