Subiaco, Arkansas is small even for a small town. Located about 100 miles northwest of Little Rock, Subiaco is surrounded by winding country roads and open pastures with grazing cattle and horses. According to the 2020 census, the town has a population of 401 people. The closest interstate is an hour’s drive away. The closest airport is an hour’s drive in a different direction. But here, in the middle of nowhere, travelers will find one of Arkansas’ most beloved cultural gems: a Benedictine monastery called Subiaco Abbey.
A Monastery In The Middle of Nowhere
Subiaco Abbey is home to 35 Benedictine monks, an order dating back to the Middle Ages. Built in a modified Romanesque style, the main Abbey complex consists of several stone buildings organized around a square cloister. A 125-foot bell tower chimes on the hour throughout the day.
The town was founded in 1878 by Swiss-German Catholics from the St. Meinard Archabbey in Indiana who collectively received 760 acres in return for establishing a monastery and school locals hoped would attract more settlers to the sparsely populated area.
There was an abundance of Swiss-German Catholics emigrating to America because of persecution stemming from the 1798 French Revolution. In Prussia, Catholics were hounded by Otto von Bismarck, whose punishing Kulturkampf, or “culture struggle, forced them to reject the Pope in favor of the Kaiser.
As a result, 19th century America saw more than 2,000,000 Swiss and German immigrants come to the U.S. Irish and Italian immigrants congregated near coastal cities, while Germans from agrarian societies better equipped for the American frontier settled in Midwest and northern states.
Despite abundant land, early settlers had a difficult time in Subiaco. There were no roads or trains and the closest waterway was a full day away.
The Abbey has evolved since those early days. Today, it resembles a modern college campus with more than 1,500 contiguous acres that includes a church, residential space for up to 200 monks, a boarding school for 150 high school students, a performing arts center, Olympic-sized pool, tennis courts, cemetery, brew house and tap room, several gardens, carpentry shops, pastures for cattle, a mini artifacts museum, and enough golf carts to help its staff cover that much ground.
The Life Of A Monk
Benedictine monks follow the 5th century Rule of Saint Benedict which emphasizes a balanced approach to life. Followers should devote 1/3 of the day to work, 1/3 to prayer, and the remaining 1/3 to rest. Work should never consume one’s life, nor should one spend so much time in prayer as to neglect one’s responsibilities. Eating, drinking, sleeping, reading, working, or praying should all be done in moderation.
The daily life of a monk at the Abbey begins well before sunrise with morning prayers at 5:35 am and a mass one hour later. A silent breakfast precedes a morning of work that ends with midday prayers and a lunch where talking is allowed. Afternoons are filled with work as monks teach in the Academy, some serve as community priests or clean, cook, garden or brew beer. The day ends at 5:30 pm with prayer and a silent supper followed by Vespers at 7:05 pm and evening prayer from the book of Psalms. From 10:00 pm on until the bells toll the arrival of the following day the monastery practices Grand Silence.
Ora et Labora, Latin for “prayer and work,” is one of the core values of spirituality in the Benedictine Order. According to the Rule of Saint Benedict, “Idleness is the devil’s workshop” so special attention is paid to a monk’s work assignments. The Abbot (the head monk) must ensure that each monk is assigned a well-balanced list of tasks. Sometimes a monk’s job reflects his skills. Other times, he just does what needs to be done. A monastery that is constantly welcoming visitors, students, and running 1,500 productive acres, requires a lot of work.
It takes between 4 and 5 years to become a monk through a period called Discernment. At 33 years old, Brother Raban Heyer is one of the few young monks at the Abbey. He says, “One of the more irritating things people say when they find out that I joined the monastery is, ‘Well, ya know, whatever makes you happy.’
“But it’s not about what makes me happy. When I started discerning, I thought that this would not make me happy. I just felt this nagging sensation to pursue this life. I jokingly told people I didn’t join the monastery to be happy; I joined to make God be quiet.”
An Affordable Getaway
Some religious orders are closed to the public, but the monks at Subiaco Abbey welcome guests as part of their everyday life. Hospitality is another key component in the Benedictine way of life. “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ.” wrote St. Meinard, a follower of Benedict. He took this rule so seriously that he offered his home to two robbers who killed him. Today, St. Meinard is the Patron Saint of Hospitality.
The Abbey welcomes visitors from all over the world. There are 36 guest rooms for visiting parents, retreat groups and individuals just looking for an affordable getaway. Each room is modest but comfortable with one or two full-sized beds and a private bathroom. There are no televisions, but rooms do have electricity and WiFi. Regardless of religious affiliations or personal backgrounds, guests can rent these rooms for $55 per night. In return for an extra $20, guests receive a full American breakfast, a lunch with beef brisket and salad, and dinner in the dining hall with pasta and burgers. Guided tours can be arranged for visitors who want a behind-the-scenes look at monastic life.
Visitors seeking something more adventurous can select from a variety of day trips that include a hike to the state’s highest point in Mount Magazine, plenty of boating and fishing in Cove Lake or the Buffalo River, and an emerging food culture of breweries, barbeque, and deep fried catfish. All destinations are a quick drive from Subiaco Abbey.
Medieval Roots, Modern Monks: A Gardener’s Delight
Father Jerome Kodell looks no different than any other 82-year-old farmer in rural Arkansas. Dressed in old blue jeans and speaking with a country twang, he admits he spent his morning spreading a porous canvas to keep weeds away from the Abby’s surrounding tomato plots. The Abbey harvests produce` to feed its monks and sell to passing customers.
A descendent of those early Swiss-German settlers, Kodell grew up in nearby Russellville on the other side of the Arkansas River. He attended boarding school at Subiaco Academy in the 1950s and has remained at the Abbey ever since. Sort of.
“I didn’t intend to stay here necessarily when I came here as a student,” says Kodell. “But when I got into the atmosphere, met the monks and began feeling at home here, I decided I wanted a similar life.”
Kodell’s simple demeanor disguises the fact he’s fluent in French, German, Italian and Spanish. During a three-year study in Rome, he also studied Latin, Greek and Hebrew plus Aramaic, and Ugaritic, two ancient Semitic languages that predate Hebrew. “I can’t find anyone to practice Ugaritic with,” he laughs.
While still a young man in seminary, Kodell hitchhiked through Europe during school breaks to get a better grasp on languages. One summer while studying in Vienna, he hitchhiked throughout German-speaking countries to practice his German. Then the next summer while in Paris, he hitchhiked all through France.
Kodell served as Abbot for 15 years before retiring in 2015. Nowadays, he works as a carpenter and gardener as well as managing the monastery archives.
The Carpenter Shop
Brother Jude Schmitt, 77, teaches woodworking at the Abbey’s Academy. Born to a German Catholic family, he was raised in a small town an hour and a half from Subiaco. Schmitt became acquainted with Subiaco while a high school at the Academy and joined as a monk shortly after.
The Abbey’s carpentry skills and woodworking products are in high demand. The Carpenter Shop makes cabinets and coffins for deceased monks plus more popular items such as intricately-carved bowls, cutting boards, coasters, ornaments, and trays of all kinds that are used in the Tap Room. Schmitt also takes orders for commemorative pieces, storage chests, tabernacles, altars, and cribs for newborns.
“Back home my dad was a carpenter and I would slip out through the garage and work,” he says. “And when mother would go grocery shopping, I’d use the table saw.”
The Carpenter Shop is equipped with sophisticated routers, lasers, and industrial machinery that allows for a wide range of projects. Schmitt also is well versed in more advanced design programs like Photoshop and CAD that allow him to create intricate etchings on wood and glass that look almost three-dimensional.
Beer, Brittle, and Monk Sauce
In a shed on the Abbey grounds, Brother Sebastian Richey brews beer to sell in the Abbey Taproom, as well as through their limited local distribution channels. “It serves kind of as an outreach for people to come in and learn about us,” Richey says.
Brewing beer has been part of the monastic lifestyle that dates back to the 5th century. In colder climates of northern and eastern Europe beer became a staple of everyday life. Not only was it a means to kill off bacteria in water, but the fermented grains in this beverage also provided needed nutrients.
“Most people don’t even know that we exist,” Richey says. “I mean even in the area where we are. People will drive by on 22 and be like ‘why is there a castle in the middle of nowhere Arkansas?’ Well come on in and let’s talk about it.”
All Benedictine monasteries must be as self-reliant and independent as possible. In addition to the carpentry shop’s wood products, bakery items and beer bring in a modest amount of income. Father Richard Walz works in the Abbey bakery, which produces and sells two of the Abbey’s most popular products: peanut brittle and hot sauce.
Southern legend has it that peanut brittle was discovered by mistake in 1890. A housewife set out to make taffy but unknowingly tossed in baking soda instead of cream of tartar. Subiaco makes peanut brittle in cast iron skillets on a simple 4-burner stove. Father Richard oversees the cooking process that combines “well-blessed peanuts,” sugar, corn syrup, and baking soda. “We have six of them all going at a time and as you can see this stove is riddled with brittle,” he laughs.
In addition to this sweet treat, Walz oversees the Abbey’s line of hot sauce called Monk Sauce. Walz spent 28 years leading a small monastery in Belize. When he was called back to the United States, he had the foresight to bring some habanero pepper seeds with him.
The habanero peppers are grown on the Abbey premises and cared for by Walz. He insists that the pepper variety in the US is not nearly as hot and delicious as these from Belize. “I don’t see a contradiction between a simple life and spicy foods,” says Walz. “Perhaps someone who is living a simple life needs to have something to spice it up.”
Like the many other monks at the Abbey, the 81-year-old Walz was also born of humble farming roots in nearby Missouri. He wanted to go to religious school as a child, but his family couldn’t afford the tuition. At the encouragement of his family doctor, and with the aid of a couple of priests from Subiaco, Walz was given the opportunity to attend the Academy. Walz now wears a metal brace under his monk habit, “Osteoporosis is terrible,” he sighs. “I have to wear a back brace just to keep standing up.”
A Hidden Museum of Native American Artifacts
Tucked away in the storage closet is Brother Edward Fischesser’s impressive collection of Native American artifacts. Born to a working-class family in Cincinnati, Ohio, the 75-year-old Fischesser began collecting Native American objects as a child. His first pieces were given to him by his father, who found a few spearheads and knife blades on a job site. Then in middle school, a visit to a burial mound solidified this passion.
A fascination for Native American history grew after Fischesser became a Franciscan monk and started teaching high school in the nearby town of Searcy. He found, bartered, and bought objects with whatever little money he earned. “I used to pay $20 for a sack,” he recalls. “They were called ‘Sack Pots’ and there was no guarantee what you’d get. But I’d take them home and put them back together.” Fischesser found himself at Subiaco Abbey after his school in Searcy closed down in 1993.
Today, Fischesser catalogs and curates more than 3,000 objects in the Abbey’s collection, including clothing, arrowheads, blades, beadwork, and pottery from the Caddo, Mississippian and Quapaw tribes that are indigenous to Arkansas. Many pieces were found on undeveloped lands near the Arkansas River Valley. Fellow brothers and people familiar with his collection contribute pieces they find on trips to Oklahoma, Texas and Mexico.
Like many of the older monks, Fischesser uses a cane to move around. But his limited mobility has not dampened his enthusiasm for his work. Recalling a story about a now deceased monk from whom he inherited a portion of this collection, he says, “He was excavating here and he told me one time he had so many arrowheads he had to take off one of his socks and put them in there because he couldn’t carry them all in his pocket!”
An Uncertain but Hopeful Future Ahead
At its height, the Abbey housed nearly 150 monks. There were so many people that during the evening vespers, monks sat upstairs at the church while the priests sat downstairs. Today, only 35 are left, the majority of whom are past retirement age.
Before the passages of the G.I. Bill in 1944 and the Federal Student Loans in 1958, joining a monastery like Subiaco Abbey was a way to access higher education for young people of modest backgrounds, especially in impoverished rural areas. But times have changed. The availability of affordable colleges, a decline in religious spirituality and numerous abuse scandals that severely damaged the Catholic Church’s reputation have reduced the prospects for monasteries. Subiaco keeps up with social media and changing technologies, but a community of 35 can only do so much.
“At times our supporters and our alumni wonder why we don’t get out and promote ourselves more,” says Glenn Constantino, the Procurator of the Abbey. “The Benedictines are just not promoters. If you come out here you’ll be treated wonderfully, but they’re not gonna say, ‘Hey we’re wonderful, come see all the stuff that we do.’ They don’t think what they do is exceptional. For them, they’re just living the life they’ve been called to live.”
Finances are an ongoing concern. It costs about $23,000 a day to operate the Abbey’s facilities as many of its monks have become too old to perform laborious tasks. Proceeds from the beer and peanut brittle sales go to support the many aging monks, but that only nets about $100,000 annually. And then there’s medical care, doctors’ visits, and so on.
“There are more people that died than joined since I’ve been here,” says Brother Pio Do, a young monk in his 40s who joined the Abbey 10 years ago. “Many monks say, ‘God will provide’ and I say, ‘God will provide, but you have to take action.’”
Originally from Vietnam, Do was a real estate agent from Dallas, Texas before becoming a monk. He, like the other younger monks of the Abbey, shares a vision of a positive future for the Abbey with increased outreach and visibility.
In July 2022, the monks elected Subiaco’s eighth Abbot, Father Elijah Owens. Owens, 57, has extensive pastoral experience plus a degree from Wharton School of Business. Owens recalls praying and asking God to take him where he should go. Then he happened upon a used bookstore and saw a book titled A Place Called Subiaco, on display. “So I’m going to Italy?” he jokes.
“I suppose a lot of people have fanciful ideas of what monks do,” says Walz, who continues to make brittle and hot sauce. “They get into the monastery and find out that monks are very much like everybody else.”
Jian Huang received the prestigious PEN America Emerging Voice award in 2016. She splits her time between Los Angeles and her ranch in Arkansas.