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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 [1]:

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. [2] 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 [3] 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.

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18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "The End of Something Beautiful"

#1 Comment By BP On October 14, 2014 @ 12:59 pm

As a protestant, all I can say is your enthusiasm for monasticism is misguided. For details as to why, refer to Martin Luther’s critiques of the practice.

#2 Comment By Myron Hudson On October 14, 2014 @ 1:52 pm

If the Benedictines are like mainstream Catholics, then maybe the order could spend as much on the females as it does on the males. The nuns live penuriously compared to their counterparts – the argument of course is that they signed on for it.

#3 Comment By charles cosimano On October 14, 2014 @ 2:18 pm

I wonder if the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are interested in a convent. (Sorry, I just could not resist it.)

#4 Comment By Molly On October 14, 2014 @ 2:31 pm

Sounds like a kibbutz….

#5 Comment By Chris 1 On October 14, 2014 @ 2:51 pm

Chemin Neuf was founded in France in 1973 by the Jesuit Laurent Fabre.

New to you, perhaps, but more than 40 years old…and founded by a Jesuit, no less! 😉

#6 Comment By Chris 1 On October 14, 2014 @ 2:53 pm

Example #2 is older: Community of Bose (a town in Italy), founded in l965 by a Catholic layman, Enzo Bianchi.

These are not “new models” but successful old ones. Perhaps instead of re-inventing the wheel it’s worth examining what they’re doing right.

#7 Comment By Alex On October 14, 2014 @ 2:58 pm

This Pittsburgh-area building dedicated to prayer and community in the Benedictine tradition cannot be allowed to go.

Um, St. Mary’s, PA (where this convent is located) is not really “Pittsburgh-area”, unless you think that West Feliciana counts as “New-Orleans-area”. St. Mary’s is 120 miles away from Pittsburgh; it’s almost exactly that same distance away from Buffalo, NY. The closest major population center would be State College, PA (75 miles away), but that just emphasizes the fact that this town really is out in the middle of nowhere. Getting jobs in “the surrounding area” is a challenge these days when jobs in small towns are tough to come by.

#8 Comment By Jon S. On October 14, 2014 @ 2:59 pm

Rod,

We had a Benedictine monastery close here in South Dakota. A group of local Catholics made a big sacrifice and bought the property. It too has some agricultural land. They are keeping it open as a retreat and Catholic event center. It can be done, but you need some “angels.”

#9 Comment By Mark Logsdon On October 14, 2014 @ 3:57 pm

Michael to Rod: > “…tell your readers what you are doing in St. Francisville, to build your “Benedict Option.” [19 Aug 13]

Remains a good question, surely.

Still hoping to hear how the Benedict Option helps us with Matthew 25:36-40, or the rest of Chapter 25, come to that. I know that doesn’t have much to say about sex, or liturgies, or good beer, but those are not the matters the Father raises as between himself and the sheep and the goats. At least as I read it. So, really, do we not need to worry about such matters?

Mark L.

#10 Comment By mgregoire On October 14, 2014 @ 4:42 pm

In Thailand, all men are expected to pass a period of time — a year or so as I recall –, in a Buddhist monastery. Not the easiest sell in our modern world, and disruptive I’m sure for the people who’ve made permanent vows, but such a practice would I think do a great deal to deepen the faith of Christians, and encourage more vocations to the religious life as well.

#11 Comment By Elijah On October 14, 2014 @ 4:51 pm

Alex is right – you better be bringing a supporting job with you, because there isn’t much out there, other than some enormous state forests! Not the most hospitable area for self-sufficiency, either.

#12 Comment By Sam M On October 14, 2014 @ 5:21 pm

Alex,

You are right about St. Marys in terms of geography, but your views on the economy might be misplaced. A recent New York Times study on social mobility identified the region as a stronghold of middle-class wages.

[4]

Excerpt from the link:

“•St. Marys stands out among all the Pennsylvania regions on all three of our upward mobility measures. The chance of a St. Marys child in the bottom fifth rising to the top fifth is 12.9%. The average income percentile of St. Marys children who grow up at the 10th percentile is 44. And St. Marys children whose parents’ income were in the bottom half of the distribution have an average income percentile as adults of 48.4 — very nearly the U.S. median. Appendix Table A1 also shows that St. Marys has a stunningly large middle class — 70% of children in St. Marys grew up in households with incomes between the U.S. 25th percentile and the U.S. 75th percentile. The upward mobility indicators for the Altoona and Williamsport commuting regions are only slightly below those of St. Marys.”

Moreover, St. Marys might be the most Catholic place in America. More than 20 percent of local students are in the Catholic school system. Go to this link and scroll down to the map about religiosity by county, which sort of confirms the suspicion:

[5]

Not too far fetched to think that the nuns had at least something to do with this.

PS: You can still graduate from high school and get a job at a local plant and expect to make more than a house costs.

I say it’s a good place for some monks and their following families to set up shop.

#13 Comment By RadicalCenter On October 14, 2014 @ 6:30 pm

This is not meant to be mere nasty snarkiness, but a serious observation: the Church has spent at least tens of millions of dollars settling priest-pedophile cases, many of which involved higher-ups hiding such sick and cruel crimes against children for years and transferring the perpetrators to new parishes.

That money would have funded these nuns’ retirement and kept this property in church hands, and then some.

Another point: numerous parishes we have attended around the USA and Canada over the past few decades, collect money from parishioners for missions and charitable work in Haiti and Africa. A tiny fraction of monies thus raised would keep this property in church hands and fund the nuns’ retirement right here in America.

I guess, despite being a Catholic, I have an issue with not placing America and Americans first — or at least not LAST — among the church’s charitable priorities.

#14 Comment By Ben in SoCal On October 15, 2014 @ 6:11 am

For one, I blame the countless millions spent on the sex abuse crisis, and I also blame this on the abandonment of the notion of “lex orandi, lex credendi” in modern Western Catholicism. We don’t believe in beauty anymore, as a whole.

Modern Catholicism is a bad joke.

#15 Comment By grumpy realist On October 15, 2014 @ 5:59 pm

I wonder if they could re-invent themselves slightly and provide some sort of retreat and refuge from a stressing world for those of us needing a break. I would love a week away from work, eating simple food, working the garden, helping with simple labor. I seem to remember quite a few Zen Buddhist retreats exist in Upstate New York. Maybe something along those lines?

(I also think it’s a shame that the Church can’t find the money to continue keeping this place going. We NEED places like this, even if most of us don’t enter them.)

#16 Comment By RadicalCenter On October 15, 2014 @ 6:52 pm

Excellent idea by grumpyrealist. I’ll take a MONTH there.

#17 Comment By Macrina Walker On October 18, 2014 @ 3:13 am

I do wish that people would stop referring to Bose as an example of “new monasticism” – they are in fact a perfectly traditional monastic community, if in something of a new guise, and have rejected the option of married members etc. Moreover, one could argue that being “lay led” is more traditional than some other expressions, which confused priesthood and monasticism. Saint Benedict, after all, was not ordained, but he was most definitely a monk.

#18 Comment By TBOU On October 18, 2014 @ 3:41 pm

BP’s view of monasticism doesn’t apparently jive with contemporary protestant theological thought…

[6]

“Beginning with a brief history and introduction to the life of Teresa of Ávila, Dr. Tigchelaar quickly moved into the Reformers’ critique of monasticism, which is tied directly to their teachings on vocation…. It is important to recognize that this assessment is not a rejection of monasticism, but rather a critique of it.”

“The subsequent picture of monastic life under Teresa of Ávila’s reforms looks remarkably like the “proper and good monasticism” described by Luther and Calvin.”