Huntsville man on a mission to preserve monastery open space

Wednesday , April 12, 2017 - 5:00 AM

Standard-Examiner file photo

The Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity monastery in Huntsville in 1999.

MITCH SHAW, Standard-Examiner Staff

HUNTSVILLE — Working with a Utah conservation group, one resident here is on a mission to ensure the legacy of a 70-year-old monastery is forever preserved. 

The Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity is closing, likely in September. The Trappist monastery in Huntsville was founded in 1947, but after seven decades, people simply aren’t lining up to be monks anymore.

The Rev. Casimir Bernas told the Standard-Examiner as much earlier this month. Bernas, a monk at the Abbey, said monasteries are closing all over as monk populations age and new enlistments continue to shrink. 

• RELATED: Huntsville monastery closes after 70 years, monks donate $400K to Lantern House

The Huntsville location is no exception, and so the 1,860 acre monastery will be no longer after this year. 

A small portion of the property, just over 25 acres, has been given to the Catholic Diocese of Utah for a future parish. But other than that, the long-term future of the Weber County landmark has been an unsettling question mark for both upper valley residents and monastery officials. 

Enter Bill White.

White, a Huntsville resident, town council member and semi-retired water rights attorney, bought the property in January 2016 for an undisclosed price.

The Huntsville monastery is overseen by the Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. When it was deemed the Huntsville spot could no longer sustain itself and had to be sold, White said, the overseers in Kentucky began floating a proposal to turn the property into a mixed-use mountain development.

• RELATED: Abbey's legacy will live on in Lantern House

“It was an issue that I was aware of, but I really didn’t have any intention of getting involved,” White said. “But the talk started about this giant, mixed-use development and you could kind of see where it was headed.”

So White bought the property.

He says Huntsville gets its water from a spring above the monastery, so maintaining the purity of the town’s water supply was part of his motivation, but more than that, he wanted the beautiful open space the monastery has been known for to remain intact.

It’s a sentiment championed by longtime residents of the valley and by the Huntsville monks themselves, White said.

“The local monks (in Huntsville) have been adamant about preserving the open land,” White said. “From the beginning, they’ve been against the (proposed) development.”

Working with students from Utah State University, a plan to preserve open space was presented to the Abbey in Kentucky, which then passed it along to the Vatican, which gave the plan its blessing. 

“The plan has been approved, but now we need to work out all of the details,” White said. 

The plan, in a nutshell, is this: White is working with Utah Open Lands, a nonprofit land trust conservation association, to raise money to reimburse the property purchase and to put the remaining Abbey acreage into a conservation easement that would forever protect it against development.

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“The idea is that the land will be put into a conservation easement and will stay like it is now, a farm, forever,” White said. “I’m kind of providing the money in the interim and working as a bridge (until funds are raised).”

White and UOL are also working with the Ogden Valley Land Trust, and Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, to seek possible legislative funds. 

Wendy Fisher, UOL executive director said the group hasn’t yet initiated a formal capital campaign, but will seek federal and state money and rely heavily on private donations.

“There’s no question protecting the monastery will take a lot of private dollars,” Fisher said. “But this is a spectacular property and it should be preserved. It sets the tone and character of the entire valley.”

The process is in its early stages, but White said it will take a substantial amount of money, likely in the ballpark of $6 million, to accomplish the task. If the money isn’t raised, White says he’d likely sell the property back to the monastery, and the monastery would do with it what it chooses.

White says the proposal is gaining momentum, but the idea isn’t without skeptics.

“There are people who are super happy and people who are super skeptical,” he said. “I understand the skepticism, but my No. 1 goal in life right now is to preserve this property.”

To donate to the proposal, go to the Utah Open Lands website at utahopenlands.org. You can also email Fisher at wendy@utahopenlands.org. Fisher said if the campaign is not successful, all donated money will be returned.

You can reach reporter Mitch Shaw at mishaw@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @mitchshaw23 or like him on Facebook at facebook.com/MitchShaw.StandardExaminer.