Just south of the city’s edge sit the ruins of an old Trappist Monastery. For a change of walking scene I drove down there this morning.
A plaque at the gate neatly sums up the historical facts:
Monsignor Ritchot, parish priest of St. Norbert, and Archbishop Taché of St. Boniface invited five Cistercians of the Trappist Order from the Abbey of Bellefontaine, France, to establish a monastery here in 1892. The community was named Our Lady of the Prairies. The Romanesque Revival church was built in 1903-04 and the connecting monastic wing in 1905. The guesthouse was erected in 1912 on the foundations of the first church building. This self-sufficient monastery included milking barns, stables, a cheesehouse, apiary, sawmill and cannery.
By 1978, the Trappists had moved to a site near Holland, Manitoba, to protect their contemplative life from the effects of urban sprawl. Fire gutted the vacated church and residential wing five years later.
The monastic life has always appealed to me. Simplicity. Self-sufficiency. A life free of literal and virtual clutter. The combination of hard, honest work and quiet contemplation. I’ve read the Rule of St. Benedict—it describes the kind of life I would like to live—the kind of person I would like to be. But I’ll never be Catholic enough to fit in with any Order.
I can see why the monks chose this lovely riverbank location. And later, as I drive back into the city, past the endlessly under-construction perimeter overpass and the acres of concrete, I can see why they left.
Early morning on a cold autumn weekday, there are no tourists. No wedding parties making use of the scenic setting. No crowds gathering for an event at the arts and cultural centre that makes its home in the old monastery guesthouse. My car is alone in the parking lot, and I have the grounds to myself. My personal take on monasticism: a walk in the woods, alone.
I explore the ruins, and wonder at the beauty of the rough brickwork, and the very European feel of this place of prayer that was constructed beside a sleepy prairie river in what must have felt like paradise to a community seeking to live apart. And then I spot a path off the road and down through a wooded section of the riverbank, and I go astray.
As I make my way along the flattened grass towards the bank, I notice the crumpled remains of a beer case in the weeds. The bright blue of the carton leaps out against the greys and browns and muted greens of the leaf-strewn ground. Distracted by the contrast, I fail to notice the other litter.
I walk on, weaving through a stand of dying elms, until I suddenly realize that the ground in all directions is strewn with scrap metal. Old car parts, oil drums, bits of chain link fence. It’s everywhere. I didn’t notice it because the ubiquitous rust blends subtly with the colours of the mud and fallen leaves. A different kind of ruin to the one up the hill.
It’s hard to know what to make of it. Who to blame for the mess. Surely not the monks. And surely not the artists who have adopted the space in recent years. Aside from the beer boxes, the garbage is not recent. Perhaps it is just a sad indication of the “urban sprawl” the monks were fleeing.
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