Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Dealing with death is lifeblood of New Melleray, Iowa, monks


Building caskets is act of mercy that pays

Brother Felix Leja
Brother Felix Leja, 78, sands the lid of a pine casket at New Melleray Abbey in Peosta, Iowa.
"Spiritually, I look upon it as a corporal work of mercy: helping to bury the dead," he said.

PEOSTA, Iowa - At New Melleray Abbey, a Trappist monastery just west of the Mississippi River, life is all about death and the fervent belief in resurrection.

From the time many of the 32 monks there rise before dawn until the hour they retire in their cloistered dormitories, their day is punctuated by prayers, psalms and mostly pine boxes that pay the bills.

While most of the 17 Trappist monasteries in the U.S. have abandoned the scythe as their main source of income, New Melleray in a sense has not.These monks have maintained their ties to the earth by harvesting their 1,200 acres of oak, pine, walnut and cherry -- as well as purchasing lumber -- to build brand-name caskets.

"Spiritually, I look upon it as a corporal work of mercy: helping to bury the dead," said Brother Felix Leja, 78, as he sanded the lid of a pine box. The contemplative work of sawing and sanding also gives him an opportunity to "ask the Lord for help the more I do it."

While many Roman Catholic orders have downsized or consolidated, the Trappists of New Melleray have welcomed four novices in the past year and opened a nearly 40,000-square-foot factory to make more caskets and ceramic urns.

But thriving in a commercial culture without compromising the monastic spirit is nothing short of a miracle.

That's where Sam Mulgrew comes in. Having sold his small business to the monks seven years ago, the Dubuque County native now manages Trappist Caskets. For him, New Melleray was the starting place and destination of a prolonged spiritual journey. Mulgrew had spent summers as a teen at the neighboring hermitage run by Trappist nuns. There, he became enamored of the contemplative lifestyle.

"It was an impressionable period of my life," Mulgrew said. "I came to appreciate the interior life. It developed into an interior romance."

That romance took him to an ashram in India, a hermitage in the Andes, Manhattan's Times Square and ultimately back to the bucolic setting of Dubuque County where he planned to live off the land and build a retreat in a neighboring county for others' introspection.

But, moved by the death of a friend's father and a confluence of changes in the funeral industry, he instead converted his barn into a woodworking shop and invited visitors to build their own caskets.

When he heard the monks were searching for a meaningful way to reap their woodlands, he wrote to Abbott Brendan Freeman. The two negotiated a partnership where the monastery set the ethos and Mulgrew managed the bottom line.

That includes 16 lay people who help the monks turn out around 1,000 caskets a year. Sales in 2006 were nearly $2 million, generating a solid profit that supports several charities.

Clients' choices range from a simple rectangular pine box for $875 to an intricately designed walnut coffin with a hinged lid for $2,075. Ceramic or wooden urns sell for $275. Children's caskets are complimentary.

"The grief is too great. We don't want to make money off that type of transaction," Mulgrew said.

"What people are buying from us is not a casket. It's a cradle, a meaning that transcends a physical reality. The monks have some handle on what that meaning is. The soul of a casket is much bigger than the receptacle to bury a body."

The monks follow the "Rule of St. Benedict," a text whose teachings include , "Let nothing be preferred to the work of God." With that in mind, the monks spend only five hours a day in the workshop and the rest of the day in prayer and quiet contemplation.

"We remind people that God exists," said Freeman, 69. "The monastery exists for that very purpose -- the mindfulness of God."

Monks remain on call around the clock in case a casket needs to be blessed in a pinch. For them, that's part of their mission -- an opportunity to remind others that death is only a beginning.

That conviction is affirmed every time an order comes in, said 76-year-old Brother Tobias Shanahan. He answers the phones for Trappist Caskets, informing those planning ahead and consoling customers. A monk at New Melleray since 1958, Shanahan has plowed fields and herded cattle. But it is this job that feels most like a ministry.

"We do build the box," Shanahan said, "but we leave the door open to faith." Chicago Tribune

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