Solesmes Monks coming to Tulsa

In January 1999, as the pope was preparing to fly from Mexico City to St. Louis, a rumor rippled through Cherokee County, Oklahoma. Perched in the foothills of the Ozarks, Cherokee County is the capital of the Cherokee Nation; here ended the 1839 Trail of Tears, the 1,000-mile forced march of the Cherokees from Georgia to Oklahoma. The local grammar school at Lost City had received a fax from a monastery in France. Someone reckoned that the fax was in Italian, and by the time this report reached the local feed store and therefore to cell phones and CB radios county-wide, the rumor was in full orbit.

The pope was headed for Lost City—specifically, to a 1,200-acre tract of land at one time owned by Cleo Epps, a notorious moonshiner, but recently purchased by French Benedictine monks of the Congregation of Solesmes. That very week, the Lost City school was visited by two black- hooded monks, one wearing a pectoral cross. Someone’ overheard a remark about the monks meeting with the pope. There were too many coincidences—it was clear, the pope would be touching down en route to St. Louis. The monk with the pectoral cross was Dom Antoine Forgeot, abbot of Notre-Dame de Fontgombault, an eleventh-century Benedictine monastery east of Poitiers. His companion was Pere Philip Anderson, prior of Notre-Dame de Triors, a daughterhouse of Fontgombault, founded south of Lyon in 1984. And they were indeed going to meet the pope in St. Louis to ask for the Holy Father’s blessing on the new monastary outside of Lost City to be christened Our Lady of the Annunciation at Clear Creek. This fall, 13 monks—two Canadian, three French, and eight American—arrived from France to build their monastery.

Contemplative Life in Modern Tulsa

Compared with other end-of-the-millennium events, the founding of the new Benedictine monastery at Clear Creek is a rather quiet and certainly unassuming affair. But what these black-hooded monks propose to do in the foothills of the Ozarks is significant, for Clear Creek is the first foundation (for men) of the Congregation of Solesmes in the United States. The most famous Benedictine congregation in Europe, at least in modern times, is planting itself in a place where Catholics constitute little more than 2 percent of the population, during a time of unprecedented American prosperity and power. An hour away in Tulsa, the parking lots of malls, high schools, and mega-churches are packed deep with Lexus SUVs and Land Rovers. Where oil wells once defined the American century in these parts, ten-story cell phone transmission towers now encircle the city, symbolizing the new digitalized Sunbelt. From a worldly perspective, this is a strange time and place to sow the seeds of contemplation.

But more than 150 years ago, Benedictine monasticism was revived at Solesmes under conditions that would have seemed even more unusual. During the late 18th and 19th centuries, from Lisbon to Vienna, European civil authorities declared war on monasticism. As Rousseau said, “Wherever the Clergy constitutes a body it is the master and lawgiver in its realm.” Religious orders constituted such a “body” par excellence. Deriving their authority from Rome, they enjoyed independence from the local church and from civil powers. Such imperium in imperio was unacceptable to the new European regimes. Monastic institutions were an affront not only to the state but also to the new civic culture of republicanism. Garat-l’Aine declared in the Assemblee Nationale in 1790 that the religious vow “is a civil suicide.” Monks, he alleged, detach their affections from things of the world without giving anything back to society in the form of schools, hospitals, or orphanages. In a word, he said, monks are “useless.”

The new constitutional democracies in Europe used every means at their disposal to eliminate monasticism. Within one generation, only 30 of 1,500 Benedictine abbeys survived in Europe. Cluny, the capital of medieval monasticism in the West, was closed and auctioned off to the highest bidder. Citeaux and Clairvaux likewise were confiscated and turned into state prisons. At La Trappe, the Trappists were rounded up for chain gangs, and some of the monks were sent to the penal colony of Conenama in French Guiana. By 1803, every one of the 68 Carthusian houses in France and the 18 in Germany had vanished under the legal and extralegal policies of the new regimes.  Augustinian Hermits disappeared forever from Portugal, where they once had 50 monasteries. At the end of the 19th century, 500 Dominican houses had dwindled to 80, and the total number of friars plummeted from 25,000 to about 3,000. The consecrated life of religious was over, or so it seemed.

In the 1830s, a secular priest named Prosper Gueranger received permission from Pope Gregory XVI, a Carnaldolese monk, to refound Benedictine monasticism at the abandoned priory of Solesmes, not far from Le Mans. Though he had never been a novice or a monk, Gueranger was made an abbot overnight. He rebuilt the Benedictine life by virtue of an extraordinary ability to imagine what monasticism once was and what it is supposed to be. This was the era of Romanticism, when many intellectuals and artists indulged a sympathy for things medieval. Gueranger, however, understood how to revive the older institutions and traditions as living realities, not as a mere exercise in nostalgia.

His multivolume works, L’Annee liturgique and Institutions liturgiques, were devoted not only to the revival of monastic chant but more broadly to exploring the historical and theological grounds for a recovery of the Roman liturgy. He insisted that liturgy and apostolic authority are intertwined, for Christ gave his apostles power to dispense the mysteries; Christ bestowed liturgical power. This simple but profound point was quite contrary to the spirit of the age, which wanted Catholicism reduced to national churches and connected to Rome only by extrinsic authority. Rather than seeing the papacy as a power external to the temporal state, Gueranger saw it as an authority internal to culture, a culture supernaturalized through the “great and mighty river” of liturgical life.

To the liberals of his time, Gueranger seemed to be an ultramontanist, and he was, for he worked behind the scenes writing briefs for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and Pastor Aeternus, the Vatican I document on papal authority. From the right, he seemed to be a dangerous liberal because he believed that efforts to restore political unity between throne and altar distracted from the renewal of the Church’s interior landscapes. If permitted civil freedoms, he argued, the Roman Church had sufficient spiritual resources to restore religion and culture. Thus Gueranger anticipated some of the most important issues that would come into view a century later at Vatican II: religious liberty vis-a-vis the state, the role of Rome in evangelizing culture across national boundaries, recovery of patristic theology, and the renewal of the Roman liturgy.

Despite being expelled from France three times (in November 1880, the monks were forcibly removed from their choir stalls while chanting the divine office), the Congregation of Solesmes not only endured but flourished. Today, there are some 29 monasteries and convents, and about 1,000 monks and nuns. They have continued to resist taking on “useful” apostolates that would distract from the contemplative life and the priority of choir. Many Catholics in the United States have heard of Solesmes, for almost all Gregorian chant by choirs or on recordings—or even better, at a Catholic liturgy—is derived from the restoration of chant undertaken by the monks of Saint-Pierre de Solesmes. Today the very word Solesmes evokes the image of serenity, beauty, and liturgical refinement.

The Road to Oklahoma

The new foundation in Oklahoma derives from Fontgombault and three of its daughterhouses in the Solesmes system. Monasticism at Fontgombault dates back to 1091, when hermits living in caves on the ‘banks of the Creuse River, east of Poitiers, united under the Rule of St. Benedict. Its history is not atypical of French monasticism. It thrived in the Middle Ages but slowly declined under the force of religious wars, absentee abbots, and finally the French Revolution.

Monasticism first returned to Fontgombault with the Trappists in 1849. The French government permitted the Trappists to reclaim the monastery provided the monks did something “useful”—in this case, they ran a reform school for boys. Charles de Foucauld visited the Trappists there before becoming a hermit in the Sahara. They were evicted in 1903. In The Waters of Siloe, Thomas Merton recounts how some of the Fontgombault Trappists took refuge at Gethsemani in Kentucky; when Merton entered Gethsemani in 1941, one of the Fontgombault monks was still alive.

After World War II, Solesmes established a daughterhouse at Fontgombault, which became an Abbey in 1953. Plentiful vocations have enabled it, in turn, to found three more monasteries at Randol (1971), Triors (1984), and Gaussan (1994). The average age of monks at each of these monasteries is about 40. Randol, on top of a mountain just outside Clermont-Ferrand, is the first contemplative foundation in the Auvergne region of France since 1789. All of these monasteries, including the new priory at Clear Creek, celebrate the traditional Roman liturgy at the Conventual Mass after tierce each morning.

In addition to being the first Solesmes foundation for men (in 1981 a convent was founded in Vermont) in the United States, the new priory at Clear Creek represents yet another first. It is the first time Europeans have sent Americans to spearhead the founding of a contemplative house in America. And this is perhaps the most interesting part of the story.

The connection with America goes back almost 30 years, when there was a remarkable influx of Yanks to Fontgombault. Strangely enough, this movement of Americans across the Atlantic was indirectly aided and abetted by the United States government, which, in 1970, gave University of Kansas (KU) professors John Senior, Dennis Quinn, and Frank Nelick a grant for an experimental program in “Tradition.” The Pearson College Integrated Humanities Program provided courses in Western civilization, which in its time and place had just enough countercultural edge to attract a surprising number of students. The program included no overt training in theology or Catholic catechism.

In 1972 two students set out on a field trip to Europe to study village life. They also expressed a desire to hear Gregorian chant. A Trappist monk of Gethsemani who happened to be passing through KU recommended that they visit Fontgombault. Before the boys left for Europe, Professor Senior quipped, “bring back an abbot.” As providence had it, the students ended up at the porter’s gate of Fontgombault in July 1972. The abbot at that time, Dom Jean Roy, was absent. Upon his return, the master of novices informed him that two Americans in the guest house had requested permission to stay for several months. Dom Roy agreed. Later, he mentioned he had been thinking of the United States all that day and, in fact, had thought of founding a monastery there a few years before.

Despite their parents’ incomprehension and even threats of being pursued by cult-deprogrammers, more than 100 KU students followed the first group to Fontgombault. In 1976, 40 American students arrived during Lent. It is said that many of them eventually became Catholics, including three who took monastic vows and four who became secular priests. Meanwhile, back at KU, French professors protested these field trips on the grounds that France belonged exclusively to the French Department. More serious, though unproven, allegations of religious proselytizing and brain-washing were brought against the faculty. The Humanities Program was closed after the 1977-1978 academic year. Evidently, the reality of Kansas Jayhawks exchanging hooded frat sweatshirts for hooded habits could not be tolerated by state and university officials. (An editorial cartoon in the March 31, 1977, Kansas City Times depicted an evolutionary scheme, beginning with a college hippie who evolves into a businessman before devolving into a monk).

In any event, 3,000 miles away, Fontgombault now had a significant contingent of Americans who joined and persevered, including two other Americans and three Canadians who found their way to Fontgombault completely apart from the Kansas program. By the early 1990s, according to Dom Forgeot, “it just did not seem possible to wait any longer before restoring to America the considerable number of vocations that we have received from her.” Exploratory trips were made to several dioceses in search for the right combination of factors, such as suitably remote land and episcopal approval of a group monks who bring no active apostolate.

The right combination was found in the diocese of Tulsa. Bishop Edward Slattery had been to France in 1997 to ordain, in the Carthusian house of Selingnac, a Tulsan who had once tested a vocation at Fontgombault. Three other Tulsans—a priest, a librarian, and a public school teacher—had also tested vocations at Fontgombault. Yet another, the daughter of a professor at Oral Roberts University, had professed at Jouques, a traditional Benedictine convent in the south of France. Though it might seem like a strange episode in a Catholic X-Files, there was a spiritual chord reverberating between eastern Oklahoma and France.

On the Feast of the Assumption in 1998, on the 50th anniversary of the return of Benedictine monasticism to Fontgombault, Bishop Slattery and Dom Forgeot signed an ecclesiastical charter, Ad Dei Gloriam. The diocese formally recognized the purely contemplative vocation of the new foundation, while the monks promised to be a ministry of prayer and retreats. Bishop Slattery returned to Fontgombault again this year on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul to celebrate Mass and to give some last-minute encouragement to the monks who, after more than 20 years in a French cloister, would be making a trip back to the New World.

Planting Seeds in Fresh Soil

More than 25 years after the Kansas professor made the quip about the boys bringing back an abbot, the Americans are back, along with three Frenchmen and two Canadians. I was so struck by the story of American students from the late 1960s bringing what is essentially Carolingian monasticism to the New World that I decided last spring to visit the three French monasteries at Triors, Randol, and Fontgombault before the monks departed for Oklahoma.

My high expectations for the liturgical ritual were more than fulfilled. There is a kind of Romano-Gallic beauty, at once earthy and refined, that pervades these houses. The Roman rituals never appeared or sounded so good. I felt as if I had happened upon them for the first time. Even a tourist like me could easily catch a glimpse of the impression it must have made on those Kansas students a quarter-century ago. The question I wanted answered is whether this kind of monasticism is transplantable to Lost City, that is, to the United States. After all, this is not a golden or even bronze era of contemplative life in North America.

For his part, the abbot of Fontgombault insisted that it would be a mistake to believe that even the external refinements of the Solesmes Benedictine tradition are merely French, or for that matter merely Old World European. The beauty of the externalities, he explained—what makes them refulgent even to the casual observer—derives from St. Benedict’s teaching on the degrees of humility. From interior humility, which is a supernatural gift, the body is induced to share in a certain order and beauty. The abbot said, “We do not for a moment forget this beauty, but by the same token we cannot forget its source, which is supernatural.” It is not French, and it is not American—it is the monastic appropriation of Gospel. There is no reason why this cannot be taught to Americans who live in varying degrees of proximity to Lost City.

One monk, an American, took a rather different approach to my question. The French soul, he explained, is old soil for monasticism. It has been tilled and turned for centuries, and even in its exhaustion, it can still produce a sturdy plant. Contemporary France is a jaded, secular culture in which anticlericalism is a democratic sport, but even so, there are 79 Benedictine monasteries in France. The American soul, on the other hand, has not been tilled to this end. (Incidentally, several of the monks, especially the French, expressed great admiration for Thomas Merton and the American Trappists of that era.) The American religious genius has been given to other, more active ends. But once this soil is cultivated for the seeds of contemplation, it will be so fresh that it will produce dramatic results.

Perhaps these monks are right. It is an issue of timing that defies worldly predictions. American Catholics are the most religiously free and prosperous people on earth. Once a church of immigrants who had something to prove to themselves and to their surrounding culture, Catholicism is today the last mainline church; it is the last church that consistently speaks in the voice of Christian tradition on those moral and spiritual issues recognizable to anyone’s grandparents, Catholic or Protestant. The Catholic Church in America really doesn’t have anything left to prove to the political and economic culture. The question now is how to use and direct her own freedom and generosity. Perhaps the nobility of what St. Therese called her “little way,” the hidden life that once created such far-reaching results for Western culture is the next American frontier, the challenge for a truly free people. Perhaps this is to be the next chapter in “How the West Was Won.”

Avatar photo


Russell Hittinger is the William K. Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa.

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.