After a spoonful of beef barley soup, Taylor Schilly tilted her head and asked a question that was nearly swallowed up by conversations from nearby tables.
But Father Norbert Novak heard it and replied: “I had a twin sister. She was petite and I was large. So we didn’t look like twins.”
Taylor, 14, smiled and, after another sip of soup, politely asked another question. The Salt Lake City girl had never visited a monastery before. She was among 35 teens from Utah and Idaho participating in a retreat called BenedicTEEN, a five-day experience of the Benedictine lifestyle at Monastery of the Ascension in Jerome.
The teens learn who the monks are and why they made a lifelong vow of prayer and reflection. It’s a vow that today’s young Catholics aren’t likely to make.
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As Monastery of the Ascension celebrates its 50th anniversary in Idaho this week, it’s an aging community, one that doesn’t expect a new infusion of youth.
Sixty years ago, droves of young men were making lifelong vows to become monks. Today, it is less common for men to make that commitment in their early 20s.
For many of the youth in BenedicTEEN, a monastery was a world they’d seen portrayed only in movies. Taylor expected to stay in a stone castle on a hill and be greeted by men in dark robes. Instead, the teens slept in hotel-like rooms with two beds and a private bathroom. The monks sitting at each table wore casual clothing and tennis shoes.
Novak wore slacks and a collared shirt instead of his black robe or habit.
The visit also marked the first time Taylor had eaten lunch with a monk. So she had a lot of questions.
Do you like it better here or at your previous monastery in Oregon?
“I like the monastery here, but I miss the green trees in Oregon,” Novak replied.
What did this look like before the monastery was built?
“This was all sagebrush,” Novak said, pointing toward the monastery’s southern end. “It hadn’t been developed yet.”
THE RULE OF ST. BENEDICT
The first Benedictine monks came to Jerome County on Aug. 3, 1965, after the Chapter of Mount Angel Abbey in St. Benedict, Ore., voted to form a monastic community in Jerome. The first Mass was celebrated on a sagebrush-covered section of the future monastery property.
Twelve Benedictine monks live at Monastery of the Ascension, where daily life is a delicate balance of private and public.
Monks come to the monastery to live in a secluded community, work and pray. But some choose to become chaplains or priests in nearby towns. Two of the 12 live in other Idaho cities — Father Jerome Montez in Boise and Father Meinrad Schallbeger in Cottonwood — but have rooms at the Jerome monastery.
They follow the teachings of St. Benedict, a sixth-century Italian monk. Their lives center on the Rule of St. Benedict, a guide based on study of earlier monastic documents and St. Benedict’s own experience in several monastic settings.
Benedict’s rule says all guests are to be received as Christ. Guests are welcome at the Jerome monastery, and people often stay and volunteer.
Monks have helped at various ministries doing parochial work, counseling and social services. They hold retreats and workshops inside the Ministry Center and Retreat House on their Jerome property.
“If you ask people who know we are here, they will say it’s a place of peace, quiet and affirmation,” said Father Hugh Feiss, who came to live at Monastery of the Ascension in 1996. “It’s a concrete example of the reality of God.”
There are two Benedictine monasteries in Idaho: Monastery of the Ascension in Jerome for men, and Monastery of St. Gertrude in Cottonwood for women. North America has about 50 Benedictine monasteries of men or women.
Today, women monastics outnumber men more than two to one, says the Order of St. Benedict website.
THE PRACTICAL SIDE
Father Andrew Baumgartner, the Jerome monastery’s business manager, takes care of the community’s budgets, insurance and investments. Each monastery member receives medical and dental benefits, three weeks of vacation and stipends for travel and education.
The monastery has one full-time employee and one part-time.
One way the monastery creates revenue is through its Ministry Center and Retreat House, which can be rented for retreats and workshops. It’s booked through September. The monastery also leases 396 of its acres to a farmer who grows malt barley, wheat, sugar beets and corn. The annual lease brings in about $35,000 to $40,000, and Baumgartner estimates it costs about $30,000 a month to run the monastery.
“It takes care of our needs for six weeks,” Baumgartner said.
Baumgartner said the monastery is fortunate because none of its members are in nursing homes. Everyone is in good health, which keeps costs low.
AN AGING GROUP
The oldest monk at Ascension is 87-year-old Father Eugene Esch. The youngest is older than 60.
In the early 1960s, many young men were studying for the priesthood. So many young men from Idaho were enrolling in Mount Angel’s seminary school that monks were sent to Twin Falls. The idea was that they would run a Catholic student center, guiding students while they took classes at the College of Southern Idaho in preparation for seminary school at Mount Angel.
Within a decade, those numbers declined. Mount Angel decided not to pull the monks from Idaho and instead set out to establish Monastery of the Ascension. The Catholic student center in Twin Falls later became Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish. Many of the monks at Monastery of the Ascension were classmates at Mount Angel.
The number of people seeking admission has diminished. Father Boniface Lautz said joining at age 20 doesn’t happen much anymore.
“It’s not unlike a family that has a business,” Novak said. “Will the kids want to take over?”
A YOUTH PERSPECTIVE
Deonno Avila, a Salt Lake City 16-year-old taking part in BenedicTEEN and visiting the Jerome monastery for a third time, said he doesn’t think he could make that commitment. He has thought about the monastery lifestyle but doesn’t think it would make him happy.
“I feel like I’d miss my family a lot,” he said. “And you would miss out on having a significant other.”
In 2008, the Vatican reported a dramatic fall in the number of Roman Catholic monks and nuns worldwide, the BBC reported. The number of men and women belonging to religious orders fell by 10 percent to just less than a million between 2005 and 2006.
Even the popularity of Pope Francis hasn’t increased these numbers, NBC News reported in 2014.
“We’re not seeing any increase in the number of people who identify as Catholics. There is no increase in the frequency with which Catholics say they go to church. People are not going to confession or volunteering more often,” Greg Smith, director of religion surveys for the Pew Research Center, told NBC News in 2014.
What does that mean for the Jerome monastery’s future?
“You look down the road. What’s that going to mean 10 years from now? We are a small community to begin with. A little place like this. A lot of people don’t know we exist,” Lautz said. “I think that’s a question that’s asked a lot. One of the reasons is young people have such a wide variety of choices to make, but which of these choices am I willing to make a lifelong commitment to?”
Naomi Behrend, 17, from Pocatello, said her family is close to the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist in Pocatello. Naomi has thought about becoming a sister but probably won’t join because she wants to have a family one day.
Despite their decisions, Naomi and Deonno plan to continue visiting monasteries and convents, and they want to help the monks and nuns who live there.
“All teenagers, especially now during this time, need seclusion and to be in nature, without electronics, to figure out who they are,” Deonno said. “Even if they are not religious, it’s a place to be at peace.”
The Catholic world needs the monastery lifestyle, Naomi and Deonno said. It’s just not for them.