When people first enter New Melleray Abbey, a Trappist monastery near Dubuque, Iowa, the most noticeable is the silence. The monastery insulates itself from the busy and noisy modern world with 3,000 acres of farmland, forests and church buildings.
Each day, about 30 monks rise before dawn to attend Vigils, a prayer service that starts at 3:30. The rest of their day revolves around seven group prayer services known as the Liturgy of the Hours. During the day, the monks keep their talk to a minimum so that most all you hear is chanted prayers, ringing bells and the sounds of nature.
This life of quiet contemplation appeals to both Catholics and Protestants looking to disconnect from their day-to-day lives and reconnect with God.
When not in prayer services, visiting groups enjoy contemplating their natural surroundings. Even the area around the monastery stays relatively tranquil with sparsely populated small towns.
A New Beginning
When the Great Potato Famine struck Mount Melleray Abbey in Ireland, six monks voyaged to the New World to look for verdant farmland. In 1849, Dom Bruno Fitzpatrick acquired 1,000 acres of fertile Iowa soil, one cow and one calf. New Melleray was born.
After the end of the American Civil War, the present stone abbey structure was built by a prominent Dubuque architect to reflect 13th-century Gothic style. Monks remodeled the abbey several times, including converting the north wing of the abbey into a permanent chapel in the 1970s.
Groups can tour the rooms and chapel today to view the simple and elegant designs. One features that stands out is the red oak used for the choir stalls, doors and Eucharistic Chapel. The striking altar consists of granite weighing five tons. Walls of limestone and light-filled windows help create a serene oasis for prayer.
At its peak after World War II, the abbey housed 160 monks. In 1999, the monks of New Melleray celebrated the abbey’s 150-year anniversary.
The monks follow the Rule of St. Benedict, a set of guidelines for monastic life written by St. Benedict in the sixth century. The lifestyle is followed by Cistercian monks and nuns, as well as Benedictine brothers and sisters.
One of the values professed in the guidelines is to welcome guests as one would welcome Christ. The monks at New Melleray follow these guidelines by inviting groups and individuals to come to the monastery for overnight or daytime retreats.
Each room provides towels and linens. Groups can eat home-cooked meals in the dining room. Talking is discouraged during mealtimes, but spiritually themed music plays in the background.
New Melleray offers several themed retreats each year, including the Lenten retreat the weekend before Ash Wednesday and the Advent retreat the weekend of the First Sunday of Advent. The abbey also organizes the Vowed Life retreat for married couples and the October weeklong Contemplative Living in a Busy World.
Groups seeking quiet will love the peaceful retreat setting at New Melleray. Monks and visitors refrain from talking in their rooms, the hallway, the library and the area immediately around the church. The abbey emphasizes this request after the 7:30 p.m. Compline service, when the monastic Grand Silence begins; the silence lasts until the 3:30 a.m. service.
Though the abbey hosts only a handful of themed retreats, group leaders can peruse the organization’s retreat booklet for the daily structure, rules and ideas possible during their group’s stay. For example, New Melleray advises visitors to bring their spiritual reading materials, since rooms have only a bed, a desk and a reading chair. Visitors can also enjoy the abbey’s library, which offers a plethora of spiritually themed books.
Though it’s not mandatory, the abbey advises guests to join the monks for the seven prayer services during the Liturgy of the Hours. To prepare for the 3:30 a.m. prayer, visitors are advised to wake up early and go to bed early a few nights before their stay.
The cloistered community, though welcoming, stays apart from the guests with signs that lay out the boundaries of the monastic enclosure. Guests still have plenty of space to wander, since several walking trails traverse the surrounding 3,000 acres.
As advised by St. Benedict, the monks view work as an essential part of their spiritual life. The monks and nuns of monastic communities must support themselves through labor and donations. The monks at New Melleray use lumber from their land to craft Trappist caskets for the bulk of their income.
The monks also maintain an organic garden that helps feed them and the year-round visitors. A shop selling the caskets sits across the road from the monastery. Groups looking for a quick stop can tour the casket shop, browse the abbey’s gift shop and attend any of the prayer services, which are always open to the public.