By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published January 21, 2010
For over 65 years the Monastery of the Holy Spirit has contributed in a unique way to the tapestry of Catholicism in North Georgia. It has been a center of ecumenism, a place of refuge and solace for hundreds of thousands of people from all backgrounds and all walks of life, and a Catholic retreat where everyone from parish priests, to Catholic groups, to individuals find spiritual renewal.
Now the Trappist monks are looking to the people of North Georgia for support. Over the weekend of Jan. 30-31, an appeal on behalf of the monastery will be presented in archdiocesan churches. It will describe how the public can help the monks as they reshape their industries in order to meet their current expenses and restore self-sustainability, which is at the heart of their rule of life.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, in a letter to Catholics, says, “The monks have lived from the work of their own hands, first through farming, and more recently from their gift shop and the sale of food products, bonsai trees and stained glass, as well as a green cemetery.”
“In recent years, the monks’ mandate of self-sufficiency has been challenged by the medical costs of caring for their aging brethren,” he says.
However, the monks have responded to the challenges with self-study and a resulting strategic plan to direct their efforts toward rebuilding their industries, he says. It is called a “Season of Renewal.”
“The Monastery of the Holy Spirit remains 40 strong and has the most members making their solemn professions of any monastery in the United States,” the archbishop notes. “To continue to attract those considering monastic life, the monastery is seeking to restore fiscal sustainability, be good stewards of the land entrusted to them, and continue the tradition of spiritual hospitality.”
Over the past four years, with the assistance of outside professionals and after a sustainability study, the monks have developed a long-range vision and plan. It includes the development of a section of their land to welcome even more public visitors than the estimated 80,000 who already come each year, and to extend to them hospitality and insights into the monastic life while protecting the cloistered area where the monks live.
Monastery Established In 1944
Monks of the Cistercian order, commonly known as Trappists, came in 1944 to Rockdale County from their long-established Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky, so the Catholic presence could be planted in North Georgia.
The pioneer monks lived in a barn for 10 months while they built their first temporary monastery. Then they carved out and built the traditional structures of a monastery: a cloister, dormitories, a library, study rooms, a chapter room where the community meets, dining facilities, a retreat house and eventually a soaring Gothic church. All the while, they sustained the prayer life that is the essence of a monk’s day from 4 a.m. until 9 p.m.
As part of the future plan, a new road into the monastery will lead to a new abbey store, a small café, and a new welcome center. The historic barn where they lived will become part of a new monastic center, where the public can see exhibits on the history of monasticism as well as view restored areas showing how the pioneers lived in early days.
The monastery already sells bonsai trees and tools and has the largest selection of bonsai pottery in the country as well as a mail order business that ships bonsai supplies worldwide. To expand this operation, the current bonsai garden center will be relocated to adjacent barns and a new greenhouse built.
A cloister area where the public can gather will include a piazza. Walking tours of the monastery will leave from this area. A prayer wall will be constructed to mark the boundary between the cloistered area of the monastery, and guide guests from the monastic center to the abbey church.
This rebuilding campaign is estimated to cost $6.5 million. Approximately $3.5 million has already been pledged or contributed by donors. The monastery is now seeking the support of the general public.
The process of developing this plan and seeking public support has been a departure from their traditional life of work and prayer. It has brought out a new awareness of what the monastery provides to the thousands who come each year, both Catholic and non-Catholic, and how vital it is to preserve this.
Abbot Francis Michael Stiteler observes, “This monastery is a sacred place for everybody, for all people.”
“It is a Catholic place. We are decidedly Catholic,” the abbot says. “But our church itself, anybody can come and give themselves to it. People who would never darken a Catholic church come here. It is a place of silence, of solitude. People can come to pray, even if they don’t call it prayer. That is a wondrous thing.”
The capital campaign is intended to ensure that this sacred place is still here for those who come along in the future, “so the next generation has a place to come to, to step aside into,” he says.
He is also moved when he looks out and sees a priest of the archdiocese sitting in a pew in the church in quiet prayer. He knows with joy that the monastery has provided a place “where these men, who are on the front lines, can come and pray and maybe go to confession. That is really powerful to me too. That again is really heartwarming to me.”
While he knows that for many reasons, including the current economic situation, asking for financial support is uncertain, he is filled with faith.
“Four years we have been at this. We have been prayerful. We have been prudent. Because of that I feel confident,” the abbot says.
‘It Is A Treasure’
Supporters of the monastery include former University of Georgia athletic director and football coach Vince Dooley and his wife, Barbara. Dooley said he first came to the monastery on retreat almost 45 years ago when he arrived in Athens. He became friends with several of the monks, including the late Abbot Augustine Moore.
“It’s been a very important part of my life, to be able to go over there and take time not only to slow down but almost to stop and reflect and ask the question, what am I doing and where am I going. It has been extremely beneficial to me,” Dooley said.
He has always tried to come on retreat at least once a year.
“When I was asked to participate in the campaign, knowing the background and the history and the great work they do, the devotion, we didn’t hesitate to pledge our support,” Dooley said.
“It is really important to get them self-sustained again, which they have been for so many years. This is all about building them a place that will help them keep their privacy and their meditation and at the same time offer the public the opportunity to visit,” he said. “I think in some ways it is one of the great secrets (in the area). … Those that live in the immediate community know how it’s been a great asset and (the monks) good community servants, but I don’t think there’s enough people in Atlanta and throughout the state who know what a treasure it is.”
Businessman Mike Jansen began coming to the monastery when he was a boy. His family moved to Georgia in 1971 and a mission that would become St. Pius X Parish in Conyers was starting on the grounds of the monastery. When he was 11 years old, he started working on weekends and in the summers staking tomatoes, hoeing vegetables and doing other jobs alongside the monks. He credits them with his success in life.
“From a child’s perspective it was always very interesting to me,” Jansen said. “I got to see them in all aspects of their lives, their commitments to their jobs, how they got along with each other, to see how arguments are resolved, the forgiveness they give each other. … I also credit them with a lot of the things that I learned about hard work, working not so much for your satisfaction but working to please God. … I learned a lot about working by myself and disciplining myself and working with other people that are skills I believe helped me to be very successful in life and in business. I owe them a lot. I try to give back to them whenever I can.”
He also believes that having a monastery in the Archdiocese of Atlanta is a treasure beyond any words that he can readily supply.
“As the world moves forward, and we are all moving very quickly, monasteries tend to be that guideline that moves in a straight line. We are all zig-zagging back and forth. … The monastery is always there, following that line,” Jansen said. “It is important to have those centers of faith that keep us moving in the right direction over time.”
“I wish I could come up with the perfect words to explain to people what the monastery means to us as Catholics. I don’t have those words. I don’t know what they are. But I think if people would take the time to make a retreat or to visit the monastery and see how God is working there in Conyers, I think that would do more than anything I could say.”
“They are doing God’s work the way they were doing it 35 years ago and the way (monks) were doing it for hundreds of years. It is a way to bring us back to our roots and to what is important in life, where people can come and re-center themselves on what is important and bring their lives back to that center.”