The monks and the saints — 70 years together in the Ogden Valley

Thursday , April 13, 2017 - 5:00 AM

MICHAEL PATRICK O'BRIEN, special to the Standard-Examiner

The warmth of another approaching Easter is awakening the hibernating pasturelands and farms of Huntsville and filling the Ogden River with the icy cold runoff of the melting snowpack. This year, the annual ritual of seasonal transformation and renewal feels different, and almost melancholy, for it is the last time the monks and the saints will together welcome spring to the mountain valley that they have shared for the past 70 years.

The monks are Catholic Trappists, part of a thousand-year-old monastic order founded in France. They traveled by train to Utah from Kentucky’s Gethsemani Abbey in July 1947 to establish the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity on a ranch they had purchased near Huntsville. The abbey would be a new monastery for prayer and contemplation within the gentle shadows of Mount Ogden and Monte Cristo, the mountain of Christ.

The saints, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, already knew of the beauty and sanctity of the Ogden Valley. They had arrived there some 75 years earlier and founded the town of Huntsville and the nearby aptly named village of Eden. The family farms of Huntsville produced many good things, not the least of which was David O. McKay, LDS Church president from 1951 to 1970.

The monks and the saints viewed each other with some suspicion when they first met.

The saints did not have much exposure to men who shaved their heads, wore robes, lived communally, never married, and got up in the middle of the night to sing Latin praises to God. Perhaps the saints saw the excess whisky crates that the monks (non-drinkers themselves) used to pack and wondered exactly what had moved into town. They started a petition to get them to leave.

The monks had their own skepticism about the saints, wondering who was this very distinctive Jesus who came to America after his resurrection. They also had heard stories of alleged historic Mormon hostility to strangers. Indeed, when the monks arrived at Ogden's Union Station in 1947 and heard some sirens, a number of them feared their new neighbors had sent the authorities to haul them away to jail.

It was the perfect setup for religious hatred and bigotry, on both sides. Instead, something much different happened — something wonderful.

The monks did not criticize or bother the saints, or try to take over the town. The saints left the strangers to the hard work of building a productive farm from what had been a mountain hunting ranch. Moment by moment, person by person, the monks and the saints slowly and cautiously connected with each other, sometimes on business matters, but typically on the mundane things about which neighbors must interact daily.

Quite simply, they got to know each other. The rest took care of itself. When a local farmer was laid up with a bad back at harvest time, the monks watered his fields and brought in his crops. When the abbey’s bakery equipment failed, workers from LDS Welfare Square replaced it with some of their own. When the husband of a Huntsville woman died unexpectedly, one of the monks appeared on her doorstep to offer support and solace.

The Huntsville LDS Ward has organized celebrations for the monastery’s anniversaries and brought food when monks have died, and monks have attended and spoken at the funerals of their LDS acquaintances. The monks donated land for use as a water treatment facility. Many young local men have made retreats at the monastery before they left for LDS missions. The volunteers at the one-room Huntsville history library have lovingly tended to scrapbooks they keep about the monks. And there are many more similar stories.

I had a front-row seat to watch a few scenes of this quiet miracle unfold. When I was 11, my family was recovering from a painful divorce. My Irish Catholic mother, herself orphaned at a young age, benefitted from a close relationship with her uncle, a Catholic priest in Vermont. During our family troubles, she took us to visit the Utah monks. They befriended us and for just over 10 years, I grew up as a sort of boy monk. I have kept an eye on the monks ever since.

After 70 years together in Huntsville, the monks now refer to the saints as dear friends and beloved brothers and sisters. The saints call the monks a blessing. After first meeting on a hot July day, and enduring seven more decades of them, their amazing relationship exemplifies the warmth of the Christian spirit: giving, sharing, caring, loving thy neighbor as thyself.

The monks now are old and few in number. Their monastery will close soon and this likely will be their last spring in Utah. Eventually, the only tangible reminder of them will be 30 or 40 simple white crosses that mark the spots where, in a quaint cemetery adjoining their church, the Utah Trappists are laid to rest. Yet as future seasons unfold, the monks will live on in the hearts and memories of those of us who knew and loved them. This includes, unexpectedly but not surprisingly, the saints.

Michael Patrick O’Brien is an Ogden native and a Salt Lake City attorney. He is writing a book about his adventures growing up with the Huntsville Trappist monks.

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