The monks purchased from the Sisters of Loretto a
farm in Nelson County named Gethsemani. Fr Eutropius Proust led the colony
of forty-four religious on the journey by ship, steamboat, and wagons,
arriving at their new home on December 21. A few log cabins served as a
temporary monastery, and work began on the permanent building in 1852.
Progress was slow and dragged on for years due to chronic lack of funds
and the Civil War. Ready at last for use in 1866, the abbey church was
consecrated on November 15 with John B. Purcell, Archbishop of Cincinnati,
As the twentieth century dawned, the community of Gethsemani numbered
sixty-three persons, remained predominantly French in its customs, and had
just elected Dom Edmond Obrecht as its fourth abbot.
His thirty-seven year
tenure as superior marked a vigorous change of course in the abbey’s
history. English became the language of the house, observances were
simplified, an influx of American vocations swelled the ranks, and many
building projects and capital improvements were undertaken.
Abbot James Fox at the 100th. birthday celebration.
The monastery’s one-hundredth birthday was observed first in private
ceremonies and later in public events. On December 21, 1948, Bishop
Francis R. Cotton of Owensboro officiated at the early community Mass,
followed at mid-morning by an Ordination Mass celebrated by Archbishop
John A. Floersh of Louisville. On this occasion two monks, Fraters Amandus
and Louis (Thomas Merton) received the order of subdeacon. The brethren
gathered afterward in the chapter room to hear several papers read in
honor of the centenary, and neighbors provided dinner “so that the monks
could eat something besides vegetables once in a hundred years.”
Other historical photos
|Much preparation and excitement led up to the June 1, 1949 public marking
of this milestone in Gethsemani’s history. Songs, speeches, and pageantry
were the order of the day, and the centerpiece was the solemn Pontifical
Mass offered under the open sky, with Dennis Cardinal Doughtery of
Philadelphia presiding. Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen of the Catholic
University of America delivered an address entitled “Thunder of Silence.”
After Mass, Dom James Fox, sixth abbot, greeted the large gathering, and
Kentucky Governor Earle C. Clements paid tribute to the community for its
service and achievements.
With one-hundred-sixty-five monks then in community, the abbey’s vitality
and spirit were pulsing. Gethsemani was now motherhouse to filiations in
Georgia and Utah, with another soon to follow in South Carolina. Numerous
vocations flowed in during the post-war decade, and the community met the
tide with further building expansion and foundations in New York,
California, and later in Chile. The writings of Fr. Louis and Fr. Raymond
reached audiences world-wide. A mail-order food industry replaced the
monastery’s agrarian economy. The winds of change were everywhere.
In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council directed the updating of
religious life, and the Cistercian Order accordingly modified or discarded
many of its customs. Each community now found new ways to live the
Cistercian heritage in its particular culture and circumstances, within
norms established by the General Chapter. Gethsemani was no exception.
Committees, dialogue, and consultation, along with many other adaptations
in the daily round, became routine. A “unity in pluralism” has
characterized the abbey in the post-Vatican era, replacing the conformity
of the past. Physical alterations to the environment were scarcely less
radical. Wing-by-wing, the monastery quadrangle was gutted and modernized.
Removal of the church’s faux-Gothic decorations, shabby after a century,
revealed a setting worthy of the revised liturgy.
The new millennium has continued to bring changes. Fr. Timothy Kelly,
eighth abbot, concluded his twenty-seven year service as superior and went
on to further administrative duties at the Generalate of the Order in
Rome. On April 8, 2000, the community elected Fr. Damien Thompson abbot.
His eight-year ministry contributed much to the holiness and development
of all. Chosen as the tenth abbot on April 29, 2008, Fr. Elias Dietz
begins his service with a six-year mandate.
Learning Christ in the school of charity continues, as leaven for the life
of the world. Now numbering about fifty members, the monastic family of
the Abbey of Gethsemani perseveres in the search for God and the following
of Christ under a rule and an abbot.