WESTERN MICHIGAN: Abbey dedicates 20-year, $3.9 million construction project

May 11, 2009

The saws and the hammers silenced, peace has returned to St. Gregory's Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan.

On May 9 more than 70 people gathered in the chapel to dedicate the abbey's first bell tower and to mark the close of a $3.9 million building campaign—the date corresponds with the anniversary of the chapel's dedication in 1951. For more than 20 years, the abbey, home to seven Benedictine monks ages 30 to 80, has been under periodic construction.

What began in 1946 as two farmhouses and a few war-surplus Quonset huts has become 10 simple buildings on 500 wooded acres—including walking trails, a small lake and a tree farm. The building campaign began in 1988; only one of the original farmhouses remains.

"Our basic focus is living a monastic life; we felt the new buildings would facilitate that," said Abbot Andrew Marr in a telephone interview. "I am glad to see that be accomplished. It's a significant amount of work to be raising money. Not that it was a constant; it was done in phases and appeals. But it was a little bit hectic."

Bishop Arthur B. Williams, Jr., the abbey's visitor bishop—its representative to General Convention—and assisting bishop in the Diocese of Ohio, celebrated the Eucharist and led the blessing ceremony.

"St Gregory's Abbey, organized in 1939, is the oldest monastic community in the Episcopal Church following the Rule of St. Benedict. When I first visited the abbey 35 years ago as a young priest, I found a supportive community which took to heart its ministry of hospitality to its guests. Visitors then slept in Quonset huts, studied in a poorly-lighted library and joined the monks for meals in a refectory in much need of renovation. In order to carry out more effectively this primary ministry, the community entered into a major building project," Williams said in an e-mail message prior to the dedication.

In 1936, a group of American Episcopalians moved to Nashdom Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in the Church of England, to be trained as monks with the purpose of returning to the United States to found a monastery in the Episcopal Church. War broke out in Europe, cutting the monks' training short, and they returned home and founded St. Gregory's House in Valparaiso, Indiana, in 1939. Seven years later, they moved to Three Rivers. The abbey is part of the Diocese of Western Michigan.

Most of the $3,984,000 the monks raised came from individual donors, and subscribers of the 21,000-circulation quarterly newsletter, the Abbey Letter. In researching monastery capital campaigns Marr had read that in earlier times it was common to take between 20 and 40 years to build an abbey. He wondered how nuns and monks—who live a quiet life in contemplative prayer—could have coped with such a long process. "There is such a thing as patience," he wrote on the abbey's website, which includes construction photos.

More than one thousand guests visit the abbey annually. They come from all religious backgrounds—the surrounding population is mainly Mennonite and Dutch Reformed—for retreats, quiet time and to experience everyday monastic life in which the bell plays a crucial role, said Brother Abraham Newsom in a telephone interview.

"This is our first bell tower. The bell is very important in monastic life--it is what reminds us of and calls us back to prayer," he said, adding that the new bell is electronic and programmable. "We had a small bell that wasn't really audible throughout all the monastery buildings; finally we got the money to buy a bigger bell."