Holy Cross Abbey

In a bucolic setting, a Catholic monastery resurrects ancient ways of living on the land to provide for its future.

In a bucolic setting, a Catholic monastery resurrects ancient ways of living on the land to provide for its future.

By Robert Boucheron / Photography By Jonathan Timmes

What once housed a population of many, now only eight of the 20 monks in residence are “living the full monastic life.”
What once housed a population of many, now only eight of the 20 monks in residence are “living the full monastic life.”

Rooted in medieval tradition, including Gregorian chant and vows of poverty, chastity and humility, a monastery seems like the last place to look for innovation. Monks and nuns pursue a way of life that strikes most Americans as archaic. And they are old: The median age of professed religious in the United States has risen over the past few decades to around 70. Is their way of life in irreversible decline?

Holy Cross Abbey, located east of Berryville, on the green banks of the Shenandoah River, is one place that is reinventing the monastery. A Cistercian house (also called Trappist), founded in 1950 on a 1,200-acre farm called Cool Spring, the abbey grew rapidly over the next 20 years. At its height, there were 60 monks crammed into the historic 18th-century Wormeley house and additions. Holy Cross achieved independent status in 1958, established a profitable bakery, built a new wing in 1978 and a new retreat house in 1986, and by 1996 had paid off all of its debt.

Since then, Holy Cross’ story has been like that of other American monasteries. Some men left the religious life, few new vocations entered, and those who remained got older.

Currently, of the 20 monks who are official residents, some are retired, some have age-related health problems, and some are absent, leaving “eight monks who are able to live the full monastic life,” according to Fr. Robert Barnes. Recently elected to a third six-year term as abbot, and now 68-years old, Barnes has spent most of his life at Holy Cross, having entered in 1961.

To perform tasks that monks used to do, the abbey hired 10 lay employees over the years: a bakery manager, a secretary, maintenance staff and others. So the monks must meet a payroll. To make matters worse, their sources of income are decreasing. The market for fruitcake, which is the bakery’s main product, is dwindling. (They recently added creamed honey and chocolates to their product line, sold in religious shops, by mail order and via the Internet.) The farmland is leased as pasture for beef cattle and a small area of cornfields, and the rent is less than the market rate. The retreat house brings in just enough donations to meet its own cost of operation.

If a monastery is ideally a self-supporting community, then Holy Cross Abbey is approaching financial crisis. Facing this reality in 2007, the monks embarked on a five-year plan with the help of Sr. Cecilia Dwyer, prioress of the Benedictine Sisters in Bristow.

abbeyA Sustainable Future
In 2009, they authorized a sustainability study by a University of Michigan team of researchers. The study addressed issues such as existing topography, vegetation, land use, energy use, water, solid waste and the economic balance sheet. It also made recommendations for the conservation of natural resources, new business ventures, building adaptations and site restoration. The report was published in April 2010 as “Holy Cross Abbey: Reinhabiting Place,” and it is available online from the University of Michigan.

With page after page of charts and statistics, the report is factual and timely, focused on things that can be measured and in the here and now. However, nothing could be less spiritual. Yet the impulse behind it goes back to the origins of the Cistercian order.

The abbey of Cîteaux in Burgundy, France, was founded in the early 12th century as a reaction to the wealth and worldliness of nearby Cluny, perhaps the greatest monastery of its time. (The name Cistercian derives from Cîteaux.) Under the leadership of Robert of Molesmes and then of Bernard of Clairvaux, small bands of monks sought remote sites, where they could return to a true practice of the Rule of St. Benedict, as they saw it. They cleared wilderness, planted farms, and embraced new technology, especially water-powered mills. The monks did hard physical labor in the early years, and their life was ultimately ascetic.

Fieldstone plantation house built by Wormeley family

Civil War battle at Cool Spring leaves over 800 casualties

Holy Cross Abbey founded from St. Joseph’s Abbey, MA

Chapel and dormitory added to the historic mansion

Farm and Bakery established

Granted autonomy by General Chapter of Order

Vatican II brings sweeping changes to monastic life

Father McCorkell elected abbot

Farm is leased

Building campaign for refectory, infirmary, new dormitory

Retreat House built

Bread baking abandoned in favor of fruitcake

Father Barnes elected abbot

Sustainability Study done, implementation started

Holy Cross Abbey is attempting to enter the 21st century by returning to this ancient model. The monks are reviewing the ways they use and live on the land. They placed 200 acres of land in a conservation easement. They planted a kitchen garden to raise some of the food consumed onsite. They are reviewing the farm operation, especially how to reduce the use of fertilizer and pesticides, which leach into groundwater and the watershed of the nearby river. They cut back on lawn mowing to save fuel and allow native species to flourish. And they intend to restore the eroded riverbanks and the spring that gave the farm its name.

The monks interpret this activity according to their vow of “stability,” their commitment to stay in one place, and the history of their order. Their current website includes this statement: “We are seeking ways to respond to the current ecological crisis. We recognize that we have a responsibility that is both local, within Clarke County, Va., and global; and we understand how today’s action will directly impact our vitality for years to come.”

In a 2011 renovation of the northwest dormitory, they installed low-volume plumbing fixtures to reduce water use, “green” carpeting and low-VOC paint. They started a comprehensive program of waste recycling, including paper, plastic, metal and electronics. When a building furnace failed last year, they replaced it with a high-efficiency gas-burning model. Like all monks, they already do without cars and gadgets, and they live in harmony with hours of daylight and the seasons. To explore more ways to improve, they hired Ed Leonard to head a sustainability office for the abbey.

New Vocations?
While these actions are undoubtedly necessary, they may also appeal to a younger generation. Will the new-model monastery attract a new type of vocation, men who value ecology as much as Catholic doctrine? If so, they will find it online. The firm SynaVista is redesigning the abbey website, which will include some YouTube clips. Father James Orthmann says: “The new vocation page will include some power-point presentations on our life, which anyone or any parish or school can download. There will also be a blog, which will be updated monthly. All of this will interface with our Facebook page.”

Orthmann is the novice director at Holy Cross Abbey. Now 61, he first joined the Franciscans, then entered Holy Cross in 1977. Educated in art history and music, he is also the choir cantor. Currently, he has no novices in formation. In May 2011, however, he supervised a group of young men in the retreat house, and later he had three “observers,” who participate with the monks for several weeks as a prelude to a vocation. He says: “There are several others who stay in touch, but you can never count them until they get here. We cooperate with other religious orders in vocation discernment. I’d love to hold onto a promising candidate, but my job is to help him discover where God might be calling him.”

By ancient tradition, monasteries offer “hospitality.” A contemplative order like the Cistercians does not usually engage in teaching, social programs or parish work, but it does honor the tradition. The Berryville retreat house stands in pastures about a half-mile from the cloister. With 16 private rooms, a chapel, kitchen, dining room and library, it is a self-contained unit that takes in about 1,000 individuals a year, and does not offer structured group retreats. Intended to reproduce the abbey environment while preserving the privacy of the monks, it differs from monasteries that emphasize their role as retreat centers.

The Anglican Benedictine house called Holy Cross Monastery, for example, near West Park, NY, renovated many of its empty monks’ cells for retreat use, and allows visitors into most of the complex. The Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Ga., with 40 monks and a 2,000-acre property, is thriving better than most, perhaps because the city of Atlanta is just to the west. In May 2011, in a multi-million-dollar barn renovation, they opened a “Monastic Heritage Center,” which features a museum and gift shop. Construction of a new retreat house will soon follow.

In this regard, Holy Cross Abbey is engaged in some soul-searching. Located less than two hours away from the dynamic metropolis of Washington, D.C., it could attract more visitors. A wing of the cloister, built in the 1950s as a dormitory and now used mainly for storage, is being considered for renovation, but it may be closed off entirely. The abbey’s location and space may appeal to groups. In May of 2010, for example, Holy Cross hosted a conference of all 17 novice directors of the U. S. Cistercian houses.

Orthmann and Barnes concede that monastic life appeals to a select few. The Cistercian version, focused on silence, prayer and the regular chanting of the divine office, may appeal to even fewer. (Cistercian life is portrayed in the writings of Thomas Merton, a monk at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky; the 1991 book “Voices of Silence,” by Frank Bianco; and the 2010 film “Of Gods and Men,” about a group of French monks in Algeria.)

In their 20th-century heyday, monasteries waited for new vocations to come to them. The result, according to Orthmann, was a “revolving door” of men coming and going after a short stay, unsatisfactory to both sides. Today, screening of candidates is more thorough, including health and personal history. If fewer are admitted, the hope is that more of them will stay.

In another departure from the past, some monasteries have dropped the age limit for new vocations. Brother Barnabas is one who became a monk later in life, at age 55. He says: “I was an engineer, executive and public school teacher of English. I married, had children, and returned to the Catholic Church in my 50s.” Evidence is slight, but the earliest monasteries in Egypt and Italy may have accepted older men in this way, as a kind of second career or retirement. In any case, the new policy acknowledges that American lifespans have grown longer, and that spiritual development varies.

The smaller community is also significant. There are hints in the Rule of St. Benedict that a typical monastery of the 16th century had around 10 monks. American monasteries report similar numbers today. It may be that this size has a certain advantage, both economically and in the dynamic of group interaction. If so, Holy Cross Abbey’s downsizing may point the way. A new house connected with them, Our Lady of the Angels Monastery, founded in 1987 in Crozet, has 12 women in residence.

The lay Cistercian movement shows yet another possibility for change and growth. America has no tradition of pilgrimage as in Europe, and historically the Cistercian order did not have oblates, or a lay auxiliary, as Franciscans and Benedictines do. Beginning in the 1980s in Georgia and Massachusetts, lay Catholics spontaneously formed groups attached to Cistercian monasteries. The movement grew and acquired recognition from the order.

One of these groups meets at Holy Cross Abbey once a month, and they make a retreat there once a year. A statement from a 2008 world convention at the monastery of Santa Maria de Huerta, in Spain, says in part:

“We are convinced that it is possible to adapt Cistercian spirituality to the lifestyle of a lay person, though it is very clear that there are two different ways to live it, monastic and lay, and both are complementary. This shows us the vitality of the monastic life.”


(January 2012)