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A Monk’s Life: Behind the scenes in the monastery

By Elizabeth Van Pilsum, Arts and Culture Editor

Originally Published October 30, 2023

A feature unique to Saint Vincent College (SVC) is the monastery. However, many people take for granted the monks around campus and do not give much thought to what it means to live in the monastery.

Each monk gets recreation time to spend as they choose, and some of them go on outdoor adventures outside the monastery. (SOURCE: BROTHER BOSCO HOUGH)

There are about 150 monks at SVC. There are approximately 80 monks who live there and there are roughly 70 other monks who live off campus in parishes or wherever else their work takes them. The monks in the monastery live in single rooms similar to dorm rooms with a bed, desk, wardrobe, and sink. They have similar facilities to students on campus, such as communal bathrooms, kitchenettes to make snacks, and a gym. Most of the monastery is off-limits to lay people, apart from the reception room for visitors on the second floor and the infirmary, where monks go when they are sick. Some monks work as nurses in the infirmary, but there is also a doctor who is in once a week. The monastery also brings in a barber once a week to cut the monks’ hair.

Daily life for the monks starts early for morning prayer at 6:15 a.m, followed by Mass in the basilica. Afterwards, there is community breakfast in the refectory, which is their dining hall. Parkhurst provides food for the monastery, and the menu is similar to the student menu each day but with fewer options.

Monks generally spend their mornings in classes if they are in seminary or at their assignments. They are assigned their jobs by having a conversation with the Archabbot. “Sometimes the Archabbot needs you to do a set job based on your gifts, talents, and the needs of the monastery,” Brother Xavier O’Mara, O.S.B. said. “Sometimes there are options.”

There is midday prayer at 11:30 a.m., which all the monks try to make as best they can, followed by lunch and then more work in the afternoon. Evening prayer, called vespers, is at 5 p.m. and then dinner. Monks generally have evenings to themselves, and they end their day at 9 p.m. with night prayer. There is designated recreation time for all the monks on Wednesday evening at 8 p.m. The monks all gather in a communal space to talk, eat snacks, watch television, and play games such as euchre, cribbage, or uno. There is also time on the weekends for monks to spend time with each other. There is a movie club in the monastery that selects movies as a community and then watches them together. The junior monks, which are monks in their second, third, and fourth years at the monastery, have a yearly tradition of watching Mean Girls together. Monks have even more flexibility over the summer when there is less work to do with the college. They go to baseball games or white-water rafting.

Some of the monks went on a trip to the beach together. (SOURCE: BROTHER BOSCO HOUGH)

“We have a lot of normal things,” O’Mara said. “It’s a relatively normal life, despite the fact that we live in a community of men with specific vows of stability, conversion of life, and obedience. We allow people to see that living in a community is doable.”

Community is central in the monastery. Brother Francisco Whittaker, O.S.B., said his favorite memory is how the monastery celebrates Thanksgiving.

“It’s very much a family celebration,” Whittaker said. “In the refectory, the monks serve each other family-style. The monks who are the waiters for the day process in with the turkeys and play music. Then we usually have a turkey bowl later in the afternoon and we’ll watch one of the football games together. It feels like how a family would celebrate a holiday.”

Brother Bosco Hough, O.S.B. considers the friendships made in the monastery to be special because of how they allow genuine conversation. “Here we’re all focused on God so our conversations get super deep quickly so we’re able to be vulnerable.”

Hough’s favorite memories are of the monastery volleyball games where he gets competitive and trash talks his friends on the opposing team. “It’s just fun because we’re able to be brothers.”

Just because they are monks does not mean there are no shenanigans; Whittaker and Hough were in a prank war for a while.

“I snuck into [Hough’s] room when he wasn’t there and I duct-taped his habit to the ceiling,” Whittaker said. “The monastery ceilings are pretty high, so I had to stand on the desk and put a chair on the desk.”

While community is important, some monks faced expectations that community life would be very different that it is. One big adjustment for many monks is the assumption that you must be perfect to enter the monastery.

“I went through a very steep learning curve,” O'Mara said. “I needed to realize that everybody here has a past. You have to be yourself in order to authentically experience the monastery.”

Hough had a similar experience as O’Mara, having held specific assumptions about those at the monetary.

“I thought monks before I entered were very introverted, and didn’t want to talk to anybody,” Hough said. “But monks are really kind, they love this campus, they love the students here and they really want to get to know and minister to them in any way.”

Ultimately, the monk life is unique in some aspects but relatively normal in others. To combat assumptions, the monks invite all students to get to know them.

“If you don’t know a monk yet, you should go and talk to one. Before you graduate, you should know at least one monk,” Whittaker said. “While we look crazy and we dress kind of oddly, we are more normal than people think.”

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