Virginia Trappist Monks Grapple With Uncertain Future (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Virginia Trappist Monks Grapple With Uncertain Future

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
Welcome to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir. And happy almost end of 2012. Can you believe it? It's almost the end of the year. But before we ring in 2013, we wanted to pause a bit and bring you a sort of year in review. And we don't mean the year in review that covers the big huge stories of 2012. Instead, we want to bring you stories that are, you might say, quintessentially "Metro Connection," stories that take you on unexpected adventures across the region.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1

00:00:39
When the poop hits the fan, the adrenalin flows.

SHEIR

00:00:41
And introduce you to some particularly intriguing characters.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2

00:00:45
Yeah, I'm known as the cat lady.

SHEIR

00:00:48
First, though, we'll head to Clarke County, Va. Just turned right onto Cool Spring Road and we are surrounded by corn. Right in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, lots and lots of corn on the left-side of the road, on the right-side of the road, to a 1,200 acre Trappist monastery. Wow, this place, like, goes on forever, known as Holy Cross Abbey. Okay, here we are. Holy Cross was founded in 1950 when 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 7th century, living quiet lives of renunciation, simplicity and contemplation.

SHEIR

00:01:36
The monastery grew rapidly in its first 20 years, and at its height, it was home to 60 monks.

BROTHER BARNABAS BROWNSEY

00:01:41
And we're down to about 13 now, I think. So there's been quite an attrition.

SHEIR

00:01:47
And as Brother Barnabas Brownsey points out, 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 Brother Barnabas...

BROWNSEY

00:02:02
I'm 78 years old.

SHEIR

00:02:03
...is just a little bit older than the average. And like several of his fellow monks, he admits he isn't in the best of health. He actually ran the monastery's fruitcake bakery for 15 years. It produces, like, 15,000 cakes annually.

BROWNSEY

00:02:17
But then, one year, my understudy enrolled in the seminary, so he was not available for the fruitcake season. And at the end of the season, I was busted. I was burned out.

SHEIR

00:02:32
Holy Cross's abbot, Father Robert, took note of the situation and called Barnabas into his office where he promptly took him off fruitcake duty.

BROWNSEY

00:02:40
I said, Father, if I was able, I'd jump across the desk and kiss you. So he was relieved, and so was I.

SHEIR

00:02:50
We're laughing here, sure, but here's the thing, Holy Cross's monks are getting older and so are the men who've been joining the order. Most have already had another whole career, if not two or three. I mean, take Brother Barnabas, he'd been an engineer, an executive and an English teacher and had been married with kids. 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.

BROTHER EFRAIN SOSA

00:03:18
At age 53, I decided I want to do this. And so I came here and they accepted me.

SHEIR

00:03:24
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, is the vocation director also the novice director?

SOSA

00:03:35
No. No, it's usually separate. But in our case because we're so small right now, we multitask here. That's our middle names, "Efrain Multi-task Sosa."

SHEIR

00:03:48
Okay, once again we laugh and to be honest, all this laughing did kind of surprise me in a place devoted to a centuries long tradition of quiet contemplation. But the thing is, while Brother Efrain may hold two jobs, his hands aren't necessarily all that full. Are there any novices now?

SOSA

00:04:06
No. We don't have any. 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.

SHEIR

00:04:15
Now, whether they'll choose to stay is anyone's guess. The most recent observer at Holy Cross to become a postulant and then a novice, then to take solemn vows was Brother Efrain himself.

SOSA

00:04:26
And I've been a monk here now for seven years.

SHEIR

00:04:28
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 exactly 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 and feed core and land at less than market rate. The monks also have a retreat house for visitors. That's where I stayed during my visit. But the house barely brings in enough money to cover its own costs. And yet, when I ask Brother Efrain and Brother Barnabas about all of this, they have the same basic response.

SOSA

00:05:07
This is God's work.

BROWNSEY

00:05:08
It's in God's hands.

SOSA

00:05:09
This is not ours.

BROWNSEY

00:05:10
If God wants us to be here...

SOSA

00:05:11
If God wants this monastery to be here...

BROWNSEY

00:05:14
...we'll be here.

SOSA

00:05:14
...it will be here.

BROWNSEY

00:05:15
If he doesn't, we'll go somewhere else.

SOSA

00:05:18
His Will always comes through.

BROWNSEY

00:05:19
God's Will, will be what will be and it's up to us to accept it.

SHEIR

00:05:24
But meanwhile, adds Brother Barnabas...

BROWNSEY

00:05:26
We have to do the best we can with what we have. It's as simple as that.

SHEIR

00:05:30
Which is why, in 2007, Holy Cross embarked on a five-year plan to make the monastery more sustainable. How are you?

MR. ED LEONARD

00:05:38
Good. Was that too long of a walk?

SHEIR

00:05:41
It was lovely.

LEONARD

00:05:42
Yeah.

SHEIR

00:05:43
Lovely. And as the five years come to a close, the guy heading up the sustainability efforts is Chief Sustainability Officer Ed Leonard. So what is this structure in which we are standing?

LEONARD

00:05:54
This is our funeral chapel, but I think we need to call it something else. I'm not sure chapel is really the right word, commemoration building?

SHEIR

00:06:02
Whatever the term, the wood building is about the size of your average barn, with open walls, kind of like a picnic shelter at a park, only this one has a bell, a steeple and a composting toilet. It's part of the new Cool Spring Natural Cemetery, a green burial ground for people of all faiths. Is there -- is there like a wooden casket, is there no casket?

LEONARD

00:06:23
If you'd like a wood casket, that's perfectly fine, but you can also be buried in just a shroud. You know, 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?

SHEIR

00:06:33
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.

LEONARD

00:06:47
Cattle are very tough on the land. And the 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.

SHEIR

00:06:57
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...

LEONARD

00:07:07
Here to our left we have an asparagus patch.

SHEIR

00:07:11
...to cucumbers, blueberries and cantaloupe, which incidentally -- fresh cantaloupe...

LEONARD

00:07:16
Yeah, how about that.

SHEIR

00:07:17
...may very well be the most succulent cantaloupe I've ever tasted.

LEONARD

00:07:22
I even have napkins.

SHEIR

00:07:23
I don't need a napkin. I need a napkin. Ed Leonard says he's confident these initiatives will get Holy Cross Abbey back on firm financial footing. And when I ask Brother Efrain and Brother Barnabas how they feel, curious to get your thoughts about that, lessening the number of cattle and making more farming, the cemetery, the open air chapel. What are your thoughts on all of these projects? They both second Ed's motion.

SOSA

00:07:48
It's all exciting for us because it's for our future. We need something to sustain us in the future.

BROWNSEY

00:07:54
I think we're going to have sufficient revenue to continue, to go on.

SHEIR

00:07:59
But Brother Barnabas hastens to add, much still depends on God's Will.

BROWNSEY

00:08:05
And now all we have to do is hope that God will choose younger men, by young, you know, 40s, 50s and that they will come. They will hear the call and come.

SHEIR

00:08:42
To see photos of Holy Cross Abbey, including the green cemetery, the farm, the 18th century house, the fruitcake bakery, even some chocolate covered fruitcake, which the monks call Frater's or Fraters, visit our website metroconnection.org.
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