Holy Cross Abbey

“And so we are going to establish a school for the service of the Lord.” Saint Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries, Prologue

Origins: The Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Cross is rooted in the Monastery of Our Lady of the Valley in Valley Falls, Rhode Island. That monastery was already making a foundation, St. Joseph’s Abbey, in Spencer Massachusetts, when it burnt to the ground on the night of March 21, 1950. More monks were left homeless than could be accommodated by the new foundation at Spencer and the governor of Rhode Island gave shelter to the overflow at the barracks of an abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps camp. Despite primitive conditions, the group grew, even accepting postulants into the temporary “monastery”.

Overcrowding necessitated another foundation and the Abbot of Our Lady of the Valley, Dom Edmund Futterer, accepted the invitation from the Diocese of Richmond (then covering the entire State of Virginia) to bring Trappist life there. Property available along the Shenandoah River near the town of Berryville in Clarke County, was visited and secured for the foundation. On November 18, 1950, a busload of thirty monks arrived on the site and began to settle the old Cool Spring property.

There’s a very human touch in this story and very characteristic of the late Fr. Owen Hoey who was sent down as the first superior of the little community. The bus was lent from the Sansone family, the family of Br. Simon Sansone of Our Lady of the Valley, later of Spencer. It had been arranged that the monks would stop off at the Mother House of the Daughters of Charity in Emmitsburg for supper at the end of their passage into Virginia. But with some wrong turns the trip took longer than anticipated and the monks entered Emmitsburg after dark. Not wanting to disturb the sisters, the bus only stopped at the cemetery so Fr. Owen could quietly disembark, say a prayer at Mother Seton’s tomb and get the monks to Cool Spring. Fifty years later the Daughters of Charity hosted a celebration for us at Emmitsburg to commemorate our early bond. We all knew the story about Fr. Owen but we only learned from the sisters on our fiftieth anniversary that the Daughters had in fact waited up with a spaghetti dinner for the traveling monks who never showed up.

In the meantime, the property in Rhode Island was liquidated and the bulk of the community was relocated in St. Joseph’s Abbey, Spencer, Massachusetts. St. Joseph’s Abbey is the Mother House of Holy Cross Abbey. Being the Mother House of a foundation assigns certain responsibilities to that monastery. The Abbot of the Mother House, known as the Father Immediate, is required to oversee the development of the foundation and provide help and personnel until it can function on its own. He would continue to conduct the Visitation every two years, even after the foundation was fully autonomous. The Visitation is the official visit to a community by the Father Immediate who listens to each member of the community. He also inspects the community’s finances, economy and monastic observances and draws up a report, a sort of “state of the union”, about the community’s progress.

The new monastery in Virginia was dedicated to Our Lady of the Holy Cross. Since all monasteries of the Order are dedicated to our Lady, they are customarily referred to by the title of her particular patronage; thus, this community is usually referred to as Holy Cross Abbey.

Fr. Owen Hoey was the founding superior (1950-1952) and initiated the construction of simple cinder-block buildings around the original Cool Spring House (c.1784). When Fr. Owen returned to Spencer (as did a number of the founding monks), Fr. John Holohan was appointed as the community’s next superior (1952-1956). Other monks were sent down from Spencer and novices were received into the Holy Cross community. At that time the cattle farm and bakery work began. In 1956, Fr. Hugh McKiernan was the third appointment as superior.

Autonomy: In 1958, the new monastery exhibited those conditions (personnel, self-support) required for autonomy and became an independent Abbey; the conventual chapter elected Fr. Hugh as the first Abbot (1958-1964). The community grew numerically, ordained monks were sent for further studies in Rome and Vatican Council II was in session. The novitiate wing was added to the monastery complex and, at that time, was filled with 24 novice. With all these developments, however, new stresses emerged and Dom Hugh resigned as Abbot in 1964.

Fr. Thomas Aquinas Porter from Holy Trinity Abbey, Utah, was appointed the temporary superior (1964-1966) to prepare the community for the election of a new Abbot. As in other religious communities during those years, there was a significant number of monks who left the monastic life. In response to a reduced work-force, a new bakery for bread baking was built with more automation and mechanization was introduced to the farm.

Transition: In 1966, Fr. Edward McCorkell returned from Spencer’s foundation in Chile to join the Berryville community and was elected the second Abbot (1966-1980). These were years of exploring new forms of monastic life throughout the Order. The liturgy began to be celebrated in English rather than in the traditional Latin and the distinction between Choir Religious and Lay Religious was mitigated in practice. It had been the tradition of the Order since its origins to support the monks who chanted the Latin Office by the work and organizing skills of the lay brothers. The lay brothers, like the choir monks, professed solemn vows but they did not have to know Latin–or even how to read or write–and they did not participate in the chanted Office, elections or being elected. They conducted the work and maintained the physical plant, directing, for example, farm operations, utilizing the choir monks as unskilled labor. The lay brothers wore a distinctive brown habit and prayed a simple Office of Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s, often at their work site. When changes were introduced in the early 1960’s, both choir monks and lay brothers wore the same white tunic with black scapular and the choral Office was celebrated in English so all might participate.

Another significant change was participatory decision-making, introducing Trappist monks and nuns to community discussions. Contact with the broader society introduced a limited access to newspapers and newspaper reporters. Guest speakers and coaches for dialogue were introduced to the community; the psychological evaluation of candidates was eventually introduced.

During these years, Br. James Sommers began an informal excavation of the flood plain on the Abbey’s property after the spring ploughing, uncovering relics from the Civil War. His hobby expanded to uncover Indian artifacts crafted between 8500 BC and 1700 AD; this collection was eventually analyzed and classified with the help of an archaeologist from the Catholic University of America, Washington, DC.

More and more, translations of the 12th Century Cistercian Fathers and earlier monastic literature began to appear in English and the study of the Rule of St. Benedict was refreshed by new scholarship. Trappist communities began to look for their identity beyond the reconsolidation of the Trappist observances after the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, beyond the original Trappist reform of the 17th Century. More and more, we called ourselves Cistercians, stressing our continuity with our origins in the monastic reform begun in 1098 at Citeaux, Burgundy in what is now France. Our Order also began making foundations in the developing countries and an international, rather than French, identity began to emerge.

And it was during this time, in the wake of the post-war growth of the Catholic population in Virginia, that the Diocese of Richmond was divided to create the new Diocese of Arlington. Holy Cross Abbey then found itself as part of this new Diocese in the northern neck of the State.

Holy Cross also completed payment on the farm’s mortgage and the community was debt free. The farm itself, however, became untenable as the community decreased in numbers; in 1977, the community opted to lease the farm and concentrate on the Bakery. That same year, construction began on a much needed infirmary wing over a new refectory with a new kitchen. In 1980 Fr. Edward retired and Fr. Flavian Burns, retired Abbot of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, was appointed Superior (1980-1984). During Fr. Flavian’s tenure, Fr. Mark Delery of St. Joseph’s Abbey came down to Berryville to help out.

Monastery Fruit Cake production  (originally a cottage industry practiced in the early days of the foundation but dropped thereafter) was revived  at that time. In the interim, fruit cakes had been baked once-a-year and each monks was given three cakes to send out to family or friends as Christmas gifts; others were given to benefactors and friends of the monastery. So it was that the cakes have enjoyed a continuous existence, a craft we already knew, a occupation ready to be expanded for marketing. Fruit cake production continued until early 2014.

By 1983 an additional dormitory wing was added to the monastery so that all monks had private rooms, rather than sleeping in a common dormitory.

Changes: Fr. Mark was elected the third Abbot of Holy Cross (1984-1990) and during his tenure a new Guest House (Retreat House) was built. In was also during his term of office that the Trappistine nuns of Wrentham, Massachusetts, accepted the invitation from the Diocese of Richmond to make a foundation near Charlottesville, at Crozet, Virginia. Thus it was that Our Lady of the Angels Monastery was founded in 1987, the Abbot of Our lady of the Holy Cross taking on the responsibilities of Father Immediate of the nuns. Another significant development was the spontaneous association of laypeople around this community who would eventually become the nucleus of our Lay Cistercians.

At the end of Fr. Mark’s term, Fr. Placid McSweeny, also from our Mother House, was appointed Temporary Superior (1990) but had to retire for health reasons. Fr. Flavian Burns was sent back to replace him and was elected the fourth Abbot (1990-1996). During his term significant efforts were made to reduce tthe community’s debt that had acculmulated in recent years. In 1990, the community decided to discontinue bread baking and concentrate on fruit cake production.

At the end of Fr. Flavian’s term, Br. Benedict Simmonds was appointed Temporary Superior (1996-1998) and he successfully raised funds to eliminate the debt from the new Guest House construction and to initiate an endowment for the Abbey. Due to health problems, Br. Benedict retired and the community elected Fr. Robert Barnes who became the fifth Abbot of Holy Cross (1998-2016). Fr. Robert is the first Abbot of Berryville to have entered Holy Cross as a postulant (at the age of eighteen) and was re-elected three times. In 1999 elevators were installed to enable the aged and infirm monks free access to all parts of the monastery. This was followed a few years later by the renovation of the old novitiate dormitory space into an assisted living wing for the infirm. The Lay Cistercian group, which had been consistently encouraged by Fr. Mark, was granted official recognition by the community of Holy Cross. Like our sisters at Crozet, our Lay Cistercians are truly members of our monastic “family” and selflessly assist the community.

A very significant event for us arose in 2007: Strategic Planning for the future. Most of you would recognize the concept of stategic planning from the institutional and business world. For us this planning was so conducted as to become a communal and faith event. Under the wise facilitation of Sr. Cecilia Dwyer, Prioress of the Benedictine sisters of Bristow, Virginia, we communally and intentionally prepared for our future as a small monastic community capable of living and passing on the contemplative vocation. Arising from this plan, which still guides our operation, was our participation in a study conducted by six graduate student of the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment. The results of this study, published in 2010 is, in turn, helping us to implement our strategic planning. It is worth reporting in full the mission statement we collectively composed in 2007:

Holy Cross Abbey is a school of the Lord’s service oriented by the Rule of St. Benedict. As a contemplative monastic community in transition, we accept collaborative responsibility for creative adaptation to our changing realities. We believe in a dynamic fidelity to the common good calling us to re-envision our relationship to one another, to our physical environment and to those drawn to our way of life. We extend the grace of our Cistercian vocation through the ministry of hospitality. We take as a special imperative the imaginative care and safe-guarding of this land entrusted to us–“lovers of the brethren and the place” (St. Alberic of Citeaux).

In 2012 we began working with Psychologist Patricia Kelly who facilitated regular community meetings to improve our interpersonal communications and build a secure and respectful environment for community dialogue. By the following year, the entire community spent a week’s retreat at Priestfield, West Virginia, to deepen the process. Abbot Robert then took a much needed Sabbatical for three months and Fr. Joseph Wittstock, who was serving as chaplain to our nuns in Crozet, Virginia, assumed the temporary duties of Prior while Fr. Robert was away. For a while, we referred to this phase as our “refounding.” Certainly, with the number of recent deaths, we were a very different community than we had been just five years earlier and new ways of interacting and organizing our life were emerging. Baking fruitcakes was suspended for a year and our energies concentrated on the way we live together as a smaller community, how we interact and are impacted by our physical environment. Symptomatic a changes below the surface were the repainting of the Abbey, renovation of refectory and church, renewal of the celebration of the liturgy, initiation of the Natural Cemetery and forestry program.

In October 2014, when Fr. Robert returned from the General Chapter, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and initiated treatment with medication. In the following year, the Abbey was awarded two awards for environmental stewardship, while the community prepared for an Abbatial election when Fr. Robert completed his mandate on 10 August, 2016. On that same day the community elected Fr. Joseph Wittstock as our Abbot and he received the Abbatial Blessing from Bishop Paul Loverde at a memorable celebration on 15 October, 2016.