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Nestled in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, right along the Shenandoah River, Holy Cross was founded in 1950, and was once home to 60 monks of all ages.
When we visited, the brotherhood had dwindled to 13 monks, with an average age in the mid-70s. Their fruitcake business had dwindled, too.
But things were looking up financially: the brothers had recently leased some of their land to organic farmers, and they were starting a natural cemetery: an environmentally-friendly burial ground for people of all faiths.
At the time, Brother Barnabas Brownsey — who was 78 — was full of hope.
“I think we're going to have sufficient revenue to continue,” he said, “to go on.”
A year and a half later, it seems Barnabas was right. The organic farm is thriving. Sixty people have purchased plots in the cemetery. And as of earlier this month, all 1,200 acres of the monastery are now in perpetual conservation easement.
Father Robert Barnes, Holy Cross’s 72-year-old abbot, says that what the monks have done by signing this contract “is to guarantee that this land will never go in to any kind of development, but will always remain rural, natural, agricultural use. And so should we ever need to sell this land, we’re giving away prospective buyers who would want to pay a very fine price to do development on it.”
Which is thrilling for many people in Clarke County, since now the county has more than a fifth of its land under conservation easement. As Father Robert points out, that’s quite a contrast from the rapidly-developing counties next door.
“We’re right between Loudoun County and Frederick County, and we’re sort of the little boy yelling, ‘Look at me!’ [to] those big guys on each side of us,” he says. “So Clarke County is making a name for itself in the state.”
In exchange for putting Holy Cross’s land under easement, the monks will receive about $2.5 million from the Department of the Interior and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. That’s because the monastery is located on historic land: back in 1864, it was the site of the biggest Civil War battle in Clarke County, the Battle of Cool Spring.
“It’s nothing like Gettysburg or Antietam, but for our local history, it’s very important land,” Father Robert says.
Father Robert acknowledges that the monastery’s financial footing is getting more and more solid, “but what if we don’t have people joining us?” he asks. “We’re very much aware that we’re shrinking."
Indeed, since the last time we visited Holy Cross, two monks have died, and three — including Brother Barnabas Brownsey — are now in a nursing home run by the Daughters of Charity.
But, two new men have come and joined as novices. And Ed Leonard, Holy Cross Abbey’s Chief Sustainability Officer says “they seem they’ve been very good additions to the community here.”
One of the new men first visited the Abbey on a retreat “and liked the life and asked the monastery if he could actually come here and be what’s called an observer, which is the period before formally becoming a monk,” Leonard explains.
The other man, Leonard says, came from New York City, “where he was a Capuchin monk in the past. [He] went back to civilian life and then decided he really liked the idea of being a monk. And now he’s formally in the process of becoming a member of the community here.” Leonard says both men are in their late 50s/early 60s.
“So relatively speaking they’re older,” he says. “But in terms of the community, they would bring the average age down here. So from the human capital standpoint, the monastery is actually beginning to turn itself around.”
But that turn-around is, of course, rather slow. Gillian Bearns is the Easement Program Stewardship Counsel with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. As such, she helped draft the 55-page conservation easement contract with Holy Cross Abbey.
“We had to draft our easement in a different way than we would normally, for, say, a private property owner, because we have to accommodate their religious use,” she says of the monks. “And we had to ask them to think broadly in terms of ‘What is [sic] your religious activities? What is your religious mission? And what might it be in 50 years?’”
And that last question, she says, wasn’t very easy to answer.
“Look,” she says. “There [are] 12 members. Their average age is 75. They don’t know where they’ll be, never mind in 50 years, but in 10 years. And so one of the things we had to think about was, okay, what are the likely future uses of this property should the monastery cease to exist?”
It may seem like a harsh question, but as Father Robert willingly admits, it’s a fair one.
“The world has changed so much from the time I entered [the monastery], back in the early 60s,” he explains. “People don’t understand how monastic life can be meaningful for them. They don’t make quick decisions anymore. They have to ponder this. They have to weigh it.
“They have to think about all their involvements and all their commitments and everything. [It was] nothing like that for me. At 19, I realized my big sacrifice I was making was my mother’s cooking!”
That’s why when new people express interest in joining Holy Cross, Father Robert says he always tries to stay realistic.
“We tell everyone that comes: you’re here to discern what God wants you to do,” he explains. “We’re going to help you find if He wants you here. If He does, that’s wonderful, but if he is calling you to somewhere else, we’re going to help you find that. That’s our part of the bargain with God!”
Several new observers are coming to Holy Cross Abbey in January. And of course, whether they’ll choose to remain is unknown. But Father Robert takes comfort in the fact that, if nothing else, the monastery’s land will remain, just as it is, for generations to come.
[Music: "Gregorian Chant Chillout Lounge" by Classical Cafe Chill Lounge Music Bar from Aria del Mar Vol. 2: Benedictine & Gregorian Chant Chillout Lounge]