Dom Brendan Freeman

A Chapter Talk
presented to the

New Melleray Community

by Dom Brendan Freeman, O.C.S.O


Today is the 157th anniversary of the founding of our community and the 30th anniversary of the dedication of our Abbey Church. I thought I would say something about the founding of the community and some incidents from our early history.

As early as 1841, Abbot Vincent Ryan the founding superior of Mt. Melleray, Ireland, went to Sardinia looking for property for a foundation. Nothing came of it and in 1845 he sent Br. Macarius Keegan to the United States to raise funds and look for a site for a foundation.

The next move toward a foundation was the 25th of July, 1848, when Fr. Bernard McCaffery and Br. Anthony Keating, a choir novice, went to Petit Clairvaux in Canada to see about taking it over. This didn't work out. Br. Anthony went back to Mt. Melleray and Fr. Bernard was about to follow when he received word from Mt. Melleray about land offered in Pennsylvania. By the way, Fr. Bernard had gone to New York and met with Bishop John Hughes (later knows as Dagger John) and heard this famous or infamous retort to his request to solicit funds in New York, "Your order, sir, does no good either to yourselves or for anyone else" (Msgr. M. Hoffmann, Arms and the Monk, p. 29).

Fr. Bernard and Br. Cyprian Slattery looked at the land in Pennsylvania. They liked it and wrote to Dom Bruno who sent Fr. Clement Smyth and Br. Ambrose Byrne to look at it. They didn't like it. Other land was offered in Canada. All this searching took months. Finally Dom Bruno decided to come and look at the various offers. He was especially interested in Bishop Loras' offer of 440 acres outside Dubuque. He took with him Fr. James O'Gorman, Bros. Timothy Dugan, Joseph Nolan, Barnaby Grace and Macarius. So at this time we have ten monks from Mt. Melleray in North America searching for a place to begin a monastery.

When they finally chose to go with Iowa, there were seven of the ten monks present for the laying of the cornerstone. We should say corner wood because no stone was used in the first building. Br. Macarius stayed in Canada and died there in 1851. Br. Cyprian Slattery went to Gethsemani in 1849 before the foundation was decided. So we have seven monks as members of the new community as of July 16, 1849.

Dom Bruno went back to Ireland and sent sixteen more monks on September 10th. He said he hoped to have fifty Mt. Melleray monks in Dubuque by April of the following year. We know six of the sixteen didn't make it to Iowa. Six died on the steamboat "Constitution" on the way from New Orleans to St. Louis. Then in January, 1850, Don Bruno chose twenty-three more monks to go to New Melleray. I am not sure how many actually arrived at the monastery. Fr. Francis died at sea and possibly two postulants stayed in New Orleans. The statistics for 1851 just three years into the foundation show a community of fifty members, 25 choir and 25 lay brothers. It was a large group by any standard. The steamship "Sultana" which the third group took from New Orleans to St. Louis exploded in 1864 or so with 1,400 people on board. Most of them were Union soldiers recently liberated from the infamous Andersonville confederate prison.

I would like to jump ahead to 1863 now. We have a typed transcription of early 1850's and 1860's manuscripts written by one of our early lay brothers. Br. Declan typed it up in 1933. It has some interesting things about the early days.

First of all, he says the horse stable and cow barn were posts driven into the ground and covered with a thatch of straw as in Ireland. There were only two rock buildings—the blacksmith shop and the building which is now attached to the Camp Grant.

Most of us remember the blacksmith shop—when I came it was used for cattle. It was half way down the hill from the present farm office and gate house but on the other side of the gravel road. It was torn down about the same time we bulldozed the first wooden monastery in the late 1960's. What a shame! But here is an interesting description of the first Holy Family Church.

"Right on the side of a little hill about 30 yards N.E. of the blacksmith stood the old secular church about 40 feet long and 20 feet wide, where the people went to Mass on Sundays. There were wagons and very few buggies hitched to the fences and the people waited on the bridge and around the blacksmith shop for Fr. Bernard to say holy Mass."

The author goes on to say: "It was very black and cold around the monastery in those winter days, there being no trees to break the northwest wind when the thermometer was 30 degrees below zero. Fr. Alberic Madigan, Bro. Kieran and Br. Christopher planted mainly all the evergreens and other trees."

At this time we owned 900 acres of crops meadow and pasture land; 470 acres of woodland and 520 acres of prairie land that wasn't ploughed— in 1863 Mt. Carmel, 160 acres was ploughed for the first time.

In May, 1863, the secular church was moved to its present location.

In the Fall of 1863 work began on the big barn. Lumber came from Lattnerville. The saw mill is still there.

In 1858 we got land in Allamabee County (this is Fr. Jim Kerndt's territory). Fr. Francis, Br. Timothy, Barnaby, Joseph, Edward and John Joseph were sent to farm the land—they stayed two years. This is in Wexford, Iowa. Fr. Hore brought 450 Irish from his parish in County Wexford to the USA. This was in 1850. They got as far as St. Louis and stayed thru winter. Fr. Hore in the meantime bought 2,157 acres of land in Allamabee County. When spring came, only 18 families from the original 50 people were willing to move from St. Louis.

The monks stayed two years at Wexford and returned, all except Fr. Francis who stayed there until 1888.

In 1862 Br. Bernard Murphy began buying pure bred Durham cattle. "He went to Kentucky and bought some first class cattle—cows and bulls. And every fall for probably 15 years afterwards… Br. Bernard also began buying more lands."

On the 10th of March, 1868, the first stone in the foundation of the New Melleray was laid in the northwest corner.

In 1872 Br. Bernard bought 40 acres of woodland in South Garny Owen—15 miles south of the monastery. This was used for fuel. To make the 30 mile round trip the brother would get up at 2 AM , get the teams ready, come in for Mass at 3 AM and have 8 to 10 miles in by sunrise. If they took oxen it was slower.

Br. Bernard had cattle in Mills County and some as far away as Omaha.

Our author tells us from 1861 to 1866 the brothers made their own beer. The barley and hops were raised here. The barley was sent to Heebs brewery in Dubuque to be malted. The brothers get beer at dinner. "The beer was stopped in 1806!"

Some final remarks on the building of 1868. We read: "Mr. Mulaney (Lawyer Mulaney's father) was the architect. This was for the building and kitchen. For the church wing M. Keenan was the architect and Mr. Burns was the contractor of mason work. The three buildings were complete in 1870."

These are the buildings we now live in—one was dedicated as our abbey church in 1870.





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