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American Places, Catholic Spaces Print E-mail
By Joseph Wood   
Saturday, 03 August 2013

“The only college in America where you can’t have a cell phone, but you can have a gun.”  So runs the informal motto of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander. But the College’s administration is prudent both in the ancient sense – conformed to reality in its fullness – and in the contemporary sense, meaning aware of possible dangers. Hunting with firearms is prohibited on campus. Bow and arrow only.

I visited the college recently for the Fides et Ratio Seminar organized under the auspices of the Faith & Reason Institute, the parent institution of The Catholic Thing, both directed by Robert Royal. Superbly led by Professor Patrick Powers and Paul Jackson, also of Thomas More College in New Hampshire, the seminar draws Catholic educators and others for a week of intensive reading and discussion. A glorious week, both in the joy of intellectual endeavor with Catholic truth at the center, and in the splendor of God’s “first textbook,” as WCC’s new president, Kevin Roberts, describes the beauty around Lander.

As conditions for religious freedom and Catholic teaching continue to deteriorate in America, both will get a robust intellectual and (pardon my paranoia), if necessary, physical defense in central Wyoming.

Driving from the east coast to Lander, through what sophisticates call the “fly-over states,” I found other outposts of the one, true faith. In Europe or even formerly Spanish Florida it’s not surprising to find Catholic references and edifices. For me, at least, this journey through America brought some unexpected and refreshing delights.

The tone of the trip was set just before I left with a visit to the Benedictine Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia, on the feast of St Benedict. Famed for its bakery, it occupies a lovely setting on the Shenandoah River. Many Catholics in the Washington area benefit from visits to this serene place. The prayers and work of the monks must send much needed holiness down the Shenandoah as it joins the Potomac and flows on into the belly of the beast. What happens to it there, I will not try to explain today.

On the day of the trip itself, I started early for Mass at another great Catholic institution, Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia. I don’t know if Christendom allows cell phones or guns, but I do know they are creating a faithful Catholic environment with a solid education for terrific students. And I never pass up a visit for Adoration with the parish community of St John the Baptist in Front Royal.

After a beautiful drive through West Virginia, I spent the night in Indiana and enjoyed the agricultural fair in Corydon. Steering west from there, I saw the signs for the Archabbey of Saint Meinrad, followed soon by signs for another monastery. I could pass up one, but not two.

I exited the interstate and came to the beautiful Monastery of the Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand, founded in 1867 by German Benedictine nuns who came as teachers for the Catholic farming community there. The church is magnificent.


            The Archabbey of Saint Meinrad in Indiana

Encouraged by one of the sisters, I retraced my route to find St. Meinrad with its own beautiful church – I listened as the organ was tuned – and its nearby Monte Cassino shrine to the Blessed Virgin. The archabbey was founded in 1854 by Swiss monks. Today, it hosts a seminary and other going concerns including a press and a casket business.

I was uncertain I would ever make it out of Indiana, or if I even wanted to, but I drove on. Kansas brought more new sights. Presiding over the plains around Victoria is the majestic St. Fidelis Church, “The Cathedral of the Plains” as William Jennings Bryant called it. This Romanesque gem is another tribute to immigrant farmers: hardy Volga Germans who had fled the Tsar, together with Capuchin priests, established the early parish. It was named one of the Eight Wonders of Kansas in 2008 by popular vote, an outcome then-Governor Kathleen Sebelius did not bother to overrule. You can’t help wondering what those Volga German farmers would have made of her.

Many beautiful Catholic churches dot the plains, visible from the highway. Some have simple, hand-painted signs along the road with the weekend Mass times for stray travelers.

Finally, on a scenic route in northern Colorado, I happened on the modest Abbey of St. Walburga, a community of contemplative nuns. Entering the gates, I saw the sisters’ herds of cattle and llamas. By this time, very little could surprise me, but that did.

All of these communities and their structures seemed to belong to a different world, yet they are very real today. One striking aspect of the drive, though, was all-too-current but still good to see.

In every state, on highways of every size, I saw signs of life – billboards or small posters proclaiming the choice of life, the evil of abortion, often with pictures of infants. Signs that many out there know the truth and want to share it.

After my days in Wyoming, the drive brought me to a different kind of pilgrimage site in South Dakota, Mount Rushmore with its sculptured faces of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt – a temple of American civic religion. A film describing the monument’s carving tells of the project’s origins in the 1920s, a time of soaring American confidence and growing progressivism before the Great Depression and the New Deal, World War II and the Cold War, the 1960s, and much else.

There is so much good in America, including a Catholic presence that goes back not just to colonial and missionary beginnings on both coasts but to the expansion across the frontier. A drive through the “fly-over states” reminds us of what has remained constant, and what has changed. Much of the country has decided that ideas like natural law and a divinely created order are just for backward and remote places.

Thank God for those places. We need many more of them.

 
Joseph Wood teaches at the Institute of World Politics in Washington. 
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (19)Add Comment
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written by Lee Gilbert, August 02, 2013
Wonderful and heartening article, but for what it's worth Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia is a Cistercian (Trappist) abbey, an order which was begun as a reform of the Benedictines, so they are in the Benedictine family true enough.
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written by ib, August 02, 2013
Probably, just by chance I have also been to the majority of these places you mention. I would not characterize them as backward, even as an opinion of "Much of the country," without including scare quotes to indicate the falsity of that charge. Instead of being "backward" these are among the most resplendent, intellectually sophisticated places in the country because they conserve the highest attentiveness to God's Truth, and the reality of that Truth in his Holy Roman Catholic Church.

On the other hand, our cities and their public institutions are not sophisticated nor "forward." For the most part, they are corrupt and degraded. Like the Cities of the Plain in Genesis they have little to recommend them amidst their wide-spread moral decay. The actual moral condition of U.S. urban centers is so tragically decrepit, undermined as it is, by both individual and social evil. Masses of humanity trapped inside them, involved in insidious evil, provide an indictment of both local and national politics. As they grow aChristian and anti-Christian they slouch further and further toward Gehenna.

So these places are not "backward" at all; they are perhaps the most forward in virtue of any places we know. I know Dr. Wood did not really mean to characterize them as backward, but by not at least using scare quotes, it seemed to me that this charge might be in some way allowed to stand. After all they are for the most part, remote.
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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, August 03, 2013
I marvel at the fact that you drove that distance and back again. That must have been a 'retreat' experience in itself.
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written by Jack,CT, August 03, 2013
Joe,
Great article and sounds like
good times..
I wanna go on a road trip!
The Monastary is soo beatiful,thx.
I have no critique of an explanation
and sharing.
God Bless ya
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written by Fr. Hugo, August 03, 2013
Joe, I enjoyed your wonderful article as I am a Benedictine priest doing parish ministry in Wyoming. When you make another trip out West, take Highway I-94 which will take you on a path that will introduce you to several other Benedictine monasteries. From I-94, you will see the Twin Towers of Assumption Abbey at Richardton, ND, the Benedictine monastery that served as the base for the writings of Kathleen Norris on her experience of living among Benedictines. Two of her nationally acclaimed books on Benedictines are: "Dakota: A Spiritual Geography," and, "Amazing Grace."
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written by Raymond, August 03, 2013
I wonder, did you manage to see the Conception Abbey and the convent of the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Clyde, MO? It amazed me that such things were tucked away here in the heart of the American continent. The convent's collection of relics must be seen to be believed.
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written by bt, August 03, 2013
On your next road trip, make sure you see the Cathedral in Helena, Montana.
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written by HighwayMan, August 03, 2013
Because there *is* a "fly-over" country, that shows just how divided the People's Republic of North America has become. "There [was] so much good in America..." is because of this division. The godless, amoral, Will-to-Power, Nietzschian coasts run the politics, economy, and society of the vast majority of residents of this continent. Yet, here where the elite wouldn't be caught dead, true life trods on. When the scourge hits, we in "fly-over country" will be the ones picking up the pieces....
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written by Joseph Wood, August 03, 2013
Raymond, Fr Hugo, and bt: Thanks very much for adding to the list, as I was hoping some readers would do. I know I missed at least one community of monks in Wyoming, and you've given me additional reasons to take on another road trip as well as the book suggestions.

Lee Gilbert, thanks for your precision on the "Cistercian" community at Berryville. I chose "Benedictine" for several reasons, not least that I visited on the feast of St Benedict which they seem to celebrate vigorously.

Deacon Ed, I took it fairly easy on the drive, and it did have some of the effects of a retreat. Very refreshing, as I mentioned, though it does have the additional effect of highlighting what has been lost.

HighwayMan, Yes.

Ib, I trust my admiration and hope for all these places, and others like them, was clear. I think they are absolutely essential at this point (see HighwayMan's comment). You might take a look at Fr Stanley Jaki's book "Archipelago Church" if you haven't already, as you seem to understand the point in the same way I do. (And thanks for the academic promotion, but I'm not a doctor)

JRW
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written by Nanci, August 03, 2013
Thank you for a lovely article. My oldest son is leaving tomorrow from Oregon to start his senior year at Thomas More in New Hampshire while my youngest daughter and I will be taking second son to start his first year at Christendom. Unfortunately, we will be flying, however, we have all sorts of wonderful places we plan on visiting during our week back there. I hadn't heard of the abbey in Berryville, but we will definitely try to get there. As we have only been Catholic since 2011, it is all so new and very exciting for us to be able to visit all these very special places!
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written by X Contra, August 03, 2013
I sickens me that a Catholic college would advertise with guns. To me, that is just as bad as a Catholic college advertising its support of the Klan Parenthood.
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written by ib, August 03, 2013
Thanks for the recommendation of Fr. Jaki's book. I have read several of his books, especially on the history of science and Christianity, but I had not come across this one. It must've been one of his last books ... In making the comment that I did, my frame-of-reference was Alasdair MacIntyre's observations on the survival of virtue after the Decline of the Roman Empire ...
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written by Thomas Gallagher, August 04, 2013
How's about the little town of Effingham, Illinois. It was, and still is, almost entirely ethnic German-Catholic, founded in the 19th century by immigrants, in a predominately Protestant region. You can see statues of the Blessed Mother in people's front yards all over town, and its parish has a parochial high school, a relative rarity these days.
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written by Earl Higgins, August 04, 2013
South Louisiana in general and New Orleans in particular are saturated with Catholicism. What are counties elsewhere are parishes, a result of the civil authorities adopting the existing canonical parish boundaries. Among other Catholic place names are Ascension, Assumption, St. Helena, and St. Landry civil parishes.
In New Orleans, the cultural rhythm is based on Catholicism, which is described in my book on the fusion of Catholicism and culture in New Orleans, "The Joy of Y'at Catholicism" (Pelican 2007). St. Joseph's Day, for example, is celebrated unlike anywhere else. ("Y'at" comes from the greeting that New Orleanians use, "Where y'at?")
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written by A Nagy, August 04, 2013
Southern Indiana and Northern Kentucky are replete with the strong Catholic presence that goes back to the early pioneers. Of course you didn't mention Gethsemani Abby in northern Kentucky. This was the home of Brother Louis, aka Thomas Merton and Brother Chrysoganous Waddell. Such a holy place of retreat and the bourbon fudge is amazing!
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written by Jim O'Connor, August 04, 2013
XContra

What is sickening about a Catholic College advertising about guns? Keep in mind why people in Wyoming own and use guns. Each fall I return to my birth home to hunt antelope with my sister, brother-in-law and niece. They are beautiful creations and delicious. By the way, only people kill, not guns.

Jim O'Connor
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written by Jim O'Connor, August 04, 2013
Xcontra; what is sickening about guns? Keep in mind why the folks in Wyoming own and use guns. Each fall I return to my birth home in Wyoming to hunt antelope with my sister, brother in law and niece. They are beautiful creatures and delicious. Guns do not kill people, people do!

Jim O'Connor
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written by Lynne, August 06, 2013
A wonderful heart lifting article. Thank you. Jim, my thoughts exactly. There is nothing wrong with guns when used for the purpose God intended - food.
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written by Musicman495, August 18, 2013
I wonder if Mr. Wood would have wanted to wax so rhapsodic about the "fly-over states," if he had taken a more Southerly route West. The anti-Catholic bigotry I have heard on the radio daily in this part of the country would make a good Catholic's hair stand on end.

As for your gratuitous and snarky comment about Kathleen Sebelius, I will answer with one of my own: the man who called St. Fidelis Church "The Cathedral of the Plains" was named William Jennings Bryan, not Bryant.

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