By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 4, 2011
Father Luke Kot sits in the midst of the barn-turned-museum at Holy Spirit Monastery and reminisces. Stairs in the corner once led to the second-floor “cells,” as bedrooms for monks are called. Here was the abbot’s office. And over against that wall he had a close encounter with a chicken.
“She sat close by me. She laid an egg. I didn’t want to distract her,” said Father Luke, the only surviving monk of the two dozen who founded the Trappist monastery in 1944. On Wednesday, Aug. 3, Father Luke celebrated turning 100.
“That’s all there was, a barn and shed,” he recalled about the arrival in what was then a rural plantation some 30 miles from Atlanta.
The 40 monks live here by the centuries-old rule of “ora et labora,” pray and work. Their simple lifestyle is shaped by the seven times they pray daily together. The monastery’s new Heritage Center with the museum and its interactive displays, a bookstore with Wi-Fi for Web surfing, and a coffee shop is an initiative to bring in steady income from the popularity of cultural heritage tourism, along with an environmentally friendly cemetery, bonsai greenhouse and sales of homemade monastery desserts.
Finding a place to live was the first order of business for the monks who traveled in 1944 from the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. They began a new outpost of Catholicism in the mission territory of Georgia. In those days, the Diocese of Savannah covered the whole state. Only one Catholic family lived in Conyers, Father Luke recalled.
So, this barn on a farm growing cotton and potatoes became a monastery. With its rustic appearance, the monks made it their own. There was a chapel for community prayer and Mass. A “scriptorium” was built for studying. A shed was turned into a kitchen to feed the men.
The barn became an overlooked storage shed once the first monastery was built eight months after their arrival. It was on the verge of collapse before it was renovated and became the centerpiece of this new history center.
Significant moments in the history of monasticism are featured with pictures, text and profiles of famous monks such as St. Benedict and St. Basil, considered the fathers of Western and Eastern Christian monasticism, respectively. A breezeway overlooks a bonsai garden. An account of the monks’ move to Georgia is included in the walkway, preparing guests for the second wing of the heritage center, the barn. A wall chronicles a “day in the life” of a monk, following their prayer and work schedule. After leaving the barn, visitors stroll along a “prayer walk” to the monastery, located a distance away from the new construction.
The only son of devout Polish immigrants with a factory-worker father, Father Luke had three sisters, all of whom have died.
“One lived to be 99 and a half, but I beat her,” he said, with a chuckle.
At 14 he knew he wanted to be a monk but had no interest in traveling to Europe where monasteries were plentiful. He made a deal with God to show him a monastery in the United States and he’d go there. A magazine appeared in his mailbox about the Trappists, and shortly afterward at 27 he became a novice monk. (The formal name of the religious order is Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. The term Trappist refers to La Trappe Abbey in France where the order began as a reform movement in the 17th century.)
“I entered the monastery, and I lived it. That’s what I wanted,” said Father Luke, who lives in the infirmary and leans on a wheeled walker to keep himself steady.
Father Luke has never been a standout personality in the monastery. In a community that has a few published authors, Father Luke said he always wanted simply to be a monk. In fact, he never wanted to study to become a priest but just remain a brother. But on orders from his abbot he did become a priest.
“You like to do ordinary work. You didn’t want be scholarly at all,” he said about being a brother.
After ordination, he took on a role that allowed him to be that simple monk. Father Luke cut, sewed and repaired clothes as the tailor for more than 50 years and was responsible for the monks’ distinctive black and white habits.
Monks and monasteries are one of the oldest ways of life in the church. Father Luke’s life brings the past into the present. He entered the monastery when Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House. He had his head shaved bald, keeping only a narrow ring of hair until the practice of tonsuring stopped in 1950. He voted for John F. Kennedy, the only Catholic elected as the U.S. president. Monks saw the Second Vatican Council open the Catholic Church’s doors to the world. He joined the monks to watch the first moon landing on TV in 1969.
His pearls of wisdom are simple: “Be honest with God. Live your life as a good Christian. You are in the world to serve God, not to serve yourself.”
To visit the Monastic Heritage Center and renovated original barn and monastery, visit www.trappist.net or call (770) 483-8705. The center at 2625 Highway 212, SW, Conyers, is open Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday from 12 noon-4:30 p.m.