By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
PEOSTA, Iowa, Jan. 16, 2018 — As I was scribbling on my notepad here the other day, my 93-year-old friend Father Jim O’Connor said, “It looks like you’re interviewing me.” Maybe, I answered. “I can see the headline now,” he said, “it’ll be, ‘Monks still hiding out but police are getting close!’ “
Ah, yes, my wife Carla Offenburger and I made another visit last Saturday, Jan. 13, to what I say is the best place in Iowa, the 169-year-old Catholic Trappist monastery, New Melleray Abbey, located just south of Peosta, about a dozen miles southwest of Dubuque. This time we brought along our great friend Mary Riche, of Des Moines, a licensed therapist who counsels couples and families. On this trip, however, we three came not as journalists and a counselor, but rather as civilians, seeking anointments against our various ailments and encouragement in our spirituality.
And God forgive me, it was really fun, too.
Carla Offenburger, Father Jim O’Connor and Chuck Offenburger, together again this past Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018.
I hope these monks understand what an impact they have on those of us who visit from the outside world. One measure of that: On Saturday, when it was snowy, blowing and bone-rattling cold, the abbey’s parking lot was jammed.
Maybe 40 members of the “Associates of the Iowa Cistercians” — lay people who feel called to some level of a contemplative lifestyle like the monks — were attending their monthly weekend-long meeting. Also on retreat at New Melleray were about 35 members of the University of Notre Dame folk choir from the famous school in South Bend, Indiana. And people from the rural neighborhood were dropping in, too, for early mass, the other daily services, confessions and more.
I’ve always said that New Melleray is either the coolest place in Iowa, or the hottest — and I’m not sure which. But it’s never failed that when I’ve taken visitors there over the last 35 years — and those have ranged from family to friends to other journalists to college classes to a bus tour of adults — that there’s never been any of my people who didn’t come away from the monastery feeling that something profound happens there.
This time our anointment was performed by Father Stephen Verbest, a monk I’ve known for 20-plus years. He is a native of Milwaukee who has been at New Melleray since 1957. I was amazed when he told me he is nearly 80 years old. I think of him as one of the younger fellows around New Melleray, probably because he is the abbey’s webmaster. He is self-taught on computers, but has become a wizard at it, as you’ll appreciate if you check out the site by clicking here.
We Offenburgers with Father Stephen Verbest after our anointment in the basement chapel of New Melleray Abbey.
Using holy oil and reading from his book “Pastoral Care of the Sick,” Father Verbest asked forgiveness of our sins, acceptance of God’s will, and relief from pain and suffering, while he also encouraged us to be of service to others. It was deeply touching. “I felt better immediately,” Carla Offenburger said, as she wiped away tears.
We’ve asked Father O’Connor to anoint us on past visits, but he is getting up there in years. He gave enthusiastic approval of our having sought ought Father Verbest this time. “His blessings are worth three of my blessings,” O’Connor said.
“And how old did you say I am now?” the older monk said. When we repeated his age of 93, he winced and said, “You can keep track of my age by counting the wrinkles on my face and multiply by 10.”
The wrinkled Father O’Connor and his new friend Mary Riche.
This was Mary Riche’s first visit to New Melleray — and first-ever visit with a monk — so I wanted her to hear Father O’Connor answer some of the questions that all newcomers naturally have. I scribbled some of those questions on my notepad, since he’s so hard of hearing.
Like, how do you feel about now having spent 69 years of your life here? (He joined in 1949 after he’d co-piloted a B-17 bomber in World War II, started college at Notre Dame and finished at DePaul University with an English degree.
“Sixty-nine years!” he answered, sounding almost astonished himself. “Are you sure you are talking to me and not a ghost?”
But has the monastic life been good for you?
“Well, it’s kept me out of the taverns for 69 years,” O’Connor said. “So I guess that’s good.”
One thing that is hard for me about my visits to New Melleray is watching my old monk friends aging and realizing the mortality we all share.
In preparing for this latest visit, for example, I was catching up on New Melleray news and realized for the first time that Brother M. Kevin Knox died at the age of 78 last March. A native of McHenry, Illinois, he’d been at the abbey since 1959. He was a chant and song leader, sometimes accompanying himself and the other monks on his guitar. He was also a brilliant, engaging person who was fantastic with the college students I’ve brought to the monastery. I’ll always miss him, just as I’ll always be grateful that I knew him.
The mortality part of this never seems to bother the monks as much as it bothers me. In fact, I don’t think it bothers most of them at all.
“I always feel like I’ve got one foot here, and the other foot in the hereafter,” Father O’Connor has told me. “And I look forward to the day when the good Lord takes me.”
We thank New Melleray Abbey guest master Father Jonah Wharff for coordinating our visit there. You can learn and see more of New Melleray in the photos and captions below.
You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.
Carla Offenburger, Father Stephen Verbest and Mary Riche in the basement chapel of New Melleray Abbey.
The book Father Verbest uses during anointments.
Mary Riche and Carla Offenburger in the prayer shawls they bought in the New Melleray Abbey gift shop.
Chuck Offenburger doing another interview with Father O’Connor. They’ve been friends for 35 years.
Members of the University of Notre Dame folk choir, meeting former Notre Dame student Father Jim O’Connor in the lobby of the Guest House at New Melleray Abbey. Chuck Offenburger talked them into singing the Notre Dame Alma Mater for Father O’Connor, and their performancec of it left all of us in tears. The singers were on a weekend retreat at the abbey, but they also performed a concert in the church on Friday evening, Jan. 12.
Most of our visits to New Melleray end with a visit to Breitbach’s Country Dining restaurant in little Balltown, about 20 miles north of the abbey, and we were there for another fine meal this past Saturday afternoon. On any visit to Balltown, you must stop at the grand overlook on the north end of town, where from the blufftop several hundred feet above the valley floor, you can see for miles and miles — including seeing the Mississippi River meandering in the distance. As you can see, one local fellow was so impressed with the view he donated a bench there for future viewers to use.
Here are Mary Riche and Carla Offenburger as they (quickly) enjoyed the view from the Balltown bluff on a cold winter day.