A change in mission

Posted by on Sep 12, 2004 | No Comments

“You do all you can as a community to heal the victims,” said Hillenbrand, who has written letters of apology. Allowing the offender’s return would be hurtful to those who were harmed, he said.

A change in mission

MARVIN (Argus Leader) – From dawn to dusk, Blue Cloud Abbey’s bell marks the passage of time, wrapping it in 15-minute parcels.

The bell also summons the monks to prayer four times a day, bringing them together from sleep or work or private Scripture reading.

Inside the abbey, Indiana sandstone walls muffle the bell’s tolling. Outside, it peals across the monastery cemetery and over farm fields dotting Whetstone Valley.

The ringing marks the passage of time in this prayer community where residents base their lifestyles on the writings of a sixth-century monk while dealing with the blandishments of a modern world.

The two dozen cloistered Benedictine monks at Blue Cloud have always had God and prayer as a primary focus. But prompted by the declining number of monks that live within its walls, and their age, the abbey has had to narrow even further its religious outreach in recent years.

Once a community of 80, whose members worked in Native American schools and missions as well as in Roman Catholic parishes throughout North and South Dakota, the monks today generally work within the abbey walls.

They continue to staff a mission in Coban, Guatemala, and assist at two area parishes, but otherwise, they offer hospitality and spiritual guidance through a retreat center at the abbey, open to clergy and laypeople. The abbey also has become a haven for recovering alcoholics taking part in 12-step programs.

“We try to be generous with what we have,” said Father George Lyon.

Nationally, the number of monks today is “significantly smaller than in past years,” said Abbot Peter Eberle of Mount Angel Monastery in Oregon. He is the leader of the Benedictine communities with which Blue Cloud is affiliated. “Most monasteries are top-heavy, with lots more older than younger members.”

And the monks’ numbers have dwindled at a faster pace than even diocesan priests.

Catholics see the shortage of priests in their parishes, said Brother Paul-Vincent Niebauer, vocations director at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn. They don’t see the empty rooms at monasteries.

“It’s hard to choose a lifestyle you don’t know exists,” Niebauer said. “The burden is on us to help people understand the life we live.”

St. John’s Abbey in the early 1960s housed more than 400 monks. Now, that number has dropped to fewer than 200.

Still, there are signs of resurgence. Despite the sexual-abuse scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church in recent years, St. John’s University has seen an increase in enrollment. As vocations director, Niebauer also sees a greater interest in community life than he did several years ago.

Blue Cloud Abbey also has some hope for its future.

Brother Michael Peterson, 34, has been accepted as a permanent member of Blue Cloud Abbey. His final profession of vows on Friday was the first at the abbey in 11 years.

Brother Crispin Rork, 42, now a novice, will make his first profession of vows in October, beginning the three-year path to final vows.

“We pray and trust God will send us new recruits,” Lyon said. “If more people knew the beauty of this life and the satisfaction one can find in this life, we wouldn’t be low in membership.”


Benedictine monks came to Dakota Territory in the 1870s to work with native people. The monks opened missions and schools on four reservations.

St. Meinrad Abbey in Indiana supplied the first missionary monks to North and South Dakota. In the late 1940s, the abbey decided to establish a new community in the area and bought 2,000 acres of land in northeast South Dakota.

Most monasteries have clearly distinguished identities, said Sister Mary Forman, who teaches monastic studies at St. John’s University School of Theology. For Blue Cloud, that identity first came in mission work and schools.

Benedict, founder of a prayer community 1,500 years ago, wrote the guidelines by which the monks live, The Rule of St. Benedict. Simply put, it instructs its followers to pray, work and study.

Benedictine monks take vows of obedience, stability and conversion of life.

“Your first obedience is always to God, and that’s why a person joins a monastery,” Abbot Thomas Hillenbrand said. An abbot serves as a monastery’s superior, somewhat like a business’ chief executive officer.

“Then you have to become obedient to the superior and then to the novice master and then … even to one another.”

The vow of stability roots the monk in his community.

“This really becomes your home, and these monks become your brothers, which is really kind of nice,” said Hillenbrand, who has guided Blue Cloud Abbey for almost 12 years.

“You know they care for you and love you and support you, and also that they will probably correct you or get on your nerves at times, and you’ll get on their nerves, just like a family.”

The third vow, conversion of life, is, as Hillenbrand said, “the biggie.” Every morning, the brothers vow to become a better monk, a better Christian, a better Catholic.

“Each day you try to let go of any of those things that might pull you back, any particular sin or any particular vice or evil inclination or passion,” Hillenbrand said.

Later religious orders adopted the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The first two are covered in the Benedictine vows, the abbot said. Poverty is part of their life since they share everything in common. Chastity falls under conversion of life.

Seeking God

Men come to the abbey not to escape the world or marriage, Hillenbrand said. They come to deepen their prayer life and relationship with God.

He acknowledges that a cloistered life is unfathomable to many.

“Without the reality of God, this life would be kind of stupid,” Hillenbrand said.

The most important contributions monastics can make to today’s world is to critique the culture and offer a way of life that says “having is not more important than being,” said Forman, the St. John’s professor.

“Monastics aren’t the only ones addressing those questions, but I think we’ve gotten practice over the centuries with trying to live with those kind of questions and a particular God focus,” she said.

At Blue Cloud Abbey, the monks also keep the abbey going. That includes the upkeep of the building itself, which was built by the monks. For income, the abbey relies on donations from supporters. Neighbors rent the tillable land and pastures. Those who use the retreat center give donations.

Most monks have more than one responsibility, anything from baking bread to mending the habits to gardening. Brother Chris Wesely oversees the greenhouse and the fleet of cars, while Father Christopher Uehlein works in the development office. Brother Rene Wilson is in charge of the infirmary and the kitchen.

But when the prayer bell rings, the monks stop what they’re doing and head to the choir stalls in the church sanctuary where services are held.

Discarding their casual clothing for black habits crossed with leather belts, with sandals or tennis shoes on their feet, the monks recite the psalms at a slow, measured pace. For Eucharistic services, priest-monks don white albs while brother-monks remain in black habits.

The priest-monks, who have been ordained, can say Mass and administer sacraments. “Otherwise we do the same kind of work in the monastery,” Brother Benet Tvedten said. “Priests and brothers both wash dishes.”

Over the years, the guidelines set out in The Rule of St. Benedict have been changed. The monks no longer sleep with a lantern burning all night, nor do they wash the feet of visitors.

But prayer remains the primary focus of their day, which generally begins at 6:45 a.m. with lauds, or morning prayer. Breakfast follows, eaten in silence.

After breakfast they scatter to their assigned tasks.

The monks gather again at 11:30 for Eucharist with day prayer. Vespers, or evening prayer, is 5 p.m. with vigils, or night prayer, at 7:30. The evening meal divides the two; usually the monks eat in silence while one reads aloud from a book.

On Sundays, Eucharist and noon prayer are separated. There is no night prayer on Thursdays. That gives the monks a chance to gather in recreation, Tvedten said.

Tvedten, 68, made his first profession of vows in 1960 and took final vows three years later.

“I went to school with Benedictines at college and fell in love with the Benedictines as soon as I met them,” the North Dakota native said. “There are times when I thought I wanted to leave the monastery, to leave contemplative live, but I have no regrets for having stayed.”

Brother Sebastian Goldade, 62, first entered a seminary in Nebraska when he was 14, shortly after his mother’s death.

“People say I missed something, and maybe I did,” Goldade said. “Maybe if I missed it, that was a good thing.”

For anything they might have missed, the monks at Blue Cloud Abbey say they have gained more by following their vocation.

“We’re very much a part of the world,” Tvedten said.

That world takes them away from the monastery, sometimes for long stays at the mission in Guatemala or to advance their education.

Being a part of the world also means that on Nov. 2, the monks will drive to the polling place in nearby Marvin, Peterson said.

Work among the people

Monks such as Father Stan Maudlin, who worked in Native American ministries for years, have forged lifelong relationships with reservation families.

Maudlin, an Indiana native, first came to South Dakota in 1935 and was ordained in 1942.

“I’m so grateful I lived with the Indian people,” said Maudlin, now 87, with a lung condition that sometimes requires him to use an oxygen tank. “They were victims of racism, but they would take me into their hearts.”

In recognition of his travels through Indian Country, Fort Thompson residents gave him the name “Tikdisni,” which means “Never at Home.”

Fifty-five years ago, Maudlin’s travels took him beyond the reservations to the rolling fields near Marvin, about 35 miles northeast of Watertown. He’d been told to find a place for an abbey.

The monks lived in a farmhouse while they built the three-level abbey. The first chapel was a renovated chicken coop. The first years sometimes proved difficult, Father Julius Armbruster said.

“One of the brothers who was here (at the start) came back and said, ‘You know, we must have been fools to start this place,’ ” said Armbruster, who celebrated the 60th anniversary of his ordination earlier this year.

Father Odilo Burkhardt, now 86, helped build the abbey. From the beginning it stressed hospitality, he said.

“St. Benedict, who wrote our Rule, said there should always be someone at the door to welcome the people who come,” he said. “Monasteries have always been a place where people come to. The idea is for people to be refreshed by talking to the monks.”

Touched by scandal

The sexual-abuse scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church in recent years have brushed the abbey. One monk who admitted to abusing young boys at a North Dakota day school more than a decade ago was removed from the abbey to a secure retreat center. The elderly monk has since asked to come back to the abbey, but Hillenbrand has said no.

“You do all you can as a community to heal the victims,” said Hillenbrand, who has written letters of apology. Allowing the offender’s return would be hurtful to those who were harmed, he said.

As the monks look to the future, some new ministries may take shape.

Brother Paul Friedman, who spent 20 years at the abbey’s mission in Coban, said he expects Hispanic ministry to expand at the abbey as the state becomes home to more Spanish-speaking residents. “We have a loose, informal contact with Hispanics now,” he said.

Blue Cloud Abbey became independent from St. Meinrad in 1954. In the half-century since, the monks have carved their own independent focus.

Their daily operation is independent from the bishop of the Sioux Falls diocese as well, except in matters of liturgy. But years ago, the late Bishop Lambert Hoch did exert his authority in a different area.

After staying several nights at the abbey, listening to the bell toll every 15 minutes, Hoch ordered them silenced in the night hours.

A change in mission
After decades of outreach, activities center at monastery
Jill Callison
Argus Leader