Former Kansans bring monastic tradition to Oklahoma
Friday, November 19th 1999, 12:00 am
By: News On 6
It's an adventurous and romantic religious story, the tale of a group of young University of Kansas alumni who left family, homeland and a modern way of life in the 1970s to become monks at an 11th-century abbey in the Loire Valley of France.
For the next 25 years, they took as their family their French brothers and spent their time in silence, work and prayer. They acquired accents and experienced God deeply.
Now, a new chapter to the story has begun. The former Kansans have moved back to the United States -- to the Ozarks of Oklahoma --
to help start a new foundation of the abbey, bringing a 1,500-year-old monastic tradition to a Catholic diocese that is just 25 years old and the sounds of silence and Gregorian chant to
an America that is noisier and busier than ever.
When the 13 men -- eight Americans joined by three Frenchmen and two Canadians -- lift their voices in song now, the notes that had
soared up the vaulted church of the Abbey of Notre Dame of Fontgombault are absorbed into the low, flat ceiling of a converted
And when they walk to their "cells," rooms that were recently horse stalls, they tread not on stone worn smooth by the foot traffic of centuries but on poured concrete. In their new home on 1,200 acres called Our Lady of the
Annunciation of Clear Creek, about 11/2 hours southeast of Tulsa, they miss the more than 60 brothers they left behind and all they had come to know of the monastic life in a French culture steeped in it. But it's good to be home.
"We have work to do here. I want to help my country," said the Rev. Francis Bethel, the gregarious guestmaster of the new
monastery who hails from Wichita, where he was known as Roark Bethel. "I feel more at home in America and among Americans. We
have more to give here than we did in France."
Bethel and five of the other American monks had been part of the Integrated Humanities Program at KU, a course of study that traced
the good, the true and the beautiful through the classics of literature from Homer to Augustine to Dickens. Many students in the
program converted to Catholicism.
Bethel had just finished his junior year at KU in 1974 and been a Catholic for only a year and a half when he headed to a French
monastery whose beauty, traditional liturgy, medieval history and strictly contemplative life drew him. "I could never have developed a life of prayer -- I have enough trouble as it is -- running around in the world," Bethel, now 46,
said. "You can do it, but it's more difficult. But this is a place where you can learn how to pray and find God's presence in a very
simple and sure way."
A new generation of Americans seems to be recognizing it as well. Thirty men from across the country have already asked to join
the new foundation, and the monks have been here less than three weeks.
Other people are drawn to the monastery as well.
The few pews in the back of the chapel in the converted barn are becoming crowded for Sunday Mass, which is the traditional Latin
rite. Area residents, and friends and family members of the monks, trickle in during the week, too, for Mass or one of the times of
chanted prayer. Some people are shopping for land in the area. Pat Ziglinski from Kansas City has bought 20 acres five minutes away from the monastery and is opening her home to pilgrims, especially women and
families. She had visited the monks at Fontgombault, and "I loved their spirituality."
Monasticism began in the 200s, and the Oklahoma monks follow the Rule of St. Benedict, which dates to the 500s, a life balanced between ora et labora -- prayer and work.
Hospitality is one of their hallmarks: Guests are welcomed as if they were Christ himself. While there are other Benedictine
monasteries in the United States, this is the first from the famous Congregation of Soesmes, entrusted with maintaining the use of Latin in the liturgy after the reforms of Vatican II allowed the use of the vernacular in the wider church.
The monks are cloistered, meaning they don't normally leave the monastery grounds and most often live and work in silence. "Because they're cloistered, the world can't get too close, but to observe from a respectful distance is enough," said the Rev. James Conley, a Wichita priest who is on assignment at the Vatican and whose friends are among the monks. He spent six months at the
French abbey after graduating from KU in 1977 and has been back several times for retreats.
"To have a community of monks, cloistered and intensely focused on praising God in the liturgy, day and night, is a blessing for
the United States, and, in particular, for the Tulsa diocese and those who are close enough to be able to visit," Conley said.
And the monks do want people to visit -- to have an experience of God, to learn how to worship him solemnly, to learn how to pray. "God created the world, it's good, it's ordered to God, to his glory, to lead us to God, but we have sinned," Bethel said. "We
misuse it, and you just kind of have to break away. A monk does it completely, but every Christian has to do it in a measure and, from
time to time, in a more complete way, a kind of retreat."
In France, the abbey has guest quarters for men, women and families, who can receive spiritual direction on an individual basis. The Oklahoma monastery will eventually have such
The monastery is expected to be elevated to the status of priory at an inaugural Mass on Feb. 11. If it grows with new members as
expected, in eight to 10 years, it will become an abbey itself.
HOW TO GET THERE
The Monastery is northwest of Hulbert, Oklahoma, about an hour 15 minutes from Tulsa.
From WAGONER, OKLAHOMA: Drive east on Highway 51. Cross Lake Fort Gibson, past the entrance to Western Hills Lodge. ON THE LEFT pass huge nursery & firewood lot. About a mile past the firewood lot, you come to a crossroads. There are three or four signs here for churches, a 4H arena, etc. There is a very small street sign that says Clear Creek Road, but you cannot see it easily. TURN LEFT (north) ON CLEAR CREEK ROAD. (If you come to the bridge that crosses Fourteen Mile Creek, you have missed the turn--go back).
Go north on C.C. Road (paved). Pass general store AT FIRST STOP SIGN, turn right (east). Road still paved. Pass firehouse on left. TURN LEFT AT FIRST INTERSECTION PAST FIREHOUSE. Continue north on paved road. After a few miles, you cross Clear Creek on a low-water bridge--a concrete slab. Road still paved. AT END OF PAVEMENT, make sharp left turn up the hill onto gravel road. Do not turn left till the pavement runs out.
Follow the road up the hill & around for a mile or so. You will come to a rather imposing stone & pipe gate on the left. Cross cattle guard & enter. The house sits back off the road a mile. You first come to a small log house which is the caretaker's house. To get to the big house you veer left past the caretaker's house & keep going for a quarter of a mile or so.