Monk Business

Brothers bring a sense of the order to city life.

By Patrick Butler

The heart of Bridgeport may seem an unlikely place for a group of monks to set up shop, but not to Father Thomas Baxter, who along with three of his colleagues recently finished converting the shuttered Immaculate Conception Church at 3111 S. Aberdeen into the Monastery of the Holy Cross. After all, they’re just following an old church tradition–abbeys were often centers of urban life in medieval times as well as one of the Catholic Church’s methods of reaching out to the laity, functioning as a haven for travelers and penitents.

While there may not be too many wayfaring pilgrims in search of safe lodgings anymore, there’s certainly no shortage of restless seekers of temporary spiritual sanctuary, says Baxter. Abbott Philip Lawrence, who oversees Holy Cross and other monasteries that fall under his jurisdiction, isn’t sure why people of all faiths are becoming interested in deepening their spiritual lives, so much so that one monastery’s Web site received 1,000 “hits” hourly after the New York Times ran a feature on modern monasticism last year.

Despite such contemporary touches, Lawrence and Baxter admit they still encounter petitioners harboring stereotypes of monks picked up from books and movies like The Name of the Rose and the comic strip Brother Juniper. “For one thing, we’re not friars and friars aren’t monks,” says Lawrence, who explains that monks take vows of stability, while friars might be transferred from place to place as needed. Some monks are priests, others aren’t, but they all address each other as “Brother” to foster a sense of equality. Monks live simply in relative seclusion, but “we’re not a cult of the difficult” that seeks suffering for its own sake and tries to escape from the world, says Father Bernard Cranor, a member of Christ in the Desert, a Benedictine monastery in New Mexico, who Lawrence has recruited as a kind of spiritual mentor to Holy Cross.

“We feel that by being on the fringes of the world we can better serve it,” says Baxter. “The things of the world are good, but we don’t feel we have to sample all of them.” He adds that part of his job involves figuring out whether a man considering the monastic life is running from or to something. “We ask how they spend their money and their time. And since a life of celibacy is involved, we need to know how they’re dealing with that right now.” Baxter himself seriously dated a young woman in his Iowa hometown before deciding to become a priest. When he told his pastor of his decision, “he accused me of being a draft dodger.” Undeterred, Baxter joined the Missionhurst Fathers and went to Brazil. While with the Missionhursts, Baxter met Father Patrick Creeden, who had studied Russian and had an eye on a State Department career before deciding to become a priest, and Father Edward Glanzmann, who had served in Haiti and Minnesota. Together, the three men eventually discovered that what each of them really wanted was to be a monk. Not just any monk, but an urban monk, reaching out to neighborhoods like Bridgeport, where Creeden says things like crime and hopelessness are scarier than the scorpions he encountered in Brazil.

They soon found the only existing monastery of the kind they were looking for in Paris. The three remained there for a time studying the workings of the abbey before returning to the United States in 1991 to set up something similar. They ended up in Chicago because the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin thought an urban monastery was just what the city needed–a place of calm and meditation a step beyond the capabilities of the parish church.

Baxter recalls that during their first meeting Bernardin waved a sheaf of reports detailing the monks’ backgrounds and future plans. “He told us, ‘I’ve read all this stuff. What I really want to know about is you,'” Baxter says. “We had been told beforehand that our meeting would last no more than a half-hour and he ended up talking to us for five or six hours.” At the end of the meeting Bernardin invited them to take their pick of practically any closed church buildings he couldn’t sell.

“He was after all a very practical man,” says Baxter, noting that the monks had to find a habitable place in a relatively safe neighborhood where they wouldn’t appear to compete with any existing parish churches and would need to be able to do most of the renovation work themselves because of tight funds. Immaculate Conception fit the bill.

For the past six years, Baxter and his fellow monks have been working on the buildings with the help of Time Life books on home repair and caretaker Tom Levergood, a University of Chicago theology student. Last month the papers were finally signed formally admitting Holy Cross into the order of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. The probationary period ends April 1, 2000. “I don’t know who picked that date, or why,” Lawrence chuckles.

The Monastery of the Holy Cross walks a tightrope of sorts trying to reach out to the surrounding community without muscling in on another pastor’s turf, but as many as 50 worshipers show up for the Sunday liturgy, a unique blend of the familiar Roman mass with Byzantine-style chants. Most of the visitors are from other parts of the city, but there are a few regulars who live nearby. Susan Lubas used to work at the Church of Saint Peter in the Loop, but started attending Holy Cross when she felt she was “at a time in my life when I really needed some quiet.”

Besides holding regular services, the monastery serves as a refuge where city residents who can’t take the time to visit a rural monastery can escape the pace and secularism of urban life and concentrate on building their faith. Even before Holy Cross’s dedication on May 4 Baxter says between 50 and 60 people a month had been coming from nearby suburbs like Evanston and as far away as Joliet to stay anywhere from an hour to a week. But not all the people who seek the shelter of an abbey are Catholics, Lawrence says. He once helped a Jewish woman build an awareness of her own spiritual roots during her brief retreat at Christ in the Desert.

While such seekers are the monastery’s real reason for being, living the contemplative life these days takes a lot of all-too-earthly work, says Baxter, who’s the first to admit a typical monk’s day isn’t for everyone. It starts between 4:30 and 5 AM, with scripture reading at 6, then a quick breakfast and more prayer until 9, when everyone goes off to their jobs. Glanzmann serves as chaplain at Saint Francis Hospital in Blue Island, while Baxter and Creeden work on the monastery’s future “Electronic Scriptorum” Web pages, not unlike their medieval predecessors who turned out painstakingly illuminated vellum manuscripts. Then it’s off to lunch and midday prayer, followed by an afternoon of meditation and study. Vespers are at 5:45 PM, with mass and night prayers ending at 9, followed by the “Great Silence.”

You have to like yourself to be willing to spend that much time in self-discovery, Cranor says, adding that knowing oneself is an important step in better understanding God. At the same time, monks have to guard against becoming so self-absorbed in the monastic life they forget they’re there to serve man as well as God.

In his homily during the monastery’s dedication mass, Lawrence–whose home monastery has only about 20 monks–conceded suitable candidates are hard to find these days. But he isn’t worried about Holy Cross’s future.

“Go deeper within yourselves,” he urged the monks. “Love more. Be faithful.” As long as they obey these admonitions and don’t forget the true reason for being monks, Lawrence said, finding new recruits–and even paying the bills–won’t be a big problem.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Patrick Creeden, Thomas Baxter photo by Randy Tunnell.