MT. ANGEL MONASTERY – ST. BENEDICT, OREGON
“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” Matthew 5:14
A city on a hill aiming to bring light to its community near and at large is precisely the description of Mt. Angel Abbey in St. Benedict, Oregon. The Monastery was founded in 1882 by Benedictine monks from Switzerland and has since established itself as a prominent Benedictine Monastery and Seminary for men entering the priesthood in the Western United States. The Abbey is large and distinct enough that it has status as its own municipal property in which the Abbott himself rules as Mayor of town. They have their own post office, soccer field, gym, library, and café, but they are not prisoners to their holy hilltop. The monks interact with the town-folk below and run a guest retreat center, hosting visitors from all over the world. Some work as priests for churches nearby or help run a youth group or deliver monastery beer to the local stores, but they are all deeply dedicated to a disciplined life of monasticism that entails prayer and spiritual connection to God.
Entering into their world felt like a time-warp – walking through arched hallways lined with golden-tiled mosaics of Christ, listening to their deep singing chant, observing Medieval illuminated manuscripts made from animal hide. The monks have a dedication to a world that we in the modern world are losing sight of. They are the keepers of the past, crystallizing a history that they hope won’t be forgotten. But they sustain themselves with the timeless aspects of life – community, art, intellect, vocation, and time spent in nature. Their dedicated way of life has drawn men disenchanted from the fast-paced world to join their invitation of peace and prosperity outside of the confines of capitalist society.
The Mt. Angel Abbey sits on top of a forested hill. The grounds feature the chapel and monastic enclosure, seminary teaching buildings, student lodging, library, guest retreat center, dining halls, recreational gym and fields, as well as gardens and the monastery cemetery. The monks plan to build a brewery on the property within the next two years. They currently lease the sides of the hill to goat and sheep farmers for animal grazing, which they say helps control invasive blackberries.
The monks honor the Liturgy of the Hours and gather to pray six times a day for Vigil, Lauds, Noon prayer, Vespers, and Compline, as well as the daily Holy Mass.
Press play to listen to the monks signing at Noon Prayer
An elderly monk prays along with the others from his spot in the balcony.
Two monks walk together in the courtyard during their leisure time after lunch.
The Seminary at Mt. Angel is the oldest in the Western United States and is currently training over 150 men as priests for varying religious orders. Many of the monks at the monastery are employed as teachers and occasionally seminary students get sucked into the monastic life and enter the monastery instead of the priesthood.
The Abbey is large enough that holds its own municipal status. The “city” is known as St. Benedict and has its own zip code, post office, and mayor – the Abbot himself.
The Prior of the Abbey (acting as second in command to the Abbot) is Very Reverend Vincent Trujillo, OSB.
Father Andrew leads me through the bowels of the chapel to see the inner-workings of the Monastic life.
A second chapel sits underneath the main chapel and is primarily used for the Seminary students to conduct their own Mass as part of their training.
Hanging in the closet are the white robes that the Priests wear during Mass. They are organized according to height of the monk or visiting priest.
The sacristy houses the various objects used during Mass such as the altar breads, or Holy Eucharist – the Body of Christ.
The original monastery built in 1882 no longer remains as a fire consumed the first establishment as well as a second establishment in 1926, but the cemetery where the original founders and early monks are buried still remains.
Father Andrew spends much of his leisure time here as he enjoys walking among the graves of the brothers he misses dearly. Friendship, he tells me, is a key component in living out the monastic vocation of loving like Christ did.
Before joining the religious order, Father Andrew was a famous rugby player for New Zealand. He turned down a million dollar contract to play for England to respond to his calling in the priesthood, but eventually found that the rich communal aspect of the monastic life was right for him. He still has a house in New Zealand that is now worth 1.2 million. He lets an order of nuns use it as a retreat center under the condition that they keep it clean and do any repairs needed.
For Father Andrew, his dissatisfaction with a superficial dating life helped convince him to leave the idea of marriage and dedicate his life to God. After many failed relationships, his Mom told him, “I don’t think the vocation of marriage is for you.” He did however, adopt two children before leaving the “real world.” A single mother at a hospital recognized him from TV and asked if he would take care of her daughter. He also has an Irish son and jokes about how the New Zealand sun is not good for his pale, freckled skin. His sister has become their mother and he says the children are very happy.
An aspect of the Benedictine tradition is a dedication to the preservation of culture and knowledge, regardless of origin. Benedictine monasteries such as Mt. Angel are often rich in art, books, and natural history collections.
Mt. Angel Abbey has its own museum filled with oddball items such as a Russian hunter’s taxidermy collection of game animals, herbarium and crystal gem specimens, Native American art, a modern artist’s rendition of Christ’s crown of thorns, and even two stuffed mutant cows with limbs.
Included in the tradition of preservation at the Abbey is a distinguished library that offers an incredible collection of rare books in temperature-controlled, vaulted rooms.
Brother Alcuin was assigned to library duties after the previous expert monk passed away in his nineties. He could not be more perfect for the role as he is a true bibliophile and purveyor of history. He uses white gloves and a strict system of etiquette when handling extra special manuscripts to preserve their quality. He took his family to the vault while they were visiting and his young niece cried out that he was lying about being a monk after seeing him put on his white gloves because clearly that indicated he was actually a magician.
Many tricks were used in Medieval manuscripts to preserve space as parchment that was made out of animal skins was highly expensive. Brother Alcuin holds a magnifying glass to demonstrate how small and tightly packed the hand-written text of this manuscript was from circa 500 c.e.
The illuminated manuscripts showcasing gold-leaf and vivid pigmentation from natural sources like lapis luzuli in their depictions of the Madonna and other religious scenes are holy relics of Church history. The Abbey does all of their own book repairs and binding to assure the continuation of precious sources like these.
Brother Alcuin found out that I’m studying the symbolism of flowers in medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts and became very animated in his discussion about the books with me.
Brother Benjamin is training with Brother Alcuin in the care of the rare books. Together, they are a comedic duo, breaking the stereotype of the somber, pious monk.
Brother Benjamin holds the tiniest book in the rare book collection.