Growing up in Oregon, and before becoming a Benedictine monk, I knew of the Trappist monks of Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey, some forty miles south and west of my home in Portland. The monastery was founded by Saint Joseph Trappist Abbey of Spencer, Massachusetts, in the late 1940s and began in New Mexico, at a former dude ranch outside the village of Pecos. Challenged by inadequate water rights for their farming endeavors in New Mexico, the monks decided to relocate and in 1955 the entire community moved to a new piece of property in Oregon’s beautiful Willamette Valley, where they have been ever since. I was happy that I lived close to their new home, as the abbey was and is a haven of contemplative quiet and prayer and a welcome refuge for many people.
I used to go to Oregon’s Trappist abbey for an occasional retreat when I was in high school and I recall meeting one of the monks, Father Joseph Benedict Donnelly. Like the other monks, he was always friendly if we guests happen to meet him. I can’t recall what his work was in those days, but he was seen around the premises and I remember thinking it was funny that his brother monks called him “Father Joe Ben” or simply “Joe Ben.” Nicknames in a monastery? It seemed odd, but I later learned that Trappists love nicknames, and that most of the monks have them, as a form of familiarity, I guess. The nicknames are usually just abbreviations of the monastic name. At Oregon’s Guadalupe Abbey, Father Timothy was “Father Tim,” and Father Richard was “Father Dick.” At least Brother Martin was Brother Martin and Brother Luke was Brother Luke and Brother Fabian was Brother Fabian. But many others had nicknames, and that was the way it was and I presume it still is. No harm done.
Oregon’s Trappist Joseph Benedict Donnelly died last year at the age of one hundred. When I knew him he must have been in his early 50s. I remember that at the end of one of my retreats, he gave me a ride to my family home in Portland, as he was heading to the big city on the same day that I was. As a result I wouldn’t need my dad, older brother or mom to come and get me. In high school I still didn’t have a driver’s license, so it was a real live Trappist who gave me a lift. At the time I may have asked him about his patron saint, Benedict Joseph Labre, or whom I presumed to be his patron saint, though his name was switched from Benedict Joseph to Joseph Benedict. In any case, ever since those days I have had a fondness for the popular eighteenth century saint of Rome, Benedict Joseph Labre. I trust the late Father Joseph Benedict and Saint Benedict Joseph (I doubt there are nicknames in heaven) are enjoying the Beatific Vision and swapping tales of Rome and Oregon. Read on to see the Trappist connection with Father Joe Ben and Saint Benedict Joseph Labre.
In Rome Saint Benedict Joseph is well known and loved. The little church where he spent much time praying, Santa Maria ai Monti, is not far from our curia Sant’Ambrogio. On April 16th this year some of us monks walked to the church where Saint Benedict Joseph is buried, and then went to the several-storied house where the saint died on April 16, 1783. This house is just around the corner from the church. Only on the anniversary of the death of Saint Benedict Joseph, April 16th, is it possible to visit the small chapel in the house and the room in which the saint died. Today it is occupied by the lay community of the “Pro Sanctitate” Pious Union.
Saint Benedict Joseph Labre was born in France in 1748, the eldest of fifteen children. At about the age of sixteen he expressed a desire in joining the Trappist monks at the Abbey of La Trappe in France. This was the monastery where the Trappist reform began. Benedict Joseph’s parents opposed the plan that he join a monastery and he complied with their wishes. At the same time an uncle of Benedict Joseph, who was a priest named Father Francis, became a special mentor and confidante to the young Benedict Joseph.
Two years later, in the summer of 1766, when Benedict Joseph was about eighteen, a dreadful epidemic swept through Europe. Father Francis and Benedict Joseph were involved in assisting the sick, both spiritually and physically. Benedict Joseph’s work was especially with people’s cattle, feeding and cleaning the stalls of the animals. Sadly his uncle Father Francis died during the epidemic.
After this ordeal, Benedict Joseph returned to his idea of entering the Trappists, but they declined the offer for various reasons. He was likewise gradually turned down by other communities as well, mostly of the more contemplatively bent, such as the Trappists or Carthusians. These rejections set in motion his decision to set off by foot on a pilgrimage that lasted several years. Benedict Joseph visited many of the great European shrines and churches during his wanderings, including those of Loreto, Assisi, Naples, as well as Einsiedeln and Santiago de Compostela, to mention some. He dressed in rags and never bathed, so was usually shunned, adding to prayerful isolation, which he much loved.
Benedict Joseph Labre considered himself to be a vagabond more than a beggar, committed to detachment and poverty, only accepted what was freely offered to him. Otherwise he did without or picked up what he found left behind by others. At the same time he was gradually being recognized as a holy man.
Benedict Joseph eventually settled in Rome and slept in the ruins of the Coliseum, to be near where early Christians had been martyred. During the day he would visit and pray in the many churches of the Eternal City. When his health began to fail, still in his early 30s, did he agree to sleep in a hospice for the homeless. At the age of thirty-five Benedict Joseph collapsed on the stairs of the church of Santa Maria ai Monti, where he had spent much of his time. This church is close to the Coliseum and the Roman Forum, just off the Via Cavour. After his collapse, Benedict Joseph was carried to the nearby house of a well-to-do woman, at Via dei Serpenti 2, where he died the next day, on April 16th, 1783, Wednesday of Holy Week.
Benedict Joseph’s reputation for holiness quickly spread through Rome and then beyond. That was how his parents, still alive, learned of where he had been for the past years and where he had died. Years before he had simply written to his parents that he was heading to Italy to become a monk. They never heard more from him.
Benedict Joseph Labre was canonized a hundred years after his death, in 1883 by Pope Leo XIII. He is a much loved patron saint of beggars and the homeless. He is also considered a “Fool for Christ,” a term from the Eastern Christian tradition, and known as the “Saint of the Forty Hours” (or “Quartant’ Ore” in Italian), for his devotion to Eucharistic adoration.
I like very much what Father John Murphy, PP, has to say about Saint Benedict Joseph Labre in a website at: CatholicIreland.net
“What are the lessons of such a life for us who live in a world of ‘designer labels’ and fast food, where appearances and soundbites mean so much to some people? Can we take time to ‘see’ that man or woman whom we pass downtown? Could we spare ten seconds to look into their eyes next time we drop a few coins into the plastic cup? Might we take a bit longer to share a few words of conversation and ask their name or where they come from? Who knows, we might even be meeting a Benedict Joseph today!”
Joseph Benedict’s first biographer was his confessor, Father Giuseppe Loreto Marconi. He wrote that the life of Benedict Joseph Labre “is not proposed to us for our imitation; yet it ought to serve as a spur and encouragement to our zeal in the service of God, and incline us to shake off that sloth, that delicacy and self-love, which we have contracted by being engaged in the station which Providence has placed us” (Marconi, 107).
Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, pray for us!