Benedictines in the Backwoods

I was looking forward to mass at Holy Trinity Monastery. How often do you encounter a random Benedictine monastery on the back roads of southern Arizona? With a 75-foot cross in its front yard, the monastery is hard to miss.

I pulled into a space in front of the bookstore, and two things happened: I discovered that I had missed mass because of a dated message, but I also met Brother Jim. That was fortunate, because otherwise I might have driven away in disappointment. As it was, I ended up staying for lunch (the Benedictines are all about hospitality) and learning a lot about this Olivetan congregation.

The Benedictines are an ancient monastic order founded in the early sixth century. According to the Rule (way of life) of St. Benedict, their lives are centered around prayer, work, and communal living. St. Benedict’s Rule is so clear, simple, and wise that, not only have the Benedictines been around for millenia, but other organizations, lay and religious, still consult his rule for guidance about how to get along.

Brother Jim

Olivetan Benedictines are a separate group (“congregation”) that follows the Benedictine tradition. The first difference is obvious: they wear white habits instead of black; thus, they are known as “the white monks.” Their history is convoluted, but the Olivetans began with a couple of zealous Italians in 1319, who went up a mountain to live as hermits. Eventually, they were brought under the Benedictine banner and built a monastery on their mountain, which they named “Olivet.”

This Olivetan monastery in St. David, Arizona, is also different because it welcomes lay couples and women into its community as “oblates,” some of whom actually live in separate houses at the monastery. Some oblates are retired now, and others work in the area. All join in the life of the community, which includes work, daily mass, and chanting the Divine Hours—communal prayer at set times throughout the day. 

view of Our Lady of Guadelupe church

Wander around the monastery grounds, and you encounter surprises at every turn–a bookstore and thrift shop, a pecan orchard and a bakery that features delicacies from its harvest, a bird sanctuary, ponds and gardens. The monks run a trailer park (wish I’d know about it) that brings together a community of transient helpers who call themselves the “Holy Hoboes.” The Stations of the Cross wind through the cemetery, which is peculiarly fitting for a meditation on the death of Christ. The church, Our Lady of Guadelupe, which was built of local materials by local people, is testament to the care and reverence which permeate the place.

the altar is made of mesquite and cottonwood

As with many religious communities, the group is growing older, and some of the more ambitious undertakings, like raising livestock, have been scaled back. But the overall sense is of a group of lay and religious who are doing their best to live according to a higher calling and to do good in the world.

Stations of the Cross in the cemetery

A space for meditation

Good news flash: Next year, according to a San Antonio news source, the border at Big Bend will open once again. (See this post for background.) This may breathe new life into the tiny Mexican villages that depended on tourist traffic for survival, and it offers a delightful afternoon diversion to visitors at Big Bend. It’s heartening to witness the victory of reason in this case. Thanks, Valerie, for passing along the news.

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5 Responses to Benedictines in the Backwoods

  1. Marvin 19 January, 2011 at 7:51 pm #


    Your tour guide/travel planner is doing a whale of a job…..better than Rancho de Español even!! I´m intrigued by this location and the message you´ve shared. Great fotos….must put St. Benedict´s Rule on this winter´s reading list, allowing some time to ponder and hope.


  2. MaryKat Parks Workinger 12 January, 2011 at 9:59 am #

    I want to walk through that arch and sit by their fountain. O to be gently wrapped in that warm peace. The next best thing is reading about YOU doing it.
    Michigan is white and cold. But January’s brilliant sun is painting tree shadows on the snow that one only sees in this month of the winter. A sharp shinned hawk stopped by our back yard and grabbed one of my big male cardinals for lunch–the glorious and gruesome joy of keeping bird feeders. Peace and safe travels, Kate.

  3. Noel Seif 12 January, 2011 at 9:14 am #

    Do I sense a wistfulness in your narrative? Might you want to become an oblate here? How does one apply? Hope you are well, my dear!

  4. Ed & Cary Carlson 11 January, 2011 at 9:08 pm #

    We have stayed there several times. There is another one you should vivit in New Mexico.

    We hope that you will vivit us for a while when things warm up. We have a fre hook up and an RV Dump.

    Viva Pancho villa


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