Home/Rod Dreher/The End of Something Beautiful

The End of Something Beautiful

In January, the oldest convent of Benedictine nuns in the United States (it’s in Elk County, PA) announced plans to close:

The convent has 17 remaining members, their ages ranging from 58 to 91. They will move to various other Benedictine residences.

The timetable is yet to be determined, as is a decision about the future use of the property. The sisters own much of the property, while a portion of it is held by St. Vincent Archabbey, a Benedictine monastery in Latrobe, in trust for the adjacent St. Mary’s parish, which will continue operating.

“It’s certainly a loss for the community and for the Benedictine order,” said St. Vincent Archabbot Douglas R. Nowicki. “They’ve been an important part of the Benedictine order for all these years.”

The convent traces its roots in 1852 to the immigration of three Benedictine from Bavaria, Germany, who came at the invitation of the St. Vincent archabbot at the time. They have worked through the generations as teachers and in other roles while also living out a life focused on regular prayer and contemplation.

The above advertisement appeared in the local newspaper today. Everything must go. They are even selling the pews from the chapel.

This makes me sad. I just can’t tell you how sad.

Maybe there is a chance at rebirth. Peter Berger writes about a couple of new laity-led monastic models in Europe today. Excerpt:

The two stories, both dated September 13, 2014, were put under a heading “The New Monasticism”. Story #1, by Liz Dodd, reports further on a development that I had commented upon in an earlier post: the invitation by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, for a group from the Community of Chemin Neuf to live in Lambeth Palace (his historic residence). This project is now taking on a clearer shape. Chemin Neuf was founded in France in 1973 by the Jesuit Laurent Fabre. Originating in a Catholic charismatic prayer group in Lyon, it has now morphed into an international movement that does indeed propose a new model of the monastic life. Affiliates of the movement live together around a daily practice of communal prayer. In that respect the new model of monasticism doesn’t differ much from the classical one. In other respects the difference is radical. There are no vows of permanence, individuals stay for shorter or much longer periods. The mix of people includes clergy and laity, men and women, married couples and singles, Catholics and other Christians. While living in a community, individuals work outside at all sorts of jobs. As of September 2015, twenty individuals will move into Lambeth Palace, and stay for one year. The mix will be much like that of the Chemin Neuf model, though the spirituality will be Benedictine (Welby is a lay affiliate of the Anglican version of that order) rather than Jesuit. The Lambeth experiment will be called the Community of St. Anselm. The name emphasizes its English location, but also the unity of Western Christendom before the great schism of the sixteenth century (Anselm was of Italian origin, a Benedictine monk and one of the fathers of Catholic scholasticism. He was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1033 to 1109).

Story #2, by Riccardo Larini, is about the Community of Bose (a town in Italy), founded in l965 by a Catholic layman, Enzo Bianchi. It is similar to Chemin Neuf in its ecumenical emphasis, though it is closer to the classical model of monasticism in that permanence is assumed. The Community had its origin in the radical student movement of the time and it continues to combine its spirituality with political activism. Its main focus is ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. Bianchi has recently been appointed as an advisor by Pope Francis I. Significantly, Bianchi was a close friend of Roger Schutz, who in 1940 founded the Order of Taize (though it was only called this much later). Schutz was a Swiss Reformed pastor, who during World War II was active in helping Jews escape from Nazi-occupied France to Switzerland. After the war Schutz and a few disciples created a sort of monastery at Taize in the heart of Burgundy. The group developed its own distinctive liturgy, which is congenial to its ecumenical membership—Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox. This too has now become an international order, whose members live and pray together, but disperse into the world in order to work. Taize has become a destination for pilgrims, mostly young people from all over Europe. I was there once, years ago. It is a tranquil place in a hauntingly beautiful landscape.

Take a look at the photo on this AP story about the convent’s closing. It’s a big place. There is agricultural land attached to it.

Is there anyone who would have the means to make this a Benedict Option community, in which Catholic (and perhaps other Christian) families live together in community, and work in the surrounding area? Are there some faithful Benedictine monks who could move into one part of the huge convent, and let the lay faithful — singles and families — turn the other parts into apartments for common living? They could pray the hours and have mass in the chapel.

Somebody, please help. This Pittsburgh-area building dedicated to prayer and community in the Benedictine tradition cannot be allowed to go. Here is a chance to pioneer new ways of monasticism and Christian communal living. Here is a chance to construct a new form “of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.”

Monks of Fontgombault, what say you? Are there any healthy monastic orders who could spearhead this? Are there any faithful singles and families who would be willing to relocate for the prospect of living this way? Share this with the people you know. Let’s see if we can get something going.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

leave a comment