Clear Creek Abbey Revisited: A Triumph of Modern Classicism in the Romanesque Footprint

Illustration: William Heyer Architect

In the history of the Church the Benedictines have always played a key role in the formation and preservation of Christendom.  Since the time of St. Benedict each Benedictine monastery has been a little self-contained world, a "school of the service of the Lord," in which it has been made possible to  live a completely Christian life without surrendering to the lower standards of secular culture.  

Every Benedictine monastery was formed as a self-contained society, a self-sufficient rural community like the Roman villa of old.  It was so both spiritually and economically, thus providing an oasis of peace in a land of cultural war, a cell of Christian culture in a barbarous and pagan world.  It is the Benedictine Rule that has had an extraordinary ability to survive while preserving the fruits of higher culture - art, music and learning, passing them on through its own educational activity.    

The practically indestructible Benedictine tradition is still being preserved in a few places today, in the form of traditional Catholicism, even while everything else seems to be fading away, violently destroyed or breaking to pieces.  The institutional form of the Benedictines remains untouched in its adherence to the traditional Rule written by St. Benedict himself.  It is being preserved marvelously at places like Fontgombault Abbey (of the Solesmes Congregation) in France and its foundation in the New World, Clear Creek Abbey in northeast Oklahoma.    

These monasteries possess a monopoly of liturgical culture, preserving Latin, Gregorian Chant (according to the Solesmes method), the old Psalter, the old Mass and Benedictine Office from the Monastic Diurnal in Latin and more.  Here the immemorial monastic customs and liturgical prerogatives of the Benedictine ritual of the Latin Church survive.  Only a very small handful of Benedictine monasteries throughout the world are carrying on these noble traditions, including the Benedictine Abbey of Le Barroux in the south of France.  Preserving these ancient ways is very much against the wisdom of the world, in its rush for the vanity of modernity.  In truth there exists a chasm between the folly of the world and the genius of monastic ways.  Proof of the success of the old ways is that vocations bloom here while they wither elsewhere.  Indeed monasticism does not rest upon the consensus of human wisdom and neither does Catholicism - especially on the highest and most spiritual planes - but on a divine revelation which is also an act of creation, revealed organically and attested to by the traditions of the Church.     

Our Lady of the Annunciation of Clear Creek Abbey, also known as Clear Creek Abbey, is one of the most important centers of liturgical arts on the North American continent.  It is an oasis of art, a haven for young Catholic men and young priests to visit for short retreats or pilgrimages.  It is my hope that by writing this short article more families with children and young men, seminarians and young priests will be inspired to visit here.  Male visitors can make arrangements to stay in the monastery guest house attached to the cloister and experience first-hand on the inside the life of the monks, a tremendous experience that is not to be missed.   

Clear Creek Abbey is new.  It was founded in 1999 as a foundation or American outgrowth of the legendary traditional Abbey of Our Lady of the Assumption (more commonly known as Fontgombault Abbey).  It was founded in 1091 and has a long history, including turmoil and persecution during the French Revolution.  In the early 1970's it was repopulated by traditional monks.  Before the Holy Year 2000 some thirty-one American Catholic men had journeyed to Fontgombault and joined the community in search of the fullness of Benedictine life.  Some of them were graduates of the University of Kansas where they had studied under the famous John Senior, a convert to the Faith and professor who inspired a generation of students to pursue religious life in Europe and the U.S. 

In the 1970's Professor Senior had, along with two other professors, created a Great Books program inaugurated at the University of Kansas as the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program or PHIP.  The short-lived program went on to touch many souls.  The genius of the program was that it led ordinary non-Catholic students to be exposed to greatness through an extraordinary study of Western Civilization.  This made them thirst for more, for truth, goodness and beauty.  In short, it lit a match, leading some of them to convert to Catholicism and want to establish a contemplative monastery in Kansas.   Two of the students made their way to France in search of a high ideal and poetic life in the face of the mediocrity of modernity at home.  Their search led them to visit Fontgombault Abbey, which captured their imagination and other students soon followed.  There they saw no vocation shortage.  Fontgombault Abbey was bursting at the seams and had already started new foundations elsewhere.  Some of these visiting students stayed to discern and several became professed monks.  The dream of some of them, after receiving years of solid monastic formation, was to be perhaps someday be part of a new monastic foundation in America.  

In 1991, the great Dom Antoine Forgeot, the holy abbot of Fontgombault Abbey, began several exploratory trips to the US with his American assistant Dom Francis Bethel, a former student of Professor Senior.  They visited several states and various sites, even meeting with Professor Senior before his death in 1999.  Meanwhile the Bishop of Tulsa had visited the monks at Fontgombault and later invited them to establish a monastery in his diocese.  Finally, after long deliberations, the monks were led to a well suited site, a quiet ranch along a steady clear creek known as Clear Creek in the state of Oklahoma.  In some ways the creek was providential - it is always a sign of something larger than itself and it has the power to change its surrounding landscape, refreshing the life it comes into contact with.  The plan to purchase the property was approved by the chapter of the Abbey and on the feast of the Assumption in 1998.  A charter was signed between the Abbot of Fontgombault and the Bishop of Tulsa to formally recognize the existence of the new foundation.  The site was perfect, located on more than 1,000 acres of wooded land in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains with prairies, hills and stone bluffs. 

In 1999, thirteen monks set out from Fontgombault to travel to the United States to set up the new foundation.  Seven of these monks were Americans who had joined the Fontgombault monastery while six other monks were from Canada and France.  These brave pioneers left their historic and truly heavenly French Abbey, at the invitation of Bishop Edward Slattery, bishop of the Diocese of Tulsa.  The bishop greeted the monks at the airport as they arrived.  The monks settled on their new land called Clear Creek, in the wilderness near Hulbert, Oklahoma.  

In every way Clear Creek is a new beginning.  It is symbolic of the revival in North America of traditional contemplative life for men.  On the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes in the Holy Year 2000 the little priory of Our Lady of Clear Creek was officially inaugurated in the presence of Bishop Slattery of Tulsa. Also present was Bishop Basil Meeking of Christchurch, New Zealand and Abbot Antoine Forgeot, OSB.  The memory of that day is still cherished by those who were privileged to be there.  The previous owners of the property had built two log houses, several sheds and a horse barn.  Thus the monastery was established, partially in a log cabin and partially in a metal pole barn where horses had once been kept in a stable.  The old horse stalls were cleaned and converted to monastic cells.  The barn became the first chapel.  As new vocations arrived, small wooden tool sheds were added.  In 2007 the first residential building was completed along with the crypt of the monastery chapel.    

Proper accommodations were needed from the start.  The monks selected noted classical architect Professor Thomas Gordon Smith of Notre Dame University and plans were drawn up for a spacious monastery of Romanesque inspiration.  It was to be build fittingly of stone and brick on the hill above Clear Creek.  Professor Smith put together a master plan with excellent schematic drawings and watercolor images that were completed in 2013.  Upon his retirement in 2015 Mr. Smith recommended to the monks Mr. Heyer (his former student) to be selected to continue his vision and carry the project forward to the next level.  Thus the monks selected the talented William Heyer of Columbus, Ohio, another leader in the revival of classical architecture.  Both men speak a classical language and illustrate well a clear engagement with various elements of classical Benedictine architecture, expressing the high ideals and aspirations of monastic spirituality.  

Mr. Smith's original overall vision for Clear Creek has been maintained, a monastic complex combining a balance of strength, function and beauty.  By God's grace construction continues, engaging the deep traditions of medieval architecture proper to the monastery's French origins with a mastery of traditional architecture on full display.  The above image is by Mr. Heyer, who faithfully continues to elaborate the plans originally drawn up by his former professor and mentor, depicting the Chapter House building that is now under construction.  Once it is completed the next phase will be to finish the church by adding the top level.   

With the monastery buildings slowly going up, the community has continued to grow at a rapid pace.  This led to the canonical elevation of the simple priory of Our Lady of Clear Creek to the status of an abbey sui juris in 2010.  That day Abbot Antoine Forgeot had gathered the community in the chapter room and announced to the monks the good news.  The community was elated.  The next day, Fr. Philip Anderson, O.S.B. was named the first abbot of Clear Creek Abbey.  The blessing of the new abbot took place on the following April 10, 2010.  Fr. Philip was a student of Professor John Senior and is a convert to the Faith.  

Construction continues to accommodate both the vocations and those men who visit on retreat.  The total goal for the fundraising campaign is $32 million.  Construction of the church began in 2011.  Work continues as one construction phase leads to the next.  A lot of progress has been made.  The chevet of the chapel (the sanctuary, facing east) was completed in 2017.  This is a big step since the first two large buildings were completed, a residence hall and gate house.  Also, a sizable portion of the abbatial church has been completed, while construction continues also on the west residential wing which will hold the chapter house and also accommodate a sacristy, infirmary and classrooms.  

In 2020 a radiant tympanum to last the centuries was completed above the main entrance of the abbatial chapel, a triumph after seven years carving.  The artist was George Carpenter, a self-taught stone carver who created something magnificent in the medieval footprint.  In some ways it resembles something from the Book of Kells.  It depicts Christ in the center, seated like the Emperors, a remarkable composition that looks authentically medieval.  He is seated in jeweled garments with a crown and nimbus amid a star-filled mandorla, a pointed oval shape common in medieval art, enclosing the person of Christ, symbolic of the insertion of heavenly realities into earthly space.  His left hand interprets the law as the right hand is raised not in judgement, but in the action of teaching.  He is surrounded by symbols of the four Gospels, taken from the Scriptures (cf. Book of Ezekiel 1 and Rev. 4:6-9) and formulated by St. Jerome.  

The monastery has been designed to house 60-70 monks.  Vocations are plentiful.  Today there are nearly 50 members of the community.  Many of the new monks have grown up in homeschool families.  Some of the monks are graduates of faithful Catholic Colleges such as TAC or Christendom.  The community has members from multiple English-Speaking countries including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and beyond.  In addition a small community of lay Catholic families have relocated and settled in the environs around the monastery, in the medieval tradition.  Cardinal Burke came to visit the monks in 2012 for Pontifical Mass and again in 2016 for ordinations.  

The monks lead a hidden life.  St. Benedict wrote an entire chapter on silence that the monks study in their seminary formation.  They are entirely ordered towards contemplation by virtue of their monastic vocation.  The monks devote their days to God alone in silence and solitude in constant prayer and willing penance.  The monks do not speak, but choose to communicate through a sometimes elaborate sign language.  They make their own clothing and sandals.  Each day the monks have manual labor tasks that include milking cows, tending to their own sheep and cattle, cultivating their gardens, orchards and vineyards.  The abbey produces their own cheese, furniture and hand-made rosaries.  They have a wood-working shop and metal-working shop.  They even make their own bread and candles.  The abbey sheep dogs are a familiar sight in the nearby fields.  On Thursdays the monks have a tradition of taking a long walk for a few hours on the property.          

Visitors are welcomed in the Benedictine tradition.  The monastery is a source of peace for others.  Be sure to write them ahead of time and reserve your space before your arrive.  Male and female guests are encouraged to assist at Mass and at some of the hours in the main chapel when it is open.  When it is closed, male guests who are staying in the guest house attached to the monastery may still attend the hours generally closed to the public: Compline, Matins and Lauds.  Guests may stay for a day or weekend or longer on retreat.  

Men who stay in the monastery are assigned to one of the several guest rooms reserved for men.  They take their meals in the refectory with the other monks inside the cloister.  Families are welcome to stay in one of the two family guesthouses that are on the property.  These are log cabins named after St. Mary and St Martha, a tradition also seen at Fontgombault Abbey with its circle of cottages for families and female visitors.  There is also a guesthouse available only for women, called Bethany.  Families sometimes visit for Sunday Sung Mass and afterwards picnic near the picturesque stone bridge completed in 2003.  There is also camping in nearby Sequoyah State Park.     

The monks also staff their own gift shop.  They have an online shop as well that has an excellent array of items for purchase here including calendars, coffee and more.  

One of the pioneer monks of Clear Creek who was a student of Professor John Senior has written the definitive biography of the educator entitled John Senior and the Restoration of Realism, available here - it is highly recommended.  

The monks' building slogan has been to help build something beautiful for God - to last a thousand years.  To donate please see here

For young women discerning a possible call to monastic life in the traditional Benedictine tradition, the closest thing is the Abbey of Ephesus in nearby Gower, Missouri.  There is located the female monastery of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, in many ways a sister abbey to Clear Creek.    

The Monastery of the Immaculate Heart of Mary founded in 1981 and located in Westfield, Vermont is the only other monastery of the Solesmes Congregation, besides Clear Creek, established in the United States.  The sisters sing the Mass and Office in Latin according to the the Novus Ordo.          

I encourage readers to go and visit Clear Creek without delay.   

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