DUBUQUE — Early each morning before dawn, the Trappist nuns of Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey gather in their chapel for prayer. They will come together six more times throughout the day, setting aside whatever work they may be doing when the church bells begin to ring, to give praise to God and mark the hours of the day with a hymn, the chanting of psalms and a Scripture reading. Work and prayer have helped shape the rhythm of these nuns’ lives since their community was established in 1964 atop the scenic bluffs south of Dubuque. After recently celebrating their 50th anniversary, the sisters have published a new book, “A Life of Hope,” to offer a better understanding of monastic spirituality and provide a glimpse into the simplicity and beauty of their world.
In 1962, with the approval of Dubuque Archbishop James Byrne, the monks of New Melleray Abbey near Peosta invited the nuns of Mount St. Mary’s Abbey in Wrentham, Massachusetts, to found a monastery in northeast Iowa. The nuns were already overcapacity at their abbey in New England and were looking for a new site to accommodate some of their members. Two years later, 13 young nuns left Massachusetts and traveled half way across the country to establish Mississippi Abbey in Iowa.
The community they established belongs to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. They’re contemplative in nature and follow the Rule of St. Benedict. In addition to prayer and work, they also emphasize lectio divina, the slow, prayerful reading of sacred texts, most often the Bible. Though they no longer observe total silence, the community still maintains a general atmosphere of quiet and continues to refrain from all forms of communication during certain times of the day.
Trappists place a high value on work, especially manual work, and the nuns support themselves primarily through the production of caramels and other tasty treats that they make in a candy workshop on their property and sell through the mail. They also own 350 acres of managed woodland and a 200-acre organic farm. Additionally, they maintain four small guesthouses that are available for individuals or small groups seeking a peaceful setting for a retreat.
Mississippi Abbey currently numbers 18 sisters. They’ve come to Iowa from across the U.S. and, in one instance, Canada. Sister Kathleen O’Neill, who authored the text of the community’s newly published book, grew up in the state of New Jersey. Today, the East Coast native wears many hats at the abbey; she is the novice director, principal organist, helps plan liturgies and maintains the community’s archives. She also serves as the production manager for the nuns’ bustling candy business.
Sister Kathleen’s vocation story highlights the unexpected twists and turns of life that led many of the Trappist nuns to their community. Sister Kathleen, who was once engaged to be married, reflected on her journey: “Everything I thought I wanted in life lay before me: marriage to a good Catholic, an upper middle class life in the New York area with operas and concerts and plays and occasional trips to Europe, the prospect of making a home to raise children – and suddenly it was all not enough. It wasn’t the One Great Thing. I sensed that the Lord was calling me to the monastery.”
She joined the monastery in Dubuque in 1979 and has never had any regrets about her decision. While recognizing the sacrifices she faced in entering the abbey, Sister Kathleen said they seemed small in comparison to what she was gaining. “I began monastic life with a heart filled with joy and awe, and a sense of coming home,” she remembered. “And Jesus has never let me down in the years since then.”
One of the aspects of life in the monastery that Sister Kathleen said she and the other nuns cherish is their ability to spend a considerable amount of time praying for the needs of the world and lifting up those who have asked for their prayers. She said, “It is important for others to know that we really are praying for them and really do feel ourselves connected with people even though we’re out here in this enclosure.”
She also said she believes others sometimes have perceptions about monastic life that aren’t entirely accurate. “I think people need to know that we’re not saints out here,” she said with a good-natured laugh. “We’re very much human beings. We’re fellow sinners, flawed individuals, trying to do our best to be good Christians just like other people are.”
After a half-century of striving together to be good Christians, the Trappist nuns of Mississippi Abbey celebrated their golden jubilee in November 2014. Their anniversary acted as one of the primary inspirations for their decision to publish a book. The other was a collection of beautiful photos of the abbey they had been given by professional photographer Bill Witt and many other talented photographer friends; with such a tremendous assortment of photos, the Trappists wanted to do something with them and to share them with the outside world.
After Sister Kathleen wrote the text for the book, she worked with graphic designer Mike Meyer, and the two tackled the layout together. The book was completed at the end of 2015. The finished product is in the style of a coffee table book, its 152 pages filled with photos of the sisters and the picturesque abbey they call home.
Sister Kathleen said the title of the book, “A Life of Hope” gets at the heart of the monastic experience. “All Christian life is full of hope, specifically the hope of the Resurrection, of sharing Heaven with Jesus. He is the hope that we have,” she said. “Our life (at the abbey) doesn’t make any sense, our whole life is worthless, if there is not a life to come. The title represents our hope for the future but also the fact that our life bears witness to that hope for other people as well. We’re a sign that this life is not all that there is.”
“A Life of Hope” can be purchased at the gift shops at Mississippi Abbey and New Melleray Abbey, as well as River Lights Bookstore and the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, both in Dubuque. The book can also be purchased online through the monastery’s candy website, www.monasterycandy.com, under the religious goods tab.
(Photo by Bill Witt)