MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir. And this week, we're bringing you up to date on stories from months past in a show we're calling "Follow Ups." Earlier in the hour, we heard how a beloved D.C. hardware store is rising from the ashes of a devastating fire that hit in June. And in just a bit, we'll see what's been happening at a shrinking wetland that we visited about a year ago. But first,
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
In July of 2012, we took you to Berryville, Virginia to the 1200-acre Trappist monastery known as Holy Cross Abbey.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
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 been dwindling, 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.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
At the time, Brother Barnabas Brownsey, who was 78, was full of hope.
FR. BARNABAS BROWNSEY
I think we're gonna have sufficient revenue to continue, to go on.
Well, a year and a half later, it seems Barnabus was right. The organic farm is thriving. 60 people have purchased plots in the cemetery. And, as of earlier this month, all 1200 acres of the monastery went into perpetual conservation easement.
FR. ROBERT BARNES
There. In the name of all the brothers of Holy Cross Abbey, it is now in permanent easement in Clarke County.
That's Father Robert Barnes, Holy Cross's 72-year-old abbot, at the easement signing ceremony in one of the abbey's libraries.
Let's go back over to where the champagne is.
As Father Robert explains, what the monks have done, by signing this contract...
Is to guarantee that this land will never go into 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. Those big guys on each side of us. 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 two and a half million dollars 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 a very important land.
But, going back a bit to what Father Robert said about should we ever need to sell this land. I mean, the monastery's financial footing is getting more and more solid.
And that's well and good, but what if we don't have people joining us? 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 Barnabus Brownsey, are now in a nursing home run by the Daughters of Charity. But, here's the thing.
We've also had two new men come and have now joined as novices. And they seem like they've been very good additions to the community here.
As Holy Cross's Chief Sustainability Officer, Ed Leonard, has been heading up efforts like the organic farm and the natural cemetery. And he says 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.
The other man came from New York City.
Where he was Capuchin monk in the past, 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, but in terms of the community, they would bring the average age down here. So, from a human capital standpoint, the monastery is actually, you know, beginning to turn itself around.
If somewhat slowly. Gillian Bearns is the Easement Program Stewardship Counsel with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. As such, she helps draft the 55-page conservation easement contract with Holy Cross Abbey.
MS. GILLIAN BEARNS
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 the religious use. And we had to ask them to think broadly, in terms of what is your religious activities, what is your religious mission, and what might it be in 50 years?
And figuring that out, she says, was and is no small task.
Look, there's 12 members. Their average age is 75. And 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, OK, 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 when I entered, back in the early 60s. 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. 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 tries to stay realistic.
We tell everyone who comes, you're here to discern what God wants you to do. We're gonna 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 gonna 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 what is known is that, if nothing else, the monastery's land will remain, just as it is, for generations to come.
To see photos of Holy Cross's conservationally eased at 1200 acres, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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