A new face for an Ozark monastery

As fewer American-born men and women take up the cloth, monasteries look abroad to fill dwindling ranks

The Rev. Peter Vu at the altar at Assumption Abbey in Ava, Missouri. He was one of the first Vietnamese monks to move to the abbey in 2013 and initiated bringing more monks to the state.
Alexey Furman for Al Jazeera America

AVA, Mo. — A high pitched, nasal-sounding bell pierced the silence. It sounded nine times in groups of three before the resounding church bells started to ring into the darkness, echoing over the rolling hills of the southern Missouri Ozarks.

It was 3 in the morning at Assumption Abbey, and the monks here were starting their day as they do every day: with prayer. The abbey is a modern manifestation of an ancient religious tradition creating a place of reflection and prayer — though one now outfitted with its own Wi-Fi signal.

About half an hour southeast of Ava, Missouri, just north of the border with Arkansas, Assumption Abbey was founded as Trappist monastery, an order of Roman Catholic monks that branched off the Benedictine tradition with roots in 17th century France. A local man had donated the scenic property, hoping a monastery would be built there and monks from New Melleray Abbey in Iowa first arrived there in 1950. These days, they are renowned for making fruitcakes, which sell out every year by Christmas and support the monastery financially. This year they sold nearly 30,000.

But the abbey is also witnessing a demographic transformation seen not only in the Catholic Church, but also across other faiths in the United States. In the absence of American-born men and women interested in taking up the cloth and choosing a religious life, institutions like Assumption Abbey have had to look abroad to fill their dwindling ranks.

The future of Assumption Abbey and perhaps those of other monasteries in the United States lies not among the American communities that gave it its first monks but abroad. Of the 11 men living at the monastery, only five are American-born, and most are in their 80s. Among the others, one is from the Philippines, four are from Vietnam, and another from Nigeria — and they’re all young, relatively speaking.

The Rev. Robert Matter prays in the church of the abbey. Now 90 years old, he became a monk in 1949.
Alexey Furman for Al Jazeera America

Ancient tradition in Missouri

“At one point this community had about 30 [monks],” said the Rev. Cyprian Harrison, whose bright eyes shine behind large glasses. The 84-year-old monk made the journey from Iowa in 1965.

“Back in 1949, when I [became a monk], people were more interested” in joining the order, said the Rev. Robert Matter.

Matter, a 90-year-old with a long white beard, became a monk in 1949 after serving in the Navy. He first arrived in Missouri in 1963 and recently moved back to the monastery after living as a hermit nearby since 1968.

The Rev. Alberic Maisog transferred to Assumption Abbey from a monastery in the Philippines in 1993 when he was 34. He is now 56.  

“I was sent to help the community because the monks were getting older,” he said. “I was asked by my abbot if I would be willing to come here.” “It never even crossed my imagination or my wildest dreams that I would leave my community.” 

Nobody knew it at the time, but a similar idea to what drew Maisog to Assumption Abbey would re-emerge years later as the key to keeping the monastery open. In 2008, it was decided by regional church leaders that Assumption Abbey’s noviceship — the open door to those seeking to become monks — would be closed.

“It means your lifeblood,” Maisog said.

“It’s been cut off. Because of the low numbers and lack of new vocations, we were getting that old and few that we realized we didn’t have the time to bring new men in and form them into monks,” Harrison said.

Maisog said, “They were just waiting for our monks to die one by one.”

That was when Harrison wrote a letter to a monastery in Vietnam, inviting monks from an “overflowing” monastery there to visit Assumption Abbey.

“They came in a blink of an eye,” Maisog said.

A church in crisis

The Roman Catholic Church in the United States has been plagued by a shortage of clergy for years. The number of self-identifying Catholics in this country is growing, but the number of ordained priests continues to fall. According to data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, in 1970, on average, there was approximately one priest for every 800 Catholics in the United States. Last year the ratio was approximately one to 2,000.

“I haven’t given it much thought now,” said Matter, who was 23 when he became a monk in 1949. “It’s just the way it is.”

The number that has been on the rise, however, is the number of foreign-born priests and clergy in the United States. According to The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual report, more than 30 percent of Catholic priests ordained in 2014 were born outside the United States. That number was 24 percent when they started tracking it in 1988.

It is a phenomenon felt across denominations and faiths. The Orthodox Institute reported that one-fourth of Greek Orthodox priests in the United States are foreign-born. According to the Hartford Institute, 85 percent of full-time, paid imams in the United States were born in another country.

“Less and less people are seeking a religious life,” said Michael Hampton, an employee of Assumption Abbey.

“Every generation is different,” said Brother Francis Flaherty, 74, a monk who went to Ava in 2003. “They’re not born into a world that is stable. Everything is in flux. Everything is changing. How do you make a commitment when you’ve been brought up in this environment?”

“Their values are different than our values were,” he added. “After World War II, the monasteries filled up.” Several of the monks who lived and died at Assumption Abbey were veterans. One fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

Photos: Monastic life at Assumption Abbey

'There is life now'

The Rev. Peter Vu was one of the first Vietnamese monks to move to Assumption Abbey in 2013 and initiated bringing more monks to Missouri. Three more monks from the monastery in southern Vietnam joined him in 2014.

“We were invited to bring more men here to substitute [the monks] when they cannot take care of the place anymore,” said Vu, who started a vegetable garden behind Assumption Abbey. “When they are high of age and pass away, we will continue their work here.”

The monastery in Vietnam has 115 monks, approximately two-thirds of whom are under the age of 35, “and very lively,” he said. The monks there are of a different order from the original Trappists who founded Assumption Abbey, but it is of the same origins.

The Vietnamese monks who have transferred to the monastery in Missouri are the youngest in the abbey. Vu is 60, and two of the others are in their 40s. The youngest monk is 32 and has an energetic character typical of the monks in Vietnam, Vu said.

In November, Brother Bennett Usueni, 52, was asked to temporarily relocate to Assumption Abbey from a monastery in New York. He is originally from Nigeria.

“They transferred my visa to this place to help with the old ones,” he said. “To help with the aging community.”

His monastery in Nigeria has 80 monks, he said. The youngest is 24, and the oldest is 70. “Vocation is booming in Africa,” he said. “But here, no. It is dying down, which is why they send people to help.”

“Fifteen years from now, this will be a predominately Vietnamese community,” said Maisog, who suspects he will one day be the last Trappist monk left, since he is the youngest. “Once the tipping point comes, that’s the time when the situation will be reversed. They will be the hosts, and we will be the guests.”

“This is how we continue a contemporary monastic community here in our diocese in the foothills of the Ozarks,” Harrison said.

“It’s too bad that more Americans aren’t wanting to be in religious orders,” Flaherty said.

In November one of Assumption Abbey’s American-born monks died. He was buried in a cemetery adjacent to the monastery with the other monks who arrived from Iowa. Four more monks from Vietnam are expected to arrive this summer and four more the next year and more after that. Eventually, the monastery will be handed over to them and their order, and the remaining Trappist monks will live among them until they too pass away.

“This place will continue to be a monastery, a place of prayer, a retreat,” Vu said. “Just personnel will change. It will be the young people from Vietnam.”

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