Prayer, beauty, quiet draw visitors to New Melleray Abbey

| March 13, 2020 | 0 Comments

Trappist monks at New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque, Iowa, chant in the church. COURTESY NEW MELLERAY ABBEY

Trappist Brother Paul Andrew Tanner remembers the day 24 years ago when he drove to the New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque, Iowa, to attend his first retreat there. “Until I pulled into the parking lot, I had my CD player going and my radio going,” he said. “And then I turned that off and had a weekend of quiet — religious quiet.”

The abbey’s atmosphere spoke of a rhythm of prayer, he said. “When I left, I thought I might have a monastic vocation. It was a very powerful experience.”

Brother Paul Andrew, 65, now lives with 20 other monks at New Melleray, a monastery founded in 1849. About half are ordained priests; the others are brothers. They belong to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, known as Trappists.

The monks rise at 3:15 a.m. and follow a strict schedule. Days begin and end with prayer.

Brother Paul Andrew is coordinator of the monastic center, a separate area of the abbey’s guest house, where men ages 20 to 70 can experience daily life as a monk for a few days or up to two weeks. About 60 men participate each year, but the program can accommodate more.

The program is free, although free-will offerings are encouraged, and it is restricted to men because they join the cloistered monks in their daily labors and prayers, including sitting in the choir seven times each day for prayer and daily Mass. Guests outside the monastic center take their seats in a designated area at the back of the church. Accompanying the monks is one advantage of the program, Brother Paul Andrew said.

“These times of common celebration and prayer form the heart of our day,” he said.

Attendees also do physical labor, working in the garden, on the grounds or in the kitchen.

“Labor is an important part of our spirituality,” Brother Paul Andrew said. “You can’t work all the time, and you can’t pray all the time, but you can pray while you’re working.”

Father Jonah Wharff, 72, is guestmaster and chaplain for the abbey’s guest house, where men and women can stay for personal, themed or preached retreats. About 1,700 visitors each year attend guest house retreats.

Visitors often feel a sense of peace at the abbey that is different from the rest of the world, he said. The focus is on what life is about and what matters most, he said.

“Life is about the love of God that we are to pass on to others,” Father Wharff said. “What matters most is our relationship with him.”

Located on 1,800 acres of farmland and 1,300 acres of forest, the abbey was a working farm for 160 years. About seven years ago, the abbey started leasing the land to farmers, with proceeds going to charitable organizations. The abbey’s Trappist Caskets business covers the abbey’s expenses and employs 26 people from outside the abbey. Last year, they shipped more than 1,600 caskets.

Dan McKenzie, 64, of St. Peter in Hokah, Minnesota, fell in love with New Melleray the first time he walked in the door — as a young man considering priesthood back in 1973. “You just know there’s something amazing here,” he said. “The silence overwhelms you.”

McKenzie, a widower who during college was a long-distance runner, compared adjusting to prayerful silence to a runner enjoying a marathon.

“After two to three miles, they get into this zone, and don’t want to stop,” he said. “Then it’s a struggle. They’re pushing themselves, trying to keep running; they get tired but don’t quit. Then once they’re over the hump, it overwhelms them, and they just want to run for the next 10 years.”

The abbey is a great place to rearrange your priorities, he added, “to understand what’s really important, to get back in touch with yourself and what’s real. … It helps you center your life on God.”

McKenzie is a frequent visitor to the abbey. He said his car almost knows the way from his home about 120 miles away. “I need to get away from the noise and clear my mind,” he said. “Live the simple life. When I go there, it’s almost like going home. And when I leave, it’s like leaving where you belong.”

Rick Brown, 76, a parishioner of St. Benedict in Decorah, Iowa, has been a regular parishioner visitor to the abbey since 1986. Visiting is a time for dropping all distractions, said Brown, who lives about 100 miles from New Melleray.

“That is the great benefit. Between that and the structure, (the abbey) is profoundly a place apart,” he added.

Men interested in participating in the monastic center program can email


Category: Retreats