By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published November 29, 2007
They were here in 1944, living one of the most ancient expressions of Catholic spirituality, when there was only one Catholic family in Rockdale County. And they are here today, 63 years later, still living that life, when the archdiocese numbers 650,000 Catholics.
As Abbot Francis Michael Stiteler—who was elected from within the community—says, the monks at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit want to be here for their 100th year and beyond.
So the Cistercian monks, more commonly known as Trappists, over the past few years have prayed, reflected and discussed how best to stabilize their community financially, seeking business advice and opening the doors to outside facilitators and analysts.
At the same time they have had to also plan how, in light of development around them, to sustain the natural and historical treasure of the monastery itself and its land, and the precious gift of their cloistered contemplative life.
Through difficult transitions and some remarkable events, the 45 monks have discerned as a community and now have a vision for their future and a master plan, which they call “a season of renewal” for the monastery.
They believe the changes envisioned will strengthen their retreat work, enhance the joy of visiting the monastery, connect their spiritual reverence for God’s creation with a national heritage area that crosses their property, and build upon the already significant number of people who come to their beautiful and sacred grounds, whether for a few hours of peace or for a few days of retreat.
Tranquil Exterior, But A Lot Is Happening
So much appears calm and tranquil, looking down the driveway flanked by magnolia trees planted by the monks who came in 1944. But there is a lot happening inside the 2,000-acre site.
Monks’ lives are lives of work and prayer, not prayer alone. The manual labor required for monastic life also supports the monastery. Today’s industries at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit include a bonsai pottery business, the baking and packaging of homemade monastic fudge and Southern-style fruitcakes, and the designing and creation of stained glass windows. The largest source of revenue is monk-directed retreats given at the monastery for both men and women, but this income is only one-tenth of what the monks need to sustain themselves. The next strongest industry is sales at the Abbey Store, the monks’ shop of religious articles and books, or online. As a religious order, the monks do not receive funds from the Archdiocese of Atlanta. They do not have a parish to help sustain them. They are intended to be self-supporting.
When the abbot, who is 57, was elected in 2003, many of the senior monks, including those who founded the monastery and built the buildings, had become infirm. They could not perform manual labor and were being cared for, primarily by younger monks. Abruptly, the cost of medical care and the need to employ lay people for work monks had formerly done put the monastery in the red, Abbot Francis Michael said. “We were running several hundreds of thousands of dollars in the hole every year.”
“We went from an ability to take care of ourselves to a state where we were running in the hole, with the inability of our industries year after year to cover the gap,” he said. “We began asking ourselves how can we move into the 21st century in a sustainable fashion? What do we need to do to get back on track? The community began to discuss it. We brought in some outside facilitators. We decided we needed to know where we were to start with.”
Business Advisers, Study Confirm Future Directions
Through Father Methodius Telnack’s stained glass work, they had a contact at the Pazdan-Smith Group, a South Carolina architectural firm. They discovered one of the principals had taught a master’s degree class in Atlanta and assigned his students a conceptual project involving the monastery. He called his former students, now working professionals, and they came to the monastery to help evaluate some aspects of the challenges facing the community. He was eventually hired not to build, but to deliberate various issues with them.
Around the same time, the abbot approached a possible benefactor for help. The anonymous benefactor “wanted to help us, but wanted to be sure we were sustainable,” he said. “They had us do a sustainability study” to investigate whether the monastic community would be viable into the future. An outside firm did the in-depth study to ensure objectivity.
Over the decades, the monks had worked in various industries to support the community, including haying, raising cattle, and baking and selling bread. Those were replaced by the industries of today as the size of the community and median age changed, and as the nature of the metropolitan area evolved. What would the industries of the future be?
“Interestingly enough, both (outside studies) came to the same conclusions pretty much,” the abbot said. “The best way to survive into the future was through visitors and tourism.”
Monks Were Always ‘Wonderful Community Citizens’
Over the years, the monastery has become a crossroads between those who spend their lives within it and those who come to draw something eternal into their souls and return to their active lives in the world outside. Many visitors are not Catholic, and because the monks were among the first Catholics in the area, they have always had ties with the broader community.
Harriet Gattis, tourism manager for the city of Conyers’ convention and visitors bureau, grew up in Conyers and her father and grandfather, both doctors, were involved with the monastery from the beginning.
“I remember my dad saying a lot of people didn’t know how to take them,” she said, but her father also told her “they were wonderful community citizens. Whenever there was a vote, they got on the bus and came to the precinct and voted. Anytime there was a blood shortage, they could pick up the phone and call the abbot, and (the monks) would come with their sleeves rolled up. They had a volunteer fire department that probably saved the homes and farms on the south side of Rockdale because the fire department couldn’t get there. A lot of the farmers did a lot of business with them. They got their hay from them.”
When she began representing Conyers as a tourism destination in 1996, the monastery was the most popular place for tourists in the county, but it was still unknown to many people in Atlanta. She worked with Father Methodius to find ways to promote visits to the monastery during the Olympics.
“I knew far too many people didn’t know the gem they had, particularly located so close to a major metropolitan area,” she said.
“Being Protestant, I think it offers a refuge,” Gattis said. “It is a tranquil, peaceful place that in today’s world is hard to find. I enjoy the opportunity I have to take groups out there. I always tell them my blood pressure is lower the minute I turn on (Highway) 212. … This is what all of us are seeking in this busy technological world. We are all looking for a place to turn our cell phones off and encounter God.”
‘A Lot Of Catholics … Don’t Know Monastery Is Here’
The abbot, who came to the community 33 years ago from Philadelphia, believes through its prayer life and monastic environment, the monastery has contributed significantly to the spiritual building up of the archdiocese.
“The monastery has played a central role in the growth of the Catholic Church in North Georgia and Atlanta without a doubt,” he said. Prior to 1956, Atlanta was not a diocese. The monastery “provided a place for the early priests to come and pray. It still provides a support to priests.”
Many men discerning vocations to the priesthood or the permanent diaconate have come to the monastery on retreat or received spiritual direction from one of the monks, the abbot noted. Lay people have been the ones who most often come for the weekend or weekday retreats. “Through the retreat house we have managed to touch the lives of thousands and thousands of people.”
Yet despite over six decades of presence, he finds Catholics are not aware of the monastery as one would expect.
“I get a sense now a lot of Catholics who have arrived in the last 15 years don’t know the monastery is here and don’t know the history of the monastery in the archdiocese,” he said. “We hope we can be here for future generations as well, having served the diocese for over 60 years.”
The master plan, with several phases, completed by the Pazdan-Smith Group and voted on by the monks will require support from the North Georgia community, and a capital campaign with an initial goal of $11.7 million is anticipated to begin in 2008. One of its central points is to develop what is already most viable about the monastery’s interaction with people into stronger industries so the community can be self-supporting again.
New Retreat House, New Public Areas Planned
Phase I includes building a new retreat house because the existing retreat house was built 50 years ago for a different purpose and was intended then only for use by men. There are not enough private bathrooms and the heating and cooling system is outdated.
The new retreat house will be on the shores of a lake. There will be 48 private rooms, each with a capacity for single or double occupancy and each room will have a private bathroom. This will allow the new facility to better accommodate married couples and larger groups. Rooms will have lake views and the facility will be designed around a courtyard. In addition, there will be six meeting rooms, a chapel, library and parlor in the house and a parking lot and bridge connecting the retreat house to the church.
The old retreat house will be renovated to accommodate a new kitchen and dining facilities for retreatants. It is estimated that the number of retreatants per year will double. The old retreat house will continue to operate until the new one is built because retreats are such an important part of sustaining the monastery financially. A new road would be constructed to the retreat house.
100-Year-Old Barn Would Become Museum Of Monastic Life
The second major aspect of Phase I would create a new area at the monastery where the public can more easily access the grounds, a larger Abbey Store and an expanded bonsai garden center. It will also add a new museum and café.
Right now visitors drive up the paved magnolia-lined road which forks, taking guests either to the store’s parking lot or the retreat house.
Under the new vision for the site, an existing gravel road would be paved, creating a new entrance to the grounds that would take visitors to the original historic barn where the monks lived when they arrived in 1944. The vision is to create in the 100-year-old barn an interactive museum of monastic life, which would show on the upper story how the monks lived on the site when they arrived and on the ground floor depict the history of monasticism.
Adjacent to the barn, the existing pottery barn would be renovated into a new Abbey Store and a café would be added to serve beverages and light refreshments. The existing bonsai garden center at the monastery, which currently ships bonsai supplies all over the world through a mail order business, would be relocated to adjacent barns, which would allow more space to house the sales center and mail order office and to grow bonsai and store pottery. A new greenhouse would be built between the two barns.
A piazza is envisioned to link these buildings into one publicly accessible space with parking, paths, and signs. A new wall is planned that will serve as a demarcation between the cloistered area where the monks live and the public spaces.
The current Abbey Store would be renovated into a temporary conference center and the gatehouse would be renovated to serve as an office and a visitor center where monks can meet guests. The magnolia drive would become a walking area, closed to traffic.
Monastery Designated As Gateway To National Heritage Area
The land, which now is partially accessible to the public for walking and picnics and primarily cloistered, is a treasure in its own right. Many Native American artifacts have been found on the grounds. There are many varied natural habitats and an abundance of plants and wildlife.
Recently the monastery was designated as one of five gateways into the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area, which will eventually connect land along the South River on the monastery property with other private and public parcels in Rockdale, Henry and DeKalb counties, for walking, hiking and bike riding. The heritage area was designated by Congress last October, one of only two in the state and only 37 nationwide.
The monastery last year also agreed to protect a section of its land in perpetuity as a natural habitat, and, in exchange, the city of Atlanta paid the community over $750,000 for the conservation easement, a payment which is helping the monastery begin to acquire a key parcel of land in the midst of its cloistered site and secure it from development in the future. Had they not been able to acquire this site, it was slated to become a housing development for over 300 homes.
The landowner offered the parcel to the monastery first, aware that development would impact the community drastically. Because of the financial duress they were under, the monks deliberated long and hard before agreeing that it was essential to acquire this land.
“The community voted after much discussion—I would say over a year of discussion—that it would be better to sell edges of our property than to let 300 homes be built there, so we proceeded with that clear vote,” the abbot said.
The monastery is also discussing the use of a 35-acre section of their land for a conservation burial ground–or green cemetery– which will be run by a private company and open to the public, providing some income to the community.
The new entrance would move the public areas further away from both retreatants and the cloistered area of the monastery, keeping those areas quieter and more monastic. The new entrance would also be more closely aligned with future public access on the other side of Highway 212 to the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area. It is hoped hikers, bike riders and trail walkers will also come across to the public areas at the monastery.
Contemplative Life Radiates Outward
All decisions at the monastery are made by the monastic community, after extensive reflection and discussion.
The idea to go forward with addressing the need for a new retreat house and a new public area has been accepted by the community, the abbot said.
“There is a unified sense that we are going to move forward and do it. It is embraced by the majority of the community,” he said.
“From my perspective as abbot, this is an unlooked for, or unsought, but necessary occasion to shape our future, not just in terms of sustainability but how we sustain ourselves. This is an opportunity not just to have a new retreat house, but to make it a better experience for the retreatants. … Likewise, we are going to go into it in such a way that we can still remain a cloistered, enclosed community and maybe even better (in sustaining that quality) than in the past.”
The master plan is ambitious sounding, but the abbot is not deterred. Ambitious, in the monastic worldview, is what 21 monks did in 1944 when they were sent from Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky to found the new monastery on empty pastures in Rockdale County.
“They got driven out here to a barn and had nothing,” the abbot said. “Within 16 years they had built first a wood monastery and then this monastery, which would be worth $30 to $40 million today. Talk about ambitious!”
“I don’t want to downplay $11.7 million. If we can make it less expensive, we certainly will,” he continued. “We need a new retreat house. We need to get our industries in line to support ourselves. … We are certainly not going to do anything ostentatious. Too many people here have a deep sense of simplicity and functionality to let that happen.”
Future phases propose the possibility of building a day use conference center that would allow groups to come in for a daylong meeting or reflection without impinging on the solitude and silence of the retreat house. Also a new building within the cloistered area is proposed where the monks can make the fudge and fruitcake and possibly other baked goods in a modern commercial kitchen. The bakery they now use is about 50 years old. The fudge and fruitcake industries, both of which have been developed since the year 2000, have caught the public’s attention, but have room to grow. Last year the monks made and sold about 10,000 to 12,000 pounds of fudge, but older monasteries have grown their confections into industries that sell 100,000 pounds a year.
The full master plan would also include restoration work to the Abbey Church, built by the monks over a 15-year period, and to other original monastic buildings.
Much change is planned to sustain the community, and the public is encouraged and invited to visit and come to know the monastery. At the heart of the place is an ascetic, contemplative life that still draws people to give everything to God. Their commitment is the heartbeat of the monastery, the hidden life illuminating the beauty of the buildings, the land and the open space.
All they plan to do, and the help they will need from people in the archdiocese to accomplish it, “is the means that allows me to live the life and others to live the life,” the abbot said.
“Is there a place for cloistered contemplatives in the 21st century? I think there is,” Abbot Francis Michael said. “It is what I want to be. … As long as I am abbot I will preach it—that we need to protect and defend the cloistered, contemplative life. Let’s make sure this inner precious life continues.”