Tuesday, June 22, 2004

ST. MEINRAD, Ind. - They still wear their same black robes. Their rooms are spartan as ever, and still called cells. And the soothing Gregorian chants echo deep from these sandstone walls — just as they have for 150 years.

For the monks of St. Meinrad Archabbey, life follows immutable rhythms: Bells peal from towers, noon prayers are read, breakfast and dinner are eaten in silence.

Not much can change this brotherhood of holy men who have taken a vow of poverty. Not war, not peace, and certainly not money.

Not even a gift of nearly $27 million.

At St. Meinrad’s, there are many rules and one inescapable reality:

Monks live by needs, not wants. Money is not coveted, not even considered in many everyday decisions.

So when the Rev. Lambert Reilly, leader of the archabbey, recently announced that two longtime benefactors — both elderly women — had willed St. Meinrad’s nearly $27 million, the monks were grateful and surprised, but not inclined to celebrate.

“We’re guys, first of all,” the Rev. Tobias Colgan, St. Meinrad’s prior, explained with a laugh. “And we’re guys who are monks. … We lean more toward the introverted.”

The exception is Father Reilly, the 71-year-old archabbot who blends a wry wit with a gift for gab. It has fallen to him to explain to outsiders two facts: The monks don’t get the millions and, behind these walls, a lottery-sized windfall is not a temptation. Not even for a minute.

“I still will wear my black wash pants,” Father Reilly said. “In the airport, I’m not going to buy a newspaper. I’ll pick up one from an empty seat. It doesn’t change my life.

“As St. Paul said, you have it or you don’t have it,” he said, “and you learn to live with it either way.”

For 150 years, the men of St. Meinrad have chosen to live without.

The Benedictine monastery is a one-for-all society where everything is shared, from the box of chocolates Father Reilly received as a gift to the television that the monks watch together in the recreation room. Televisions in individual rooms are taboo.

Even spare clothes sent by family and friends are pooled in a “rags rack” that are anyone’s for the taking.

Virtually every need or request, whether it is a new pair of shoes or using one of the fleet of Chevys for an excursion, must be approved by the prior — St. Meinrad’s No. 2 man, who acts as a business manager.

If this kind of environment seems stifling, the monks say it’s just the opposite.

“There are so many things other people have to worry about and I don’t — job security, paying the bills, how to support the family,” said the Rev. Mark O’Keefe, president-rector of the school of theology. “And style? I certainly don’t have to worry about style.

“It’s very freeing,” he added. “That’s how it should be. Monks need to have a freedom to be contemplative.”

The monks pray together three times a day — novices have the bracing 5:30 a.m. bell-ringing duty — and attend morning Mass in a century-old church where sunlight streams in through German-crafted stained-glass windows.

But monks do not live by faith and prayer alone.

St. Meinrad feeds and clothes 114 monks — their black habits are sewn here — and runs a seminary with 82 priests-in-training and a theology school with 100 students. The archabbey also grapples with routine bills: insurance, utilities and other costs of running a 250-acre monastery.

The monks range in age from 21 to 103 and most work here as tailors, carpenters, cooks, landscapers, composers, writers and teachers. Several have studied in Europe and one is fluent in 16 languages. Others live and have jobs outside the monastery.

St. Meinrad also owns and operates two businesses: the Abbey Press, which sells books, cards and religious items through a mail-order company and employs more than 300 people; and a casket-making factory in a nearby town.

Last fall, St. Meinrad’s announced a five-year project to raise $40 million to secure the archabbey’s future, and, Father O’Keefe said, the huge bequest surely “will take some pressure off us.”

When the gift was announced this spring, pleas for help soon followed, from near and far. Father Reilly heard from one monastery in Vietnam needing money to add a wing and another in Iowa planning to build an infirmary.

This money, however, will be used for St. Meinrad. Some will go for scholarships, and it also will help raise teacher salaries, renovate dormitories for the seminarians and make other improvements, including a new $5.2 million retreat center.

It was the center that was the inspiration for St. Meinrad’s gift.

Two wealthy women — Virginia Basso and Bernice Davey — were regulars here for decades, making the trip from their homes in Indianapolis. They grew attached to the monastery and the monks who call it home.

Both were widowed and childless and, Father Reilly said, “We became their family.” When the women became too sick to make the trip, the monks visited them.

Father Reilly said the monastery knew both women had included St. Meinrad in their wills, but he was stunned by the size of the bequest — each left more than $13 million.

Though the women were friends and often visited the monastery together, they were different personalities.

Mrs. Basso, who died last summer at age 91, was an opera and symphony devotee who enjoyed reminiscing about her days in Italy, France and England when her husband, Raymond, worked in Europe for Eli Lilly and Co.

“Virginia was sophisticated but she wasn’t stuffy,” Father Reilly said. “She was fun. She had bright, flashing eyes. She was a vibrant person … and she had a little bit of the devil in her.”

Mrs. Basso also was deeply religious, the archabbot said, and she and her husband dreamed of having a son who would become a priest. Now some of her money will be used to train priests.

Mrs. Davey, who died in January at age 90, first visited the retreat in the early 1970s with her husband, William, who was in the insurance business.

“Bernice was one who became a mother to the younger monks,” Father Reilly said.

They were among more than 10,000 visitors from across the nation who make the pilgrimage each year to this tranquil corner of southeastern Indiana, where there are lush canopies of oak and holly trees, a garden waterfall and buildings made from hand-chiseled sandstone, the rock mined from a quarry on the grounds.

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