Thursday, November 3, 2016

We Go to a Monastery in North Dakota

courtyard of Assumption Abbey in the fall, Richardton, ND
Assumption Abbey, Richardton
A cowboy poet told us about the monastery. Rodney Nelson stopped by the Inn where we were staying to introduce himself. There are no secrets in small towns, and he’d heard about people in town who were visiting a church and a bar in every state. He told us about a place we needed to see.

Back in the 1990’s, Rodney was traveling west when an unexpected blizzard hit. He and a number of other travelers on the highway were stranded and found shelter at Assumption Abbey. At the time, the monks raised cattle; it was calving season, so Rodney helped deliver a couple of calves. Afterward, Rodney remained friends with the monks through the years.

prairie view from Assumption Abbey, Richardton, ND
“It isn’t far, forty or fifty miles.” (We noticed distances are viewed differently in different states. Some people in say, Vermont, would think that traveling fifty miles would necessitate staying overnight. But everything is spread out in North Dakota. Fifty miles is nothing.)

St Mary's Church and sign for Assumption Abbey, Richardton, ND
So we drove out Saturday morning to the Abbey (changing time zones from Central to Mountain). We went to the visitor center; the door was locked. Visitors walking by told us it was time for the midday service, so we rushed over to the church to find the the service had just begun.

The sanctuary for the service is shared between Assumption Abbey and St. Mary’s Parish. This was an Abbey service held by the monks for the order, but open to all. The Gospel reading was from Luke 14: 7 - 11, where Jesus advised against taking a place of honor, but take a humble place and hope to be called forward. In the homily the Father joked that monks don’t look to be called forward.

After the service we were greeted by one of the brothers who introduced himself as Father Odo. We asked for his story. He told us he came from that town. His parents were married at St. Mary’s, he was christened there, and received his first communion in the church. He lived three blocks from the church and attended the high school taught by the order. And 57 years ago he choose to join the Benedictine Order of Assumption Abbey.

monk doing tasks inside St Mary's Church, Richardton, ND
The monastery was founded in 1899 by a missionary from the Einsiedeln Abbey in Switzerland who came to North Dakota. He founded the abbey against orders, but as Assumption Abbey prospered, the Swiss decided to adopt it as a kind of step-daughter house. Saint Mary Church was established in 1906.

The Benedictine Order’s motto is “Ora et Labora” -- “Pray and Work.” Through the years there have been many kinds of work done at the abbey. Until four years ago, the monks cared for cattle but now neighbors are renting the land for their own cattle. They were beekeepers and book binders, but those tasks haves slipped away, at least for now. They still make soap and sell wine. Many of the buildings were originally built by the monks using monastery--made bricks, but in more recent years outside contractors have been used, including for current work to improve drainage.

repairing the drainage at Assumption Abbey, Richardton, ND
The order also provides pastoral care for a number of churches in the area and sponsors missionaries in Columbia.

We asked Father Odo what work he had done through the years, and at first he pleaded laziness. Then he spoke of being the business manager for the abbey, working in the bindery, is currently the organist, was a key maker, taught music in the school, and served as a pastor. So... he did a few things.

artwork in the dining room at Assumption Abbey, Richardton, ND
Father Odo invited us to lunch. The brothers of the order were eating, but there was also a group of men and women who were at the abbey for the weekend for a quilting conference. The abbey used to be a boarding school, and the former dorm rooms are available for guests.  A variety of organizations use the facilities for conferences and retreats.


Saint Benedict of the Great Plains on the grounds of Assumption Abbey, Richardton, ND
The Benedictine “Monks of the Prairie” consider it part of their call to welcome visitors. Rodney enjoyed that welcome decades ago, and we experienced it last week.