By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published May 12, 2011
When a small group of Trappist monks first settled in Georgia in 1944, they spent several months living in a barn while they worked tirelessly to construct more permanent living and worship spaces that would eventually become the Monastery of the Holy Spirit.
That barn has now become a focal point of the new Monastic Heritage Center, an educational facility where traditional meets modern. Honoring their rustic roots and humble lives of prayer, the monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit constructed the museum to share their rich history and make it more visible to the outside world.
On Friday, May 6, the monks invited their closest friends and benefactors to enjoy a sneak peek at the completed project, which includes the renovated original barn, the new Monastic Heritage Center as well as a newly constructed Abbey Store.
Resident geese flew overhead as the guests mingled with the monks and toured the buildings. The mellow notes of a string quartet from the University of Georgia echoed throughout the green space between the buildings, while visitors browsed through items in the store or took a closer look at the bonsai trees on display, another of the monastery’s industries.
Coming into the new center, a colorful, visual history of monasticism greets visitors. Natural earth tones of green, blue and brown match the surrounding landscape, linking the old and new lives of the monks. Significant moments in the history of monasticism, and the Cistercians in particular, are chronicled with pictures, text and profiles of famous monks such as St. Benedict and St. Basil, considered the fathers of western and eastern Christian monasticism, respectively. The Conyers monks are members of the order formally known as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance and follow the Rule of St. Benedict, written 1,500 years ago.
From the center, visitors are then directed to an outdoor walkway that overlooks a bonsai garden, full of miniature trees grown and pruned by the monks themselves. An account of the monks’ move to Georgia is included in the walkway, preparing guests for the second wing of the heritage center: the original barn in which the monks first lived.
The high ceilings and spacious atmosphere of the barn reflect the open land the monks have tilled for decades. Reminding the community of their beginnings, one of the first items to greet visitors is a replica of the small cells that the monks constructed inside the barn during those first few months. The monks built rows of cells on the floor of the barn, only about six feet by three feet, while the hayloft above served as their first worship space and chapel.
During the tours on Friday evening, several monks were positioned throughout the engaging displays, greeting the guests and supplying extra information about what was presented in the exhibits. One photo of the original group of Trappists was placed on the wall, and a monk shared that the photo was taken just outside the barn where people were gathering that evening.
The foundation in Conyers came about when the Trappist monastery in Gethsemani, Ky., sent a group of its monks out to establish this new monastery in Georgia, where Catholics were little known.
Other displays chronicled the construction of the first monastery, built of wood, as well as the current concrete monastery. There is also an entire wall dedicated to a “day in the life” of a monk, following their prayer and work schedule, complete with quotes from the monks themselves on the display.
After leaving the barn, visitors find a “prayer walk” adjacent to the building, which features a trail that leads to the monastery, located a distance away from the new construction.
Directly across from the barn is the new Abbey Store, separated from the center by a luscious green space with a calming fountain and places to sit, pray, meditate or simply enjoy the quiet atmosphere.
After giving guests some time to explore the center, the store and the surrounding grounds, Bishop Luis R. Zarama blessed the buildings, praying that the new addition to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit would help share the vision and mission of the monks, who have been an integral part of the Archdiocese of Atlanta for over 60 years, predating the diocese that was established in 1956.
The celebratory event was attended by close friends of the monastery, who were invited to stay for a sit-down dinner to celebrate this next step in the history of the Conyers Trappists. In 2008 the monastery began a season of renewal to reexamine how the 40-member community could best continue its cloistered, contemplative life while remaining self-supporting. The capital campaign that resulted led to the building of the Monastic Heritage Center, which it is anticipated will draw even more visitors to the monastery for retreats, days of reflection, and educational stops, as well as tourists and nature lovers.
Bill Setzer, who traveled from Mobile, Ala., for the event, has close ties to the monastery. His late uncle was a monk there. Setzer remembers visiting the monastery as a child and always found it to be a place of peace and solitude. He was pleasantly surprised when he saw the recent addition to the monastery grounds.
“It’s amazing what they have done here,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”
Between dinner courses, the crowd was treated to a performance by the Folkloric Dance Troupe from the Boys & Girls Club, as well as words from special guests and benefactors, including Javier C. Goizueta, vice president of The Coca-Cola Co., Michael Jansen, president of the Jansen Family Foundation, and Vince Dooley, co-chair with his wife, Barbara, of the capital campaign.
Abbot Francis Michael Stiteler spoke, thanking the people for their support and promising them that this was the beginning of a new phase for the Cistercians at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit.
“All of you have helped make this night possible,” he told the crowd. “Monasticism, as you know, is a quiet thing. … The monks have gone about their business for many, many years quietly.”
Abbot Francis Michael said that the idea for the heritage center came when the monks realized they were not supporting themselves the way they used to. They needed a way to revitalize their community and said the center was the first step toward a place where they could again fully support themselves.
One of the difficulties that comes with such a center, he said, is maintaining the balance of bringing more people to the monastery but still allowing the monks to keep their solitude. All those involved felt the heritage center would be a great way to bring more people to the monastery to learn about monasticism, but the monks made sure the center was far enough away from their worship space so they could maintain that quiet lifestyle.
“We pray that you continue to find this a place of grace,” he said. “This is just the beginning. … We have more to come.”
Jansen, president and chief executive officer of Classic City Marinas, also spoke to the crowd Friday evening. Jansen also has close ties to the monastery as he and his siblings grew up in Conyers and first went to Mass at the monastery starting in 1971 before a Conyers parish was established. He worked with the monks for five years when he was a teenager, doing odd jobs around the land, mostly on the organic farm.
He shared personal stories of his experiences with the monks, how they taught him life lessons through manual labor and how the monastery is a vital part of the local community and the Catholic Church in North Georgia.
“We believe in the mission of the monastery and the monastic life,” Jansen said. “(The monastery) serves as a spiritual destination in a very secular world. The need for the monastery as a spiritual oasis is greater today than it was … when I first came here.”
The Monastic Heritage Center is now open to the public and, according to the monks, has had a steady flow of visitors since May 6. They are planning to hold an open house event later this year.
“The monastery is a school of love,” said Abbot Francis Michael. “I want to thank you for being part of this holy place. We didn’t make it holy. God made it holy.”
The Monastery of the Holy Spirit is located at 2625 Highway 212, SW, Conyers. For information, visit www.trappist.net or call (770) 483-8705.