By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published April 15, 2004
Published: April 15, 2004
CONYERS—The monks began their monastery in 1944 “with a simple hay-barn, and have made it into a manger of salvation for countless souls,” Archbishop John F. Donoghue said. “They have helped grace to build miracles, upon the simplicity of what God has given them.”
Speaking on the 60th anniversary of the founding of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Abbey, the archbishop said the journey that has unfolded at this Cistercian monastery over six decades, and that continues to unfold, is part of the great activity of the Holy Spirit in the church over generations.
The anniversary Mass was celebrated March 21. Other anniversary events, including a monthly series of Sunday concerts and a Mass in July, are also taking place in 2004.
“Today, dear friends, the family restored, the Church, gathers to celebrate in a special way, the life of our Cistercian brothers here in our Lady’s domicile, a house held up by her hand, under the protective wings of the Holy Spirit,” Archbishop Donoghue said. “We are grateful to these brothers for many things they give us—their obedience, poverty, chastity—their silence, humility—their work and their prayer. We are grateful for them all, living and dead, for their life is one life . . . ”
He recalled the founding monks’ journey in 1944 from Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky to rural Rockdale County, to found the monastery on a piece of land known as Honey Creek Plantation. Their first home was a hay barn.
In an oral history, one of the founders, Father Corentine Finnegan, OCSO, recalled it this way: “When we stopped in the barn I was wondering, what in the world did they stop here for . . . We had cells, and a little place for the chapel on top of the barn . . . Then we found out ‘This is it.’”
The founding monks later built a temporary monastery, and as the community grew, a permanent monastery and the abbey church were constructed, along with other buildings.
The archbishop recalled those early years saying, “We must remember the farewell to the founders, by their brethren at Gethsemani, as they passed out of the gate, and took to the road—the passage on train, the arrival in Georgia, the transport by car out into Rockdale County, to the farm called Honey Creek, to the barn, and the buildings that would rise in just a few years.”
He also recalled the abbots who have served at this monastery, “James, Robert, Augustine, Armand, Bernard, Basil,” and the monks who lived and died there and “would rather their names be forgotten, who rest behind us in sacred ground, and whose joy will return to this place, when Christ comes in glory, and brings glory to all who wait for Him.”
“The existence of the monastery moves on in time, day after day, life after life—and the monastery works while she waits—waits upon that day of all glory,” the archbishop said.
“But today is no end of the journey. We are merely resting, in one another’s company, but knowing all the while, that there is an unfolding path before us, a path whereupon to encounter what God has written into the scripts of our lives, and where we must be ready to make our own movements, and give our own answers, to the people and events He sends our way.”
He quoted St. Benedict, whose birth into eternal life is celebrated on March 21, and whose Rule provides the foundation for monastic life.
“Do not run away from the way of salvation, whose beginning must be narrow. But as we advance in the religious life and faith, we shall follow the way of God’s commandments with expanded hearts and unspeakable sweetness of love; so that never straying from His guidance and applying ourselves in the monastery to His teaching until we die, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ, and be approved as co-inheritors with Him of His kingdom.”
Father Francis Michael Stiteler, OCSO, superior of the monastery, said that the support coming from Catholics and the wider community of Atlanta at this time is very heartening. The monastery right now has 12 senior monks who need full-time care in the monastery infirmary, and he has made an unusual appeal to the public in recent months to make donations to help cover the exceptional costs associated with nursing and medical care.
“Right now we are taking care of almost one-third of the community,” he said, and other monks are in their 90s but still active and mobile. Because of their ages “we could easily add another five or six people” to those receiving nursing care in the future, he said. “How we would do that, I don’t know.”
The monks are self-supporting and live on the income from their monastic industries and any donations they receive, while also giving to the poor. Their industries include a fruitcake business, a gift and bookstore (which also has a presence on the Web), a bonsai greenhouse, a tree farm and a stained-glass workshop. They also have a retreat house.
“The good news is that both with the article in The Georgia Bulletin and in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution we have seen a rise in contributions both in terms of money and in terms of people willing to donate their time and expertise,” he said. For the year ending Jan. 31, 2004, they were in the black for the first time in four or five years due to contributions.
However, he said, “the need is ongoing” and the month of February 2004 showed a new deficit as they continue to cover the care-giving and nursing costs for the elderly monks, which have risen.
Support has also come from archdiocesan pastors who have held collections for the monastery or offered to do so in the near future, Father Francis Michael said.
“All of that is very heartening to hear. We have gotten a number of very touching letters,” including one from 25 members of a Sunday school class at Woodstock Methodist Church, and a generous donation from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur.
“Your heart goes ‘wow,’” Father Francis Michael said. “These people are so wonderful.”
Also encouraging are the monthly concerts being held in the 60th anniversary year one Sunday a month.
The next concert on Sunday, April 25, at 4 p.m. will feature the Martin Luther King Sr. Choir from Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The concerts are free. Afterward a free-will offering is taken and a reception is held with the musicians and those attending. The monastery gift store is also opened for a few hours following the concert.
Hearing the choir from Ebenezer Baptist Church in the abbey will “be something. I certainly want to hear that,” the superior said.
The concerts, which are the brainchild of Father Paul Bolton, military chaplain at Fort McPherson and a longtime friend of the monastery, have been “a great idea.”
Although the community in its 60th year faces unusual challenges, he says, “I’m not overly worried about it.”
“I think spiritually we are doing alright. This is the road we have to walk now with these old monks and we intend to walk it.”
The monastery is located at 2625 Highway 212, SW, Conyers. For directions or information call (770) 483-8705.