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Vow of Poverty Trumps Bequest

June 13, 2004|Sharon Cohen | Associated Press Writer

ST. MEINRAD, Ind. — They still tool around these gently rolling green hills in the same sturdy Chevys. 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 crisply from Romanesque towers, noontime prayers are read from white oak choir stalls, 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.

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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 Father 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," Father Tobias Colgan, St. Meinrad's prior said with a laugh. "And we're guys who are monks ... we lean more toward the introverted."

The exception is Reilly, 71, who blends a wry wit (one of his talks is titled "To Live Is to Annoy") 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," Reilly said, showing off his modest wardrobe of half a dozen or so pairs of indistinguishable pants, jackets and robes. "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, 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 that Reilly received as a gift to the television that the monks watch together in the recreation room. (TVs 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.

And virtually every need or request, whether it's 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 Father 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, O'Keefe says, 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. 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.

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