A life of solitude on the Western Edge
Inside Assumption Abbey in Richardton, North Dakota.
Wheat isn’t the only thing growing on the prairies of Richardton. In 1899, Father Vincent Wehrle established a monastery here that’s still thriving today — Assumption Abbey. We spoke with Brother Michael Taffe to learn more about the customs and history of this sacred place.
They keep a busy routine. Each day begins with a roughly 40-minute morning prayer from the Book of Psalms until 7 a.m.
“Next, we have breakfast, and our breakfast is in silence. The idea is that with silence, if we’re not distracting ourselves we have more room for God,” Taffe said. “Then we have a half hour for what’s called, ‘Lectio Divina’ (Latin for ‘Divine Reading’). So it’s a slow spiritual reading of scripture or other spiritual classics to kind of get an idea of how is God speaking to me today?… Then, hopefully all day I will chew upon what was said in that Gospel.”
At 8 a.m., everyone goes to work. Some of the work includes groundskeeping, administrative tasks, beekeeping and candle making. At 11:40 a.m., they come back for noon prayer with another reading from Psalms. Lunch is open for conversation. At 1 p.m., it’s back to work until they attend a 5 p.m. Mass before supper.
“At supper, we have a table reading. So basically, someone reads to us while we eat. You slow down… but it also gives us something to talk about,” he said.
After supper, they have a recreation hour during which they read the newspaper, check their email or play a card game. He called it family time. Taffe said UNO! has been a popular one lately. From 7:30 to 8 p.m., they have another "Lectio Divina." This is followed by a 15-minute evening prayer session to complete the day.
Roughly half of the monks at the Abbey are also ordained priests.
Becoming a Benedictine monk at the Abbey is a four-and-a-half-year process . The first six months prior to that is candidacy, during which they dress in civilian attire, pray, work and eat with the monks. After that, they enter classes on church history, monastic history, liturgy and living in celibacy.
Taffe said the Catholic Church has taken a more conscious approach in teaching and addressing celibacy rules than it did several decades ago.
"With all these terrible things that have been happening we can't just say, 'Oh, come on in. And if you're having a sexual thought, just don't do it. Get it out of your head.' It's more complicated than that," he said. "So we have to be aware of how do we manage our sexuality? And we have classes on that through our whole monastic life."
According to data from the Center for Applied Research in Apostolate, sexual abuse cases against American Catholic clergy declined from 1,367 incidents reported in the time period of 1975 to 1979 to 101 cases for the five year duration of 2010 to 2014.
"The good thing is the research has been showing that all the training in religious orders and dioceses is actually working," he said. "This should not have happened. But in terms of new allegations, the numbers have declined quite a bit."
‘Where’s God wanting me to be?’
Taffe was raised in a Catholic family. After receiving his undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Iowa, he entered the Peace Corps. He went on to earn his Ph.D. in psychology and worked as a psychologist for a couple years.
“I was good at it. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t really completing me,” he said.
Then he began attending monastic retreats in search of his ultimate purpose and meaning in life.
“I was living in Georgia at the time and was going to a monastery for retreats. And I was wondering okay, where’s God wanting me to be?” he said. “By going on these retreats, it led me to think, maybe this is what I really should be doing, which I never expected.”
Part of the reason he chose the Assumption Abbey is that he grew up in Minnesota and Richardton, North Dakota, was only a state away.
Taffe explained the adjustment to this communal lifestyle of devotion to God can be difficult for some.
“In many ways, our life is quite countercultural in that some of the time the thing that is difficult when people come in is, you don't have your own… it's not your life anymore,” he said. “One of our monks who’s been here a couple years now. At first, sometimes he said, ‘On Friday night, I just want to get a pizza and beer and watch TV. I don't want to go back to pray, (I’d rather) put my feet up and kind of do what I want to do.’ You know, we don't have that, in that sense.”
The Abbey has 40 monks — 28 of whom live there full-time. Some of the monks who work and live outside the monastery do have basic flip phones, but Taffe doesn’t have a cellphone and said he’s perfectly fine with that.
“I worry, and this is not just kids. It’s easy to blame the kids, but this is adults and older adults too. We’re not able to be bored anymore. We’re not able to just sit with ourselves, sit outside and watch the sun or sit outside and watch the birds. Our ability to spend more than five minutes doing nothing is really reduced,” he said.
When tourists visit the Abbey, Taffe encourages them to leave their devices in the car.
“My thing was, leave your phone in the car. Take your wife, kids and dog, go walk out on the lawn out there. Just play catch for a while. You don’t have to necessarily be tethered to that. Have that time for each other. Have that time for God. So hopefully, sometimes we can plant seeds that way,” he said. “I think that’s one of the reasons why we exist now, is to show people that there’s another way of being. You don’t have be such a slave to technology.”
He’s also concerned about the way social media and technology have fueled political polarization.
“It’s so easy to get into our political silos, you know, I listen to what I want and what I agree with,” he said. “That person who has a different silo, we're never going to come together and say well, these are some of the things we might agree on.”
“Well, once every three weeks we get a little crust, moldy bread and some warm water,” Taffe joked. “No, we actually eat.”
The only employees of the Abbey are some local women who work as kitchen staff, and one of the monks is the kitchen manager. He said they often host groups on the weekends, and have an old dormitory on the property where they stay. Recently, the Abbey had a group of deacons from the Diocese of Bismarck for their formation. These are periodic training and educational seminars Catholic deacons attend before and after being ordained.
“We also have lots of quilters and scrapbookers. So they will come with their sisters and their friends to scrapbook and quilt for three or four days,” he said. “They always say one of the best things about this is our food. It’s pretty basic, but it’s homemade.”
There are also eight guest rooms in the monastery for family members of the monks and those on retreats.
“They spend a couple of days looking at themselves, looking at their relationship with God and others. So they’ll pray with us,” he said.
The monks abstain from eating meat on Fridays. This was a practice observed by Catholics nationwide until 1966 when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops narrowed the rule to only include Fridays during Lent.
Taffe said many of the monks who came before him in 1940s and 1950s died at what is now considered a relatively young age of 55 or 60, due to poor health choices that were more common at the time.
“They ate a lot of fried food. They smoked cigars and cigarettes like there was no tomorrow,” he said. “But for us it’s really, God has given us this body. So how do we treat it?”
The Abbey has about 80,000 books in its library, he said. Many are religious texts, but the collection also covers a wide range of topics in history, politics, science and literature as well.
“How do we nourish our intellectual self appropriately? Again, our minds are a gift… so it’s important for us to continue to be educated,” he said.
From western Europe to western North Dakota
John Baptist Wehrle of Hohenbuel, Switzerland, was born in 1855. He was given the religious name Vincent a Paulo. By age 21, he was ordained as a priest at the Benedictine Abbey in Einsiedeln, with dreams of missionary work. In 1882, he got on a ship to America, where he was sent to Indiana, Arkansas, and eventually Yankton in the Dakota Territory where he helped establish a school for Sioux Indians. Shortly after, he ran a parish and established a small monastery on the shores of Devils Lake.
During that period, he had traveled through the south-central area of North Dakota, evangelizing to Russian, German and Hungarian settlers with great success. In 1899, he purchased land in Richardton, and built a combination of a church and monastery there.
After the Bishop of Fargo died in 1909, the Vatican split North Dakota into two dioceses and Father Vincent Wehrle became the first Bishop for the Diocese of Bismark in 1910. For five years, Wehrle maintained both roles as Bishop of Bismarck and Abbot of the Assumption Abbey. He worked tirelessly at converting new members to the faith and continuing to make improvements to the Abbey. In 1915, he resigned as Abbot and Father Placid Hoenerbach was elected as his successor. Wehrle served as Bishop of Bismarck until 1939, and died in 1941.