Tides of June

The steady fall of rain has become a regular feature of life here in Iowa, with its drumbeat on our church roof drowning out softer voices rising from within. Rivers have been rising and causing havoc in certain areas. The benefits to crops generally outweigh any damage done.

We have begun a collaborative project in education/formation with the sisters of Mississippi Abbey. A series of classes on Christian anthropology is being presented by Rev. Doug Wathier, a retired professor of Loras College. The first class was given on Monday, June 1st, in the afternoon at Mississippi Abbey. Two carloads of monks rode over to the Abbey for a joint session. Then, on Tuesday morning, the sisters drove over to New Melleray for a second joint session. After celebrating Sext in church, we had dinner together in our refectory at the end of the morning. This is part of an effort to take advantage of mutually energizing our communities by sharing various activities. No two other monasteries in our country are so geographically near and it is a bonus to be able to share in our charism and Cistercian way of life.

In his first lectures, Fr. Wathier exposed the gradual development of reflection on the understanding of humanity in the light of the Incarnation of Christ, moving from the Apostolic Fathers, Irenaeus to Augustine. An understanding of Christian anthropology is influenced by how one interprets doctrines of free will, original sin, and the redemptive atonement of Christ. The way of life one follows is a continuing existential interpretation of fundamental beliefs. Classes are planned for once a month.

On Sunday, June 23rd, we celebrated the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick in our Chapter Room. Six members of the community received the sacrament in the supportive circle of their brothers. The rite invoked the healing presence of Christ to bestow His grace and support to the infirm and aged.

On that same day, several sisters came over from Mississippi Abbey to help us celebrate the birthday of Fr. Brendan. They supplied the cake, while we provided the ice cream. Perhaps this is sharing a charism, in an extended sense.

The Information Forum reviewed several projects afoot in the community. New windows will be installed on the first floor (around the kitchen and wardrobe). After this is done, we will decide about moving up to the second floor. Another Come-and-See weekend for vocation promotion is being planned for the fall. It is a little early to hear any response from the recent weekend.

May Days

May was another full month. We even managed to include an Information Forum meeting at the end of the month to bring everyone au courant with happenings. A number of major liturgical feasts occur during the month, and they call for extra preparation. Some new windows are still in the planning stage. They will replace windows which do not have adequate insulation. Several of the younger monks joined some of the sisters at Mississippi Abbey for a walk which explored trails on their property. We have been exploring various ways to share experiences with our sisters, including a program of studies this coming month.

Five men participated in our Come and See Weekend for vocational discernment, May 24-26. Their ages ranged from the mid-20’s to the mid-40’s. It was encouraging to see that number of men interested in pursuing religious life. They shared in monastic life and several discussions with members of the community, learning the steps of inclusion and integration into a monastic community. We are currently hosting a candidate in the community who had participated in a former Come and See Weekend. He will be with us for six weeks as a time to look more closely at the experience of monastic life.

On May 16th, the monastery hosted a Field Day for the Iowa Woodland Owners Association (IOWA). Approximately one hundred persons came from central and eastern Iowa to listen to presentations and view some of the land management initiatives employed here. This included a visit to beaver dams on our property which offer a natural way to restore wetlands. The beavers declined an invitation to join us for lunch.

Fr. Alberic Maisog of Assumption Abbey spent another month with us, and graciously presided at liturgies here at New Melleray and over at Mississippi Abbey. He always offers well-prepared homilies. He has consented to return four times a year for a month to assist us in meeting the demands of our eucharistic and pastoral ministry.

Fr. Brendan attended the U.S. Regional meeting of the superiors of our Order. This was held at Villa Maria del Mare in California from the 22nd to 29th of May. This location, near San Jose, offered rooms with views of the ocean. It is a loss to local communities to be unable to host these meetings (as was often done in the past). They had been an opportunity for exchange with more members and different communities of our region. A storm moved into the San Jose area before Fr. Brendan was able to fly out, and his return was tormented and delayed by a litany of mishaps and frustrations that would dismay the most intrepid of travelers. He did return home, two days late.

March into April

The final days of April offered the opportunity to resume our monthly Information Meeting. In March, Holy Week activities exhausted time and space for that sharing. We were able to communicate about recent activities and developments around the abbey.

A Come and See vocation discernment weekend is planned for the 24th – 26th of May. Six men have indicated an interest in participating in this weekend program. We hope that they will be able to include this in their schedules. One other man is due to join the community for a six week observer program while living within the community. We pray for the light and fire of the Spirit to guide them all in this Easter season.

General maintenance continues with spraying the outside of the church wing to deter assaults by flies and bugs. A project to replace a number of windows in the monastery buildings is in early stages. The older windows fail to regulate the flow of heat and cold with any regard for human occupancy, and some are permanently fixed in place. This is a project which will take some time to gradually complete.

Many new trees have been planted, most in connection with conservation efforts. The high winds have overturned trees and scattered dead branches which now need to be cleaned up. The plan is to purchase a wood chipper and gradually remove the debris. The garden is beginning to yield its fruit: asparagus and rhubarb are first to reach the kitchen.

July 16th will be the 175th anniversary of the founding of our community, and we are still trying to determine appropriate ways to celebrate the day. It should be a day of thanksgiving to our local church, to the sisters of Mississippi Abbey, to our employees, and to all those who have supported us over the years. We may need to have several days and ways to share the celebration of our thanks to God and friends and neighbors.

On March 22nd, we had the joy and honor of a visit from our new archbishop, Thomas Zinkula. He celebrated the Eucharist with us, and then spent some time in an informal discussion with the community. He asked each monk to tell where he had come from and the vocation story that had brought him to New Melleray.

The sisters from Mississippi Abbey joined us in the abbey church for the celebration of the Easter Vigil. A number of guests joined us for the service which began at 4;30 a.m. and ended almost two hours later. The monks and nuns then shared refreshments and concluded this part of the morning with a common celebration of Easter Lauds at 7:30.

Our community has been enlarged by the addition of Fr. Jerome Machar, a monk of Genesee Abbey, who arrived on April 8th. He will be with us for an indefinite period. He comes with a wide range of experience. Currently, he is still recuperating from knee surgery and uses a cane for walking. But he is already presiding at liturgy, filling in as confessor and in the guest house reception.

February News

With a bonus day for the month of February, we were able to schedule an Information Forum and catch up on local occurrences. Not everything merits the title of an event. We will be losing two visiting monks, who will be departing on the morning of March 1st. Fr. Donal Davis will be returning to Mount Melleray in Ireland after a temporary visit begun last November. And Fr. Alberic Maisog will be returning to Assumption Abbey in Ava, Missouri after having spent a month with us. Fr. Alberic is officially a member of our community, but he chose to remain at Assumption Abbey after it was transferred to the Cistercians of the Common Observance. He agreed to divide his time between the two monasteries by coming to New Melleray four times a year to help us with pastoral ministry by celebrating the Eucharist here and over at Mississippi Abbey. The addition of their services added variety and depth to our liturgy, and we are grateful to them.

We also hosted three sisters from Mississippi Abbey from February 20th – 26th. They shared our life and liturgy, adding their presence and energy by increasing a sense of mutuality in living Cistercian life. They greatly helped to bring order to our novitiate library which had fallen into some neglect. And they took advantage of pleasant weather by pruning some apple and walnut trees. We have been moving into a greater level of cooperation with our sisters, especially in the areas of initial and ongoing formation.

On February 6th, we held our annual Board of Directors meeting for Trappist Caskets. The community is the legal owner of Trappist Caskets and is required by law to meet each year, elect officers and pass official motions. The meeting was very efficiently run by one of our lawyers and included representatives of the management of Trappist Caskets. It has now been in operation for 25 years and continues to be a successful venture.

We are planning a meeting of the liturgy committee this week to make preparations for Holy Week. Visitors are already asking about our schedule for Holy Week. Other than the fact that it will be like last year, no specific schedule as been determined. Stay tuned.

Several men have recently expressed interest in pursuing vocations at the Abbey, and they are scheduled for visits in the next months. We still have two men here as long term guests, and another is expected next month. The A.I.C. (Associates of Iowa Contemplative) continues to be a dedicated group, meeting here once a month. About 25 persons normally come for these sessions.

The superior gave a report on the contributions the community has made to needs in the church. One of the largest was a gift to the sisters who had been forced from Nicaragua to refound their community in Panama. Major renovation work was completed in our Guest House kitchen, including new ovens and air conditioning. Some new washers and driers are now available in our laundry and a new car (hybrid) was purchased to replace an older model. Over 40,000 new trees were planted last year, topping an average planting of 10,000.

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.