Dear Friends in Christ,
As a high school seminarian, from 1969 to 1971, when I was 16 to 18 years old, we students sometimes made retreats at the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Guadalupe, about forty miles from where we lived and studied at Mount Angel Seminary. While admiring the monks of Mount Angel, we somehow thought we were transported to an even higher level of spirituality and holiness at the Trappist monastery. Why? Perhaps because the Trappist monks lived what is often called a more “contemplative lifestyle,” without schools, parishes or other apostolates, being dedicated completely to prayer, so they appeared to us as “even holier” than the Mount Angel monks. At least that seems to me now how our thinking was on the matter those fifty years ago.
The Trappist monks arrived in Oregon in 1955, relocating from where they had begun a few years earlier, at Pecos, New Mexico. The monks’ New Mexico property, just outside of the village of Pecos, had previously been a dude ranch, with an emphasis on city slickers coming to experience “cowboy living.” In the late 1940s the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of the Valley in Rhode Island, who later moved to Spencer, Massachusetts, purchased the New Mexico dude ranch and sent a group of founding monks to Pecos in 1948. There is a brief description of this history in Thomas Merton’s “The Waters of Siloe,” published while the Trappists were still at Pecos, before they moved to Oregon.
Eventually, and for various reasons, which included, if I am not mistaken, insufficient water rights from the Pecos River and less than ideal soil to do their extensive agricultural work, the Trappist monks received permission to move to a new location, and Oregon was where they went in 1955. They have been there ever since. Today they are a community of twenty-five or so. Ironically, their Oregon farm land is leased out, as the monks no longer engage in serious agricultural work.
One of the monks we seminarians got to know at Guadalupe Abbey in Oregon was Father Timothy, the Guestmaster in those days, who told us that when the monks first arrived in Oregon and their monastery buildings were not yet completed, they decide to delay in working outside because of the rain. After a few days they realized that if they were waiting for the rain to stop, they would never finish their monastery! So on with the work they went, rain or shine. The mostly wooden structures were upgraded, added on to and a new church was built not too many years ago. They have a lovely piece of property amidst the forests of the Willamette Valley south of Portland, and not too far from the Oregon coast.
During the first visit we seminarians made to the Trappists in 1969, we inquired about the hermit monk we had heard about, who lived up the hill above the abbey. The Guestmaster told us that there was indeed a hermit, but not to bother him. Unfortunately, that made us all the more eager to meet the hermit, whose name was Father Mark. In blatant disobedience to Father Timothy, three of us on retreat ventured to find Father Mark’s hermitage, which we did. It was a metal trailer-house perched on the hillside with a terrific view of the valley below. We knocked on the hermit’s door with fear and trembling, not knowing what to expect, and he quickly answered (the trailer was quite small in fact) and he couldn’t have been friendlier.
We visitors to the hermit monk felt as if we were now in the presence of the “High Lama-Father Perrault,” described in the 1933 novel, “Lost Horizon,” by British author James Hilton. The priest Father Perrault supposedly came to Shangri-La in the 18th century and was still alive two hundred years later. I confess I have never read “Lost Horizon,” but was and am still enamored with the movie version, made in 1937 by Frank Capra, starring Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt. A not-to-be-missed film. While the Trappist hermit monk we were visiting was then only in his mid-40s, that could have as easily been a hundred years old to the eighteen-year old that I was.
After offering us something to drink, Father Mark showed us a book he was reading and highly recommended, called, “A Treasury of Russian Spirituality,” by George Fedotov. I eventually acquired a copy of the book, which is an excellent introduction to Eastern Christian spirituality. Father Mark went on to tell us that he was among the group that was sent out on the Trappist foundation made at Pecos in 1948, just a year after he entered the Abbey of Our Lady of the Valley in Rhode Island. We passed an enjoyable fifteen minutes or so with Father Mark, and I believe we never told the abbey Guestmaster, Father Timothy, that we had indeed disobeyed him and visited the famous (from our point of view) hermit.
After that visit I didn’t keep in contact with Father Mark nor see him again, though I recall once visiting the Trappist abbey with my mom on a Sunday during a family visit, in the 1980s, and Father Mark was the community Mass celebrant and homilist that day. Then too he struck me as a holy man. He was still living as a hermit on the monastery grounds, and continued to until his death a year ago. He lived to be 91 years old, and died on June 5, 2018, having been in monastic vows for 69 years and a priest for 63 years.
In the funeral homily for Father Mark, his abbot, Father Peter McCarthy, said the following: “What is holiness? I don’t believe I am the only one who lived or moved around Father Mark who finds himself asking this question. Since his death so many of you monks and friends have mentioned to me a presence of quiet, peace and healing acceptance [Father Mark] brought to everyone he encountered…to everything really…even to his own death. I keep reflecting…it was like an atmosphere…an equally strong and gentle embrace that surrounded Father Mark.”
What a beautiful testimony about this monk and something I too sensed strongly, even as a teenager, some fifty years before the death of Father Mark. May Light Eternal shine upon him!
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB