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.

Memorial Mass for Fr. Xavier

On May 7 at 1:00 PM we will have a Memorial Mass in memory of Fr. Xavier Dieter. He died on March 3 and requested a private funeral and burial. Having counseled many men and women over the years, and having worked with our neighbors even longer, providing replacement black angus cattle for their herds, we expect a large number of friends to come for the celebration of Father’s life. A large tent will be provided for an outdoor Mass in front of our Guest House, with food afterwards. All are invited to join us for this remembrance and prayers for Fr. Xavier.

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.

March Information

There has been a bit of a hiatus in the posting of new information. A new method of entering posts has been introduced and the poster (boy) needed some education and upgrading. The flood of events has itself delayed posting. Add to this a severe case of procrastination, and the result could have been predicted.

Moving backwards in time, we can begin with last Sunday’s joyful event of the reception of a new novice. Fittingly occurring on Laetare Sunday, Br. Charles Ross received the novice’s habit as a member of the community. Together with the habit, he chose to be henceforth called “Br. Philip.” The novice has the option of retaining his baptismal name or assuming a new name to signify the fundamental change that monastic life and conversatio will demand of his person. Br. Philip is 43 years old and most recently lived in Clinton, Iowa. He served in the U.S. Marines for four years and then worked as a mechanical engineer. He visited New Melleray a number of times before deciding to join the community. He is mature, deeply committed to following Christ and to placing his trust in God as he meets Him in our community life. We ask prayers that the grace and Spirit of Christ may be alive in his life.

On Tuesday, March 22nd, our senior monk Fr. James O’Connor (97) fell in his room. Although sometimes a little shaky in his movements, he walked unaided and freely explored first floor areas of the monastery. The severe pain he experienced demanded that he be brought to the hospital for X-rays, and a small fracture was discovered. This was repaired by an operation that evening, and he came through with flying colors. However, his hearing is severely impaired and he was unresponsive to therapy. Since we would be unable to provide the care he would need, he has been transferred to a local nursing home in Cascade. We will have to see if he can resume walking and sufficient independence to return with us.

Most will have seen the notice of Fr. Xavier’s death on March 3rd. He had been becoming weaker due to the spread of his cancer and was finally unable to stand by himself. He was bed-ridden for the final two weeks of his life. We called in Hospice to assist in caring for him. He died in the evening as the community was singing the office of Compline: Lord, now let your servant go in peace. Since the guest house and church were still closed because of the presence of COVID in the community, we celebrated a private funeral service and will have a memorial for him later in the spring. Because of a heavy rain, we had to delay the actual burial for an hour after mass was completed. The skies temporarily cleared and we were able to conclude our service. Knowing that the church was closed, he himself expressed the wish for a memorial mass to be celebrated when his family and friends could attend. He was widely known in the area and directed a number of AA and addiction groups.

Last year, the annual community retreat had to be cancelled because of the COVID virus. But this year, we were able to resume this practice from March 18th to the 23rd, under the direction of Dom Innocent Ugyeh, the superior of our Cistercian monastery of Calvaire, Canada. As his name may indicate, he is of Nigerian birth but has been a member of Calvaire for some years. He was very energetic and enthusiastic and offered conferences which focused on the ways in which the Holy Spirit works in the lives of Christians and monks.

After two years of escaping attacks of the COVID virus, six monks tested positive for the virus. Two were severely ill. We closed the guest house and church and curtailed our monastic schedule to limit personal contact and spreading the virus. We celebrated Lauds, the Eucharist, Dinner and Vespers in common. All the other hours were prayed in private. Several monks did gather at 3:30 a.m. in church for Vigils, but found their own ways to pray the office. We then reopened the church and guest house on March 21st, after our retreat had concluded.

Fr. Brendan was able to attend the General Chapter (Part I) at Assisi from the 2nd to the 23rd of February. The main business was the election of a new Abbot General, Dom Bernardus Peeters of Tilburg, Netherlands. New members of his council were also chosen. Part II of the Chapter will be held from September 1-29, 2022. Communities are being asked to prepare house reports which will be read and discussed at this Chapter. Those who participated in this Chapter seemed very enthusiastic about the spirit of cooperation and openness that pervaded the meetings.

COVID ATTACK

Four more monks have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week. Fr. Brendan has decided to close the Guesthouse, Church and Gift Shop to the public until at least the end of February, for the protection of both our monks and our guests.

Beginning the New Year

The month of January has reintroduced us to the hard realities of severe winter weather:  plenty of snow and frigid temperatures.  The weather has made traveling hazardous, and one of the monks can personally vouch for its dangers.  While returning to the monastery from  celebrating the eucharist  for our sisters at Mississippi Abbey, Fr. Jonah had the misfortune of sliding into a snow plow.  He was on the monastery road and within sight of the monastery itself when he attempted to pass the plow.  He skidded into the back of the plow and severely dented the door on the passenger side of the car.  Fortunately, he was not hurt and the driver of the plow didn’t even realize contact had been made.  The door has since been repaired and the car is back in service.

We began the month with our annual corporation meeting for Trappist Caskets on January seventh.  We are incorporated as a 501(d) group for the purposes of paying our dues and taxes to the Internal Revenue Service.  This is a tax category which can apply to communal groups (e.g., Hutterites, Amish) who share an industry’s profits, without the individuals having personal access to these funds.  It does require that we meet at least once a year, elect officers, and review business minutes.   Enough monks were present to insure that we had a quorum for the meeting.  It was chaired by Davin Curtiss, one of the attorneys of the firm of O’Connor and Thomas who have represented us for many years.  The weather and precautions due to COVID prevented the presence of some of our advisors, so the discussions were brief and decisions were swift.

COVID did finally gain entrance into our cloister.  Fr. Brendan, our superior, seems to have contracted the virus  and tested positive after evidencing some symptoms.  The unconfirmed source might well have been contact with our sisters at Mississippi.  Four of the nuns there tested positive and the community went into quarantine.  Fr.  Brendan himself has kept in quarantine in the house and is waiting for a negative test before reappearing in the community.  This has slowed down efforts at community and council meetings.  The regular information meeting was not convened again this month.   

During the cold weather, some interior areas of the monastery are being repainted and old and stained  carpeting is being removed.  Most of the carpeting was installed in the 1970’s and has absorbed the wear and accidents of the years.

Closing of the Year

The final days of December lead us into the celebration of the Nativity of Christ and the manifestation of God’s gift of love to all people.  He abides with us as the constant offer of peace, harmony and love  among all peoples and with the creation he renews to sustain us.  We wish the blessings of this season to all and pray that the New Year will be a time of peace and good will.

Fr. Brendan has returned from Ireland and officially became our superior ad nutum. He was appointed by Dom Peter McCarthy, our Father Immediate, after consultation with the community.  Fr. Brendan assumed office on December 1st, several days after his return.  He has appointed Fr. Ephrem as prior and Br. Paul Andres as sub-prior.  These will be members of the superior’s council.  Also appointed to the council were Fr. Stephen and Fr. David. Br. Joseph was chosen by the community to be its elected representative.  The Constitutions of the Order  (Cst 38) say The abbot’s council is composed of  at least three brothers of whom at least one is elected by the community. While larger than than some previous councils, it will give a broader level of experience to help in the decisions that will have to be made in the imminent future.

Unfortunately, Fr. Brendan was in contact with someone who was diagnosed with Covid.  He is now in quarantine in the community and will not be able to share in our Christmas celebrations.  Fr. Ephrem, the prior, will have to stand in for him at midnight mass.  The closing of the guest house for the Christmas holidays (from December 20 to January 3rd) now serves a double purpose in limiting contact during this time of increased Covid infections.  Although we will open again on January 3rd, we are limiting the guest house to half occupancy (14) and request use of masks and that retreatants be vaccinated.  The monks have received booster shots this December. The annual Christmas party that is held for our employees was cancelled again this year because of Covid.  It had been a good opportunity for the community to meet and thank our employees for their generous service.

The reconstruction work on the south side of the monastery building has been successfully completed.  Deteriorating cement was replaced and rubberized covering installed to prevent leaking into basement areas.  The work was somewhat delayed because of a saw which had to be replaced.  Fortunately, good weather prevailed for most of the work time and the job was completed before hard frosts began.  A ramp which had descended rather steeply into the basement area was leveled so that an entry can be made on even ground from the outer area.  We welcomed the end to the sounds of drilling and jackhammering.  Some damage was inflicted on trees surrounding the abbey during some severe wind storms in late fall.  The damage was cleaned up, and several dead trees were removed to make room for new plantings.  The cedar fence demarcating the enclosure in front of the guest house was also completed while the weather remained mild.

New Superior for New Melleray

Ever since the termination of Dom Mark Scott’s term as abbot, the monastery has been operating without a local superior, in what is called sede vacante.  The pandemic had prevented the return of Dom Peter McCarthy, our designated Father Immediate, to proceed with the selection of a superior.  In the meantime, Fr. Stephen had been delegated by Dom Peter to act locally in his place as superior of the house.

Dom Peter, accompanied by Dom Gerard D’Souza of Genesee Abbey, was able to return for a Pastoral Visit on Monday, October 4th.  Since Dom Peter is canonically the local superior, he cannot “visit himself” in the context of a Regular Visitation.  Hence, it was a “Pastoral Visit” although it served as a Regular Visitation of the community.  For two days, Dom Gerard and Dom Peter met personally with each member of the community, focusing on the question of the suitability of an election at this time and who would be the person most capable of meeting the particular needs of the community at this time as its superior.

There was strong agreement that an election would not be appropriate at this time, and the consultation concerning the person who should be appointed superior led to the selection of Dom Brendan Freeman.  He has been appointed superior by Dom Peter after the consultation of all the brothers.  He generously consented to assume this responsibility. Since he is still superior of Mellifont Abbey in Ireland, he will have to return there to close that relationship.  The appointment will this be effective only on December 1, 2021.  As many will remember, Dom Brendan served as our abbot from 1984-2003 when he retired having reached the canonical age limit of 75. We ask prayers for him and for the community as we move into the future God is preparing for us.

September Information

The “September Information Forum” was convened on the last day of the month, allowing the community to exchange items of mutual interest occurring in the monastery.  We are preparing for the pastoral visit of Dom Peter McCarthy of Guadalupe Abbey who will celebrate the mass of the Holy Spirit with us on Tuesday, October 5th.  He will be accompanied by Dom Gerard D’Souza who knows the community from a past visitations and a retreat he directed with us.  Dom Brendan Freeman is also visiting with us while he is in the country and will be here for the sessions which will be important in moving us into the future.

Fr. David gave a brief report on Br. Robert Simon who is presently in a local nursing home.  Br. Robert is suffering from a form of dementia which affects his ability to make good decisions about his movements and has fallen a number of times.  He has been receiving some physical  therapy and we hope to welcome him back to the community when the care we can provide will be adequate to his needs.  He seems quite content with the service and attention he has been receiving at the nursing home.

The Guest House is still planning to re-open on October 15th.  There had been some question about reconsidering this in view of the recent resurgence of COVID cases.  We hope that our guests will be considerate of others in taking all necessary precautions against spreading this virus.  Until December, we are limiting occupancy to twelve guests.  All the rooms are booked until December when there are a few openings.  The Guest House will be closed for the Christmas holidays from December 20th until January 3rd. All the rooms will now be fitted with new locks and keys.  In the past, doors could only be locked when a guest was in the room.  There were frequent emergencies of guests having inadvertently locked themselves out of a room.  Now, each guest will receive a key upon registration.  WE BEG AND BESEECH THEM TO RETURN THE KEY upon leaving.  Cursing psalms may be invoked for offenders.

Br. Cyprian is the current guest master, although Ms Carol Freiberger has taken the new position of “Guest Service Manager.”  In addition to arranging for reservations, she will supervise all the Guest House personnel in the kitchen, cleaning, etc.

Construction work on the veranda on the south side of the monastery is nearly completed.  There have been several weeks of serious jackhammering and sandblasting to reconstruct areas where the structure had deteriorated.  A rubber matting is being installed to prevent leaks into the guest house kitchen area.  The walls are being painted and limestone facing will be put over the pillars to raise the whole project to aesthetic heights.

The power washing of the limestone exterior of the monastery buildings has been completed, and the crosses in the cemetery were also cleansed from years of accumulated dirt, moss, and lichen.  Not lichen good.  The various storm sewers around the buildings will also be cleaned and flushed out.  Dirt and debris accumulate over the years and can provide comfortable and affordable housing for wandering groundhogs.  The new cedar fence between the monastery and farm entrance is nearing completion and makes neat boundary between the guest area and monastic enclosure.  It is, however,  not high enough to be a challenge for vaulting deer who exercise rights of eminent domain.

The former McAndrew house which we had been renting to a neighbor (now deceased) was not considered to be worth an effort at renovation.  We offered it to the local fire department to use as practice for their operations.  They accepted this offer, and will have a controlled fire this coming month.  This is a win-win situation, since burning the house will save us a considerable amount in demolition and hauling.