Chicago Catholics, ever wonder what its like on the inside of a Catholic monastery? Wonder no further. Today’s article is a visual guide and hour-and-hour recap of a recent trip that Chicago area Catholics made to a nearby Wisconsin monastery for eastern Catholic monks. The road trip took place on Wednesday, August 12, 2015, and your Chicago Catholic Examiner was among the attendees. What was it like spending a day with the monks? Let’s take a look.
The bus departed from Homer Glen, Illinois, with a group of about twenty-five faithful Catholics from two parishes. On board for the trip were three Catholic priests (from Homer Glen, Illinois, Mokena, Illinois, and Whiting, Indiana, respectively), and a deacon. While en route to Wisconsin, the group sang Marian hymns.
After two rest stops, the bus arrived safely in the small picturesque town of St. Nazienz, Wisconsin. Upon arriving at Holy Resurrection Monastery, our tour group was met by Abbott Nicholas, the head monk of Holy Resurrection. Abbott Nicholas grew up in Sydney, Australia, and spoke with a faint Aussie accent. He is a cheerful, down-to-earth man who sports a full white beard and black robes, reminding one of Gandalf and other wise wizards from famous adventure stories. Abbott Nicholas gave an overview of the monastery, the schedule of the day, and the locations of the restrooms, then invited the group to join the monks for their afternoon prayer service, known as the Trithekti.
The visiting priests and deacon lead the group in the afternoon prayer, and were joined by the monks. The chapel for worship at the monastery is extremely ornate but also quite small, and it was difficult to squeeze all visitors into the same room. Nearby hallways were filled with icons, candles, religious relics, and holy books.
With the prayer service concluded, the monks invited their Chicago visitors to join them downstairs for lunch. The monks eat lunch promptly at noon each day. Because its is a holy week with the Feast of the Dormition (Assumption of Mary), the monks are abstaining from all meat products. The lunch consisted of a very filling meal of lentil soup, mixed green salad, homemade baked bread, spicy pasta and bean salad, and mixed fruit bowl. Coffee, water, and pop was available in coolers. One visitor remarked that if this was the monk’s idea of fasting, we should fast every day, because it was a very hearty meal.
Abbott Nicholas took the group upstairs to a large open room where he promised to give only a brief, one-hour talk about where monastic traditions come from and the monks role in the Catholic Church, because “if I go on any longer, I might bore you.”. He kept to his word, but everyone in the room was extremely engaged by the end of the talk and wished it could have lasted longer. Abbott Nicholas ended up with several spirited discussions with visitors when he answered questions about why eastern Catholic monks dress like Orthodox monks (its because they come from the same cultural tradition, and were allowed to revert to their traditional dress after Vatican II), his thoughts on whether Pope Francis will allow divorced Catholics to receive communion (Abbott Nicholas believes the media is hyping the idea, but in reality the Pope cannot make such a unilateral change and won’t do so, instead, as the first non-European Pope in centuries, he is trying to bring a more inclusive culture to the Catholic Church and make it so divorced people hear the Gospel and come to Jesus Christ), and he explained a very interesting history of where different types of Christian traditions come from. Surprisingly, we ran out of time before he could discuss the daily life of a monk at the Holy Resurrection.
The bus returned and Abbott Nicholas invited all of his guests to join him for a drive-thru tour around the town of St. Nazienz. After the bus departed, stops included the town’s village hall, school, hospital, and church, where Abbott Nicholas gave a fascinating history of the town. He explained that St. Nazienz has a unique place in American history as the first and only planned Catholic utopian community in the United States. Father Ambrose Oschwald, a Roman Catholic priest from Germany, lead a group of German immigrants to the area in 1854, where they founded a religious colony from nothing. The town is thus named in honor of Gregory of Nazianzus, a Doctor of the Church and Catholic saint who died in 390 A.D. Fr. Oschwald died in 1873. Years later, his body was moved to a shrine near Loreto Shrine Chapel in the village, where it was found to be incorrupt (he still looked like he was sleeping, many years after he died). Salvatorian priests and brothers came to St. Nazianz in 1896 to fulfill Fr. Oschwald’s dream of a utopian Catholic town. They build St. Ambrose Church in 1898, naming it honor of the town’s founder, Fr. Ambrose Oschwald.
Arriving at the cemetery, the bus parked for the tour group to step off and tour the site. Abbott Nicholas led the visitors across the cemetery where many past monks were buried, into the mausoleum and crypt where Fr. Oschwald is buried in an above ground tomb. Above the mausoleum, there is a chapel on a hill, with is dedicated in his honor. The chapel has a small altar and worship space, as well as a pipe organ and numerous relics artifacts. We were surprised to find that Fr. Oschwald’s tomb had an inscription entirely in German. Abbott Nicholas noted that the town was isolated from the rest of the Wisconsin, and reports stated that the local residents continued to speak a dialect of German up until then 1960s. He also noted that the town has had a stable population “about 900 people” for the last century, which many religious orders and other types of monks and nuns in town.
The bus made a complete round trip and our tour group found themselves back at the monastery. There, the monks themselves lead the group in the evening vespers prayer. Although it was not a divine liturgy (mass) with holy communion, the service lasted a full hour (it began slightly late and went from 4:07pm to 5:07pm), with five or six monks alternating in chanting prayers and doing readings. The temperature inside reached about 80 degrees with no air conditioning, but the visitors toughed it out and it was a rewarding, deeply spiritual experience.
Relieved to be out of the cramped, hot room, the group was again lead downstairs – this time for dinner. Again, it was a vegetarian meal and surprisingly scrumptious. The meal consisted of pita bread and hummus, a vegetable platter, fresh fruits (peaches, plums, etc.) mixed salad, and more coffee, water, and pop. The monks got to know the group and shared stories about the personal lives and other visitors they’ve had at the monastery When Fr. Loya noted that the monks usually eat dinner in silence and all this chatter was distracting to them, one monk quipped, “We don’t mind. We like the company”.
It was the end of the day by monastery standards, and time for the group to depart for a long 3 ½ hour drive back to the Chicago area. Abbott Nicholas noted the monks had grown a surplus of apples and invited everyone to take “as many bags as you’d like” of freshly grown apples, and gave each visitor a brochure about the monastery and an flyer inviting them to return in September for a retreat.
Leaving St. Nazienz, most of the chatter on the bus was about how quickly the day had passed, and expressing an longing to stay longer as only the a brief glimpse into the town and the monastic life had been accomplished. It left everyone in high spirits with a brisk, active day, and a fascinating look at what it means to be a Catholic monk.