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Virginia Trappist Monks Grapple With Uncertain Future

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Holy Cross Abbey's monks reside in an extension added on to the original 18th-century house.
Rebecca Sheir
Holy Cross Abbey's monks reside in an extension added on to the original 18th-century house.

In Clarke County, Va., in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, lies the 1,200-acre Trappist monastery known as Holy Cross Abbey.

Holy Cross was founded in 1950, in an elegant 18th-century house. Since then, Trappist monks have lived in the house--and the attached dormitory--in accordance with the Rule of Saint Benedict, a religious tradition established in the seventh century... living quiet lives of renunciation, simplicity and contemplation.

The monastery grew rapidly in its first 20 years, and at its height, it was home to 60 monks.

"We're down to what, 13 now, I think, " says Brother Barnabas Brownsey. "So there's been quite an attrition."

But it isn't just the number of monks that's changed over the past 62 years; it's the age. The eldest monk, Brother Edward, is in his early 90s. Father Joseph, the youngest, is 55.

So at age 78, Brother Barnabas is just a little bit older than the average, and like several other monks, he admits he isn't in the best of health. For 15 years he actually ran the monastery's fruitcake bakery, which produces 15,000 cakes annually.

"But then one year, my understudy enrolled in the seminary, so he was not available for the fruitcake season," Barnabas recalls. "And at the end of the season, I was busted. I was burned out."

Holy Cross's abbot, Father Robert, took note. So he called Barnabas into his office and took him off fruitcake duty.

"I said, 'Father, if I was able, I'd jump across the desk and kiss you!'" Barnabas says with a laugh. "So he was relieved, and so was I."

Holy Cross's monks may be getting older, but so are the men who've been joining the order. Most have already had another career, if not two or three.

Take Brother Barnabas: he'd been an engineer, executive and English teacher, and raised six kids. And Brother Efrain Sosa worked at a university in New York City, got licensed as a funeral director and spent 20 years as a Capuchin Franciscan friar.

"At age 53 I decided, I want do this," Sosa says. "And so I came here. And they accepted me."

These days, Brother Efrain is the abbey's vocation director and novice director, so he's in charge of recruiting new men, and guiding beginning monks. Traditionally, the vocation director and novice director are two different people, "but in our case because we're so small right now, we multitask here," Sosa says. "That's our middle names. 'Efrain Multi-task Sosa!"

But the thing is, while Brother Efrain may hold two jobs, his hands aren't necessarily all that full.

"We don't have any [novices] now," he says. "We have a few people that are interested; in fact, at the end of this month, we have two people that'll be coming to investigate the life."

Whether they'll choose to stay is anyone's guess. The most recent "observer" at Holy Cross to become a "postulant," then a "novice," then to take "solemn vows"... was Brother Efrain himself!

"And I've been a monk here now for seven years," he says.

But while Holy Cross has a clear social problem--fewer potential monks, and older, current monks--the traditionally self-supporting abbey also has its share of financial issues.

Because, let's face it: the market for fruitcake isn't what it used to be. And since the monks are too old to run their decades-old beef-cattle operation, they've been leasing their 800 acres of cow pasture... at less than market rate.

The monks also have a retreat house for visitors. But the house barely brings in enough money to cover its costs.

And yet, if you ask Brother Efrain and Brother Barnabas about all this, they have the same basic response.

"This is God's work," Efrain says. "This is not ours. If God wants this monastery to be here, it will be here. His will always comes through."

Barnabas agrees that "it's in God's hands. If God wants us to be here, we'll be here. If he doesn't, we'll go somewhere else.

"God's will, will be what will be," Barnabas adds. "And it's up to us to accept it."

But meanwhile, "we have to do the best with what we have! It's as simple as that!"

Which is why, in 2007, Holy Cross embarked on a five-year plan to make the monastery more sustainable. And as the five years come to a close, the man heading up the sustainability efforts is Chief Sustainability Officer Ed Leonard, who shows us around a wooden structure on the monastery grounds.

"This is our funeral chapel," he says. "But I think we need to call it something else. I'm not sure 'chapel' is really the right word. 'Commemoration building'?"

Whatever the term, the building is the size of your average barn, with open walls, kind of like a picnic shelter at a park, only with a bell, a steeple and a composting toilet.

It's part of the new Cool Spring Natural Cemetery: an environmentally friendly burial ground for people of all faiths. The cemetery does not practice embalming, and bodies are buried either in a biodegradable casket or a plain shroud.

"What could be more green than laying a body in the ground and just letting the ground do what it's done for millions of years?" says Leonard.

But the green cemetery isn't the only way Holy Cross hopes to become more sustainable. It's placed 200 acres of land in a conservation easement. And it's transformed more than 100 acres of cattle pasture along the river, in to cropland.

"Cattle are very tough on the land," Leonard explains. "And cattle would use the river to drink from, and of course when the cattle would go into the river they would do the things cattle do in rivers, and that would all go to the Chesapeake Bay."

The abbey is cost-sharing the land with nearby Great Country Farms, whose workers have spent months planting a bevy of fruits and vegetables at Holy Cross - everything from tomatoes, zucchini and squash to cucumbers, blueberries and cantaloupe.

Ed Leonard says he's confident these initiatives will get Holy Cross Abbey back on firm financial footing. And Brother Efrain and Brother Barnabas actually second his motion.

"It's all exciting for us, because it's for our future," Efrian says. "We need something to sustain us in the future."

"I think we're going to have sufficient revenue to continue, to go on," says Barnabas.

But, he hastens to add, much still depends on God's will.

"Now all we have to do is hope that God will choose younger men - ya know, 40s, 50s, and that they will come," he says. "That they will hear the call and come."

Photos: Virginia Trappist Monks


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