It is 6 a.m. The gentle clang of the bells of St. Peter’s Abbey filters through the monastery and out across the gently rolling grain fields encircling the tiny village of Muenster in central Saskatchewan. The Benedictine monks in their black cassocks file into chapel, beginning their day, as
they will end it 16 hours later, with prayer. In between singing their opening psalms and closing vigils, they will run the monastery’s sprawling, modern 2,500-acre farm, its computerized printing press, a junior college and a retreat house for visitors seeking seclusion. Said Abbot Jerome Weber, leader of the 45-member 84-year-old abbey: “Our whole life is built on prayer and work.”
Founded around 530 A.D. by Benedict of Nursia, who after his death in 547 A.D. was canonized, the Benedictine order—which has four monasteries across Canada—insists on study, work, obedience, meditation and the striving for lifelong moral improvement. But among Roman Catholic monastic orders—which claim approximately 800 adherents throughout Canada—the Benedictines have always differed in the degree to which they balance active pursuits with the contemplative life. Unlike the more frugal Franciscans, who tradi-
tionally move among the underprivileged wherever they may be needed, the Benedictines—who like other monks have only collective, not personal, possessions—remain within one monastic settlement and work to develop its holdings. And unlike the more secluded Trappists and Cistercians, they are in-
volved in their surrounding communities. For the monks of St. Peter’s, that tradition has meant a less painful adaptation to life in the modern world. Said Weber: “Too much involvement with society leads to being swallowed up by society. Too little and we’re out of date.” Weber, 71, has lived at the monastery since 1941. He is a native of Muenster and, like most of the people in the area, a descendant of German-speaking Roman Catholic settlers. A Benedictine since 1936, he holds a master’s degree in history from the University of Saskatchewan. Said the abbot: “Monastic life is the following of Christ, to live the Gospel life of faith and good works.” He added that the monastic life has been in decline since the 1950s, affected by what he described as the rise of materialism. But he declared, “There are some small signs of revival—a hunger for God apart from material things. Some are looking for something more substantial than what they’re finding in the world.”
Still,for the monks of St. Peter’s, the world is never far away. With its grain fields, six granaries, two combines contracted out to local farmers, pigs, chickens and vegetable plots, the abbey is an important part of the local economy. At the abbey’s junior college, whose teaching staff includes both monks and lay teachers, 160 students attend classes as part of the University of Saskatchewan’s first year of arts and sciences. There are also secretarial and special education classes.
At the same time, St. Peter’s, with its illuminated - cross landmark atop its college building, reaches even farther afield with its printing press, active since 1923. It publishes the award-winning Catholic weekly Prairie Messenger, which has a circulation of 12,000. Said editor Rev. Andrew Britz, 47, a native of nearby Lake Lenore and one of 27 ordained priests at the abbey: “We want to broaden the vision of our readers to the possibilities of today’s church, to work in areas of ecumenism, women’s issues and the place of the church in the vanguard of social-justice issues.” The abbey’s press also prints local histories, district newspapers, advertising supplements and French-language S publications for the Uniz versity of Saskatchewan. Q “We have no salesmen,” said printing-press manager Rev. Peter Novecosky. “We rely on our reputation for our $250,000 in annual sales.”
But despite the abbey’s thriving economy-revenues of $1.9 million last year yielded $48,000 in profits—it is still a place of peaceful retreat for about 30 visitors on an average summer weekend. “People come here without the interference of the media or the home environment,” said Brother Gerald Moran, a 61year-old monk from Plato, Sask., 165 km southwest of Saskatoon. Among those from the outside world who take advantage of the abbey’s peace are the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild, which books regular space throughout the summer for its members who seek a refuge for writing. Native groups also attend oneweek courses in band administration taught by native leaders at the college in conjunction with the University of Regina. And even Anglican, Lutheran and United Church seminarians from Saskatoon attend weekend retreats at the abbey. “They get away from the
city,” said Moran. “There is quiet here.”
For his part, Moran says that those contemplating monastic life should spend some time in the outside world before committing themselves to a monastery. He spent three years as a young novitiate at the abbey from 1945 to 1948, then decided to leave. After 36 years as a hotel auditor in various western Canadian cities, he returned to St. Peter’s and took his final vows in 1986. “I recommend candidates don’t come here as teenagers,” he told Maclean's, “not at least until they’re 25 years of age with no final commitment until 30. Then they have a better idea of it all.”
This year the monastery’s community welcomed two postulants, or candidates for the order—a 27-year-old Saskatchewan farm worker and a 50-year-old former travel agent from Montreal. Having completed six months of probation, the two novices—an average annual number for the monastery—will study for three years before becoming monks. Two others, having completed their first novitiate year, are scheduled to take preliminary vows next month. But Weber, a sprightly former athlete who chose religion over hockey as a vocation but still skates expertly in his religious garb on the abbey’s enclosed community rink during the winter, acknowledges that vows no longer have the power they once had. “These days if someone can’t hack it anymore, vows can be dispensed with,” he said.
Still, in the past 10 years only one monk has left St. Peter’s for the secular world. The monastery also offers the option of total seclusion from the outside: five hermits—among them, two nuns— live in spartan huts in secluded pine and aspen groves on the abbey grounds. But most of those who stay find peace of mind in communal life. Monks pray together five times daily; lunch is a silent meal except for a daily reading by one of the monks on spiritual or historical topics. There is time for a short nap before the afternoon’s work, vespers and evening prayers. And evening recreation often revolves around the abbey’s pool table, television set and reading rooms. Said Moran: “We have to have contacts with the outside. Most of us work with outsiders.”
That work now includes providing beds for government-sponsored summer camps for abused children in the monastery’s recreation-centre dormitory, which has 100 cots. “They used to be for hockey schools, but kids seem more interested in other things,” said Moran. “Now it is for abused kids and children of alcoholics. That is a commentary on life.” It is also a commentary on the cautious—and successful—integration of St. Peter’s with the outside world.
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