But for the persistence of an Irish-American missionary named Father James Power, Conception Abbey may never have existed.
As Father Joel Rippinger, O.S.B., recounts in his book, The Benedictine Order in the United States, the hard-working Father Power had long tried to lure a religious community to the region to serve the colony of Irish and German immigrants he’d founded before the Civil War.
His appeal to an order of Irish Trappists that had established a community in Dubuque, Iowa, was turned down. In 1865, the pioneering Abbot Boniface Wimmer, founder of the American Cassinese Benedictines, responded favorably to Father Power’s request only to see Bishop Peter Kenrick of St. Louis refuse permission. Finally, in 1872 Father Power asked a fellow Irishman, Bishop John Hogan of the newly formed St. Joseph Diocese, to intervene. The bishop petitioned the monks of St. Meinrad Abbey in Indiana to come to Missouri. Abbot Martin Marty of St. Meinrad, who had been attempting to persuade the Benedictines of Engelberg Abbey in Switzerland to establish a U.S. community, referred Bishop Hogan to Engelberg’s Abbot Anselm Villiger. Abbot Martin also wrote his former classmate,Father Frowin Conrad, a monk of Engelberg, and asked him to urge his community to act on the proposal.
By the time the letter reached Switzerland in late 1872, the government’s escalating intolerance of Benedictines convinced Abbot Anselm to consider the need for a place of sanctuary outside the country in case his abbey was suppressed and forced to disband. He presented Bishop Hogan’s request to the monastic chapter and it was approved on January 7, 1873. Two men were chosen for the journey, Father Frowin and his former novice Father Adelhelm Odermatt. The two men were opposites in almost every way, and the decision to send them to Missouri together would be a decision of consequence.
The priests left Engelberg in April of 1873, and after a stopover at St. Meinrad arrived in Northwest Missouri in September. Father Frowin became pastor of the parish in Conception and was appointed prior of the new Benedictine community, while Father Adelhelm moved into the parish house in nearby Maryville. Despite the objections of some members at the motherhouse in Engelberg, Prior Frowin asked to form a novitiate at Conception. There were concerns among his brother monks in Switzerland that the new Missouri community would become estranged from its motherhouse.
Frowin assured his brother monks of his faithfulness, received his abbot’s blessing, and began the work of establishing “New Engelberg.”
While he was committed to establishing a classic Benedictine community, Prior Frowin did not feel bound by any one monastic observance. One of his most profound influences was a long friendship with the Benedictine community at Beuron in Germany. That inspiration can be seen today at Conception in the monks’ habits, in their liturgy and in their church’s famed collection of Beuronese murals.
Ironically, the abbey’s most visible influence was in those first years a source of controversy and division between Frowin and the motherhouse in Switzerland. The implementation of Beuronese principles at Conception drew heavy criticism and accusations of disobedience from Prior Frowin’s Engelberg superiors. And it drove a wedge between Conception’s two founders, Frowin and Adelhelm Odermatt. Father Adelhelm engaged in a letter-writing campaign to the motherhouse, accusing his fellow founder of deviant monastic practices.
While Prior Frowin eventually made compromises, it is obvious today that he held tight to his Beuronese influences. The split between Frowin and Adelhelm never healed and the latter left Conception to eventually establish Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon.
In 1881, Conception was given the status of abbey and Frowin was appointed abbot, a position he held for more than 40 years.
In that time, he lead his community through a period of remarkable growth. At his request, Benedictine sisters from Maria Rickenback in Switzerland came to America and settled in nearby Clyde (The Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration), where they helped serve the local immigrant communities.
The monks and local colonists built a monastery in 1881 and completed the Abbey Church (Basilica of the Immaculate Conception) in 1891. Conception College grew, as did the number of monastic vocations.
The tension Frowin experienced in founding a new community in America went beyond conflicts with his motherhouse. As Father Joel Rippinger writes, Frowin’s spiritual ideal of monastic life was a “self-enclosed community, intent upon the pursuit of personal holiness and liturgical prayer. It was an ideal that frowned upon the prospect of outside parish commitments and believed that flight from the world was the proper expression of monastic spirituality.”
The American frontier proved to be a rude awakening.
The need for parish priests and missionaries was simply too great and Abbot Frowin was forced to relent, although he never wavered from his conviction that true Benedictine spirituality was lived “inside, not outside, the cloister.”
Abbot Frowin’s “compromise” continues today. Since the 1870s Conception monks have served as pastors of local parishes and, until 1995, worked as missionaries on the Indian reservations of South Dakota. Conception monks have also attempted a number of foundations: St. Michael Priory in Cottonwood, Idaho; St. Benedict Abbey in Benet Lake, Wisconsin; Mount Michael Abbey in Elkhorn, Nebraska; St. Pius X Monastery in Pevely, Missouri; and Skt. Knud’s Kloster, a monastic priory in Copenhagen, Denmark. St. Benedict Abbey and Mt. Michael Abbey are the two foundations functioning today.
Conception College, now called Conception Seminary College, became the primary apostolate of the monks and continued to grow and expand into the 1970s, when, following the second Vatican Council, enrollment began to dwindle, a trend that has been reversed since the mid 1990s.
In the early 1930s, the monks of Conception added the printing of religious literature and artwork to their apostolates. That enterprise, which began simply as a way to keep up with internal printing needs of the monastery, has grown into the Printery House, which features an inventory of more than 1,000 products, including greeting cards, icons, statues and other religious articles. The Printery House sells more than 5 million greeting cards a year.
Today, the spiritual descendents of Abbot Frowin provide pastoral care to 15 parishes – as well as hospitals, religious houses and schools – throughout Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming. As administrators and members of the faculty of Conception Seminary College, the monks provide spiritual guidance, academic training and character formation to young men considering a priestly vocation. And through the Abbey Center for Prayer and Ministry, they welcome guests to the abbey and offer a wide array of retreats, tours and youth programs. The monks tend the abbey grounds, care for farmland and orchards, and run the Printery House. They are historians, writers, scholars, teachers, musicians and artisans.