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Ruth Engs
Department of Applied Health Science

Tracy James
University Communications

Mary Jeanne Schumacher
Saint Meinrad Archabbey & School of Theology

Last modified: Thursday, May 15, 2008

"Conversations in the Abbey," and the dynamic lives of monks

May 15, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- If you're looking for a life of world travel, several interesting careers, and a chance for social activism, you should consider becoming a monk. Disdaining the stereotype of secluded aesthetics behind high abbey walls, the senior monks of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in southern Indiana fully experienced the 20th century.

In her new book, Conversations in the Abbey: Senior Monks of Saint Meinrad Reflect on their Lives, Indiana University health historian Ruth Engs transcribes an oral history of the lives of eleven monks from the "greatest generation," who lived through the major events of the 20th century.

Ruth Engs

Ruth Engs

"They have experienced vast changes in society and the upheaval that has characterized much of the modern history of the Roman Catholic Church," said Engs, professor in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation's Department of Applied Health Science at Indiana University Bloomington.

The monks lived through the fight for civil rights, the entrance of married women into the workplace, and historic changes in the Catholic Church, Engs said. Major world events were seen by these men. They remember the Depression, World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and the political assassinations of the 1960s.

Despite their common home and daily life of work and prayer, each monk interviewed experienced a strikingly different life of work, travel and lifestyle.

The Rev. Cyprian Davis arrived at the Archabbey in 1950 to become the first African-American monk ordained at Saint Meinrad. Davis describes how he searched for an order that would accept him as not all abbeys were open to individuals from minority groups. Later in life, Davis and the Rev. Camillus Ellspermann marched at Selma for civil rights. They acted, what Ellspermann describes, as "buffers between police and marchers."

The Rev. Columba Kelly grew up on a farm in Iowa and attended a one-room schoolhouse. However, his life at Saint Meinrad radically changed his life. He was in Rome during the 1960s to earn his doctorate of sacred music. While there he saw the election of Pope XXIII and the beginnings of changes in the Church precipitated by Vatican II -- the Second Ecumenical Council of the Church.

Several monks, through their interview, related that over their lifetimes the Church has evolved into something different from the one they entered. Many commented that they have seen a slow decline in the number of men entering the priesthood.

"In older days, when there were big families and people were poor, if you had a son who was a priest or a daughter who joined the convent, you could proudly say, 'We've got a religious in the family,'" observed the Rev. Columba. "Today many parents say, 'Oh, don't squander all that intelligence. You can become a doctor or a lawyer.' A woman who wants to become a nun is told, 'Why do that when you can have a career?'"

Because of these attitudes, in Europe and North America, the Catholic Church has seen a downwards trend in people entering religious vocations, even as the Church has tried to roll back many of its more recent reforms.

"There has been a movement among some the clergy today to go back," noted the Rev. Cyprian. "I think that, in doing so, they are trying to recapture something that never existed."

The Benedictine monks at Saint Meinrad strive for moderation and balance in their lives through prayer and work, and their positive spiritual-health is evident in their stories. Reflecting on their lives over the past century, the monks illustrate the world seen through a lens of faith.

"Doubt, uncertainty, disappointments, struggle and the 'dark night of the soul' have been experienced, just as they have been experienced by most of us," Engs said. "This is the human condition."

Engs is a volunteer at Saint Meinrad's. All the proceeds of the book are donated to the upkeep and operation of the Abbey.

Engs can be reached at Information about Engs' other books can be found at her Web site,