A History of New Melleray
A Miracle of God

Foundation up to the Second World War

The abbey you are visiting is founded on blood and sacrifice. That was over a century and a half ago. Years before the American Civil War. The blood and sacrifice of Trappist monks from Mount Melleray Abbey, Ireland, our mother house. In the late 1840s, ravaged by a famine in Ireland, explorer monks from Mount Melleray sailed to North America in search of monastic sites. They settled on six hundred acres of flowing prairies and timberland on the Iowa frontier east of Dubuque offered by Mathias Loras, the first bishop of our diocese. On September 18, 1849, sixteen others left Ireland and in November sailed up the Mississippi from New Orleans. Six of those founders succumbed to the cholera plague on the journey. The ten remaining monks finally arrived at Dubuque as winter was settling in.

Given the conditions in the first years, you can understand that the pioneers were not really surprised by the departures of novices and postulant and some professed monks. Their love of God and their firm desire to establish a monastery in America left them undaunted. They immediately established good relations with their neighbors and two of the first monks of New Melleray, Clement Smyth and James O’Gorman, were appointed bishops in Iowa and Nebraska.

Blood and sacrifice—and other trials, too. The bitter cold of the winter of 1860 scared away a superior. A decade later a brother’s cattle speculation resulted in a debt of $230,000.00. That would be over four million dollars today. An aging community and a lack of vocations in the early 1900s caused the Order’s abbot general to say that “a miracle from God” was required to keep New Melleray from folding. But the monks continued to farm their land and to build their monastery with limestone they quarried and dressed themselves and gradually young American men began to join the abbey, attracted by the authenticity of the life here. By the eve of World War I the population numbered over fifty monks and in 1950 we were in a position to make a foundation of our own, Assumption Abbey at Ava, Missouri.

Now into the second decade of the twenty-first century, the Irish heritage of friendliness and openness is still alive at New Melleray. We continue through both a return to the sources and a discerning reading of the signs of the times to find ways to integrate the renewal stimulated by the Second Vatican Council with sound monastic tradition.