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Religion: Georgia’s Trappists

4 minute read

A cinemactress’s southern plantation last week became a Trappist monastery. To Conyers, Ga., 30 miles northeast of Atlanta, came 20 monks (10 priests, 3 clerics or students, 7 lay brothers), all members of the Roman Catholic Church’s strictest monastic order (Trappists do not converse with one another). For $45,000 they bought 1,464-acre Honey Creek Plantation, which formerly belonged to old-time filmstar Colleen Moore. Said Atlanta’s Catholic attorney Hughes Spalding to liquor dealer Mercer Harbin, who sold the farm : “Now, Mercer, I don’t want you trying to cheat them.” Replied Harbin: “No, sir, that old Abbot looks like he could pray me into Hell in five minutes.”

The Trappists came to densely Protestant Georgia by daycoach from the largest of the three Trappist monasteries in the U.S. — Our Lady of Gethsemani, near Louisville, Ky. All were bearded, except the abbot (he alone can shave), the youngest was 30, the oldest 56. They arrived at night in torrents of rain, went to bed on the floor of the large two-story, white brick barn.

Work and Prayer. Next day the monks started to convert the barn into the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Ghost. For the traditional Trappist common dormitory they constructed cells of wallboard (4½ by 7 feet), threw their hard straw mattresses on wooden planks. They sleep in their monastic habits (white and black for priests, brown for lay brothers), taking off only their shoes. They go to bed at 7 p.m. An alarm clock wakes them at 2 a.m., when the austere Trappist day begins with two hours of prayers. At 4 Holy Mass is offered. At 5:30 comes Prime, one of the monastic offices of praise. From 6 to 7:45 the monks study (the three clerics are studying to become priests), and from 7:45 to 9 there is High Mass, which all attend. From 9 to 10:45 the brethren work in the fields or about the monastery. Then there is another monastic office. Dinner is at 11:30. From 12 to 1:30 there is another study period, followed by two more hours of labor. Vespers comes at 4:30, and at 5:30 a meal of bread, fruit and soybean coffee.

(Trappists never eat fish, meat or eggs unless they are ill.) Prayers from 6 to 7 close the Trappist day.

The newcomers expect about 20 more monks from Kentucky to join them. They will carry on the agricultural life for which the Cistercians (of which the Trappists are a part) have been famous since the Order was founded in 11th Century France. The Georgia brothers will raise Holstein cattle, pigs, poultry, grains, vegetables. They also hope to pro duce the Kentucky abbey’s famed Port du Salut cheese.

Signs and Silence. To get the Georgia brethren on their feet, Abbot Frederic Mary* Dunne came with the monks from Kentucky. But he will soon leave the Abbey in charge of Father Mary James Fox as superior. As superior, Father Fox is dispensed from the rule of silence, but like other Trappists he is not allowed to face a newscamera. The guestmaster may also speak (to guests) and the procurator may speak to tradesmen. Any monk can speak to the superior, but if he wishes to communicate with a brother he uses a simplified sign language. Only the abbot can read newspapers, or listen to the radio. If there is some worldly matter he thinks the brothers should know, he can tell them about it. The monks may write relations and receive occasional mail from them.

Abbot Dunne, who ranks as a Bishop, wears an episcopal ring, was born in Ohio (1874), went to school in Atlanta. He was the second native-born American, to enter Gethsemani, had to learn French to understand the rest of the monks.

When lean, ruddy, affable Abbot Dunne became abbot in 1935 there were 72 brethren at Gethsemani; today there are 151. Trappists in the U.S. total 275. Most men who enter are quite young (15 to 20). The Order does not normally draw professional men, but Superior Mary James Fox (Harvard ’18, cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa), who entered the Order 17 years ago, worked for the U.S. Treasury, after Naval service during World War I. “I was all ready to become a millionaire,” he says, “when I felt a force turning me the other way.”

Abbot Dunne has 18 applications from men now in service who want to try their vocations as Trappists after the war.

* At their profession all Trappists take the name of Mary. The Order has a special devotion to the Virgin.

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