The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Rising from the ashes

  The Abbey ruins, south view.                                                 © Saint Meinrad Archabbey

Today is the 125th anniversary of what is commonly referred to around here as the "Great Fire." On this date in 1887--only 33 years after the first monks arrived from Einsiedeln in Switzerland to establish a Benedictine monastery and school in southern Indiana--the steadily growing abbey was destroyed by fire. Already in 1887, the pioneer monks had endured a great deal to build what is now known as Saint Meinard Archabbey--among them financial distress, drought and stifling heat and humidity, crop failure, poisonous snakes, severe illness, internal divisions, and back-breaking labor in the fields and sandstone quarry. Yet the community had persevered, and the new foundation was slowly taking shape.

What followed next must have been absolutely heart-breaking. The story, as told by Fr. Albert Kleber in his History of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, 1854-1954:

© Saint Meinrad Archabbey
For thirty-three years the pioneers had worked hard in swamp and field, in forest and quarry, in church and school. After years of privations, of toil and sweat, the monumental stone building raised its gables over the wondering forest. The monks’ hearts beat high as within those majestic walls they chanted the divine praises, taught young men both natural and sacred sciences, in keeping with the rhythmic beat of monastic life.
On Friday forenoon, September 2, 1887, the community concluded the annual retreat, as a spiritual preparation for the opening of the scholastic year. At noon of that very day, as the community had just sat down to dinner, the shrill cry, “Fire!” suddenly pierced the air and every heart. Fierce flames raced through the corridors, broke through the roof, then leaped skyward, taking with them the toil of all those years. Within less than two hours the window openings—black holes in the gutted massive building—stared into space.
The summer had been exceptionally dry, and furthermore, on that fatal September 2, there was a strong wind from the south. It was a student, who chanced to be in the garret near where the fire started, who first noticed it; but by the time he ran to fetch a bucket of water and to sound the alarm the fire had gained headway not only in the garret but had worked its way through the roof where the wind whipped the flames northward and westward over the sun-parched shingles. A seminarian, who had spent his vacation at the Abbey, ran to the bell tower to spread the alarm abroad.
The [monastic] community, as yet unaware of the situation overheard, tried with buckets of water to put out the fire in the garret; but the people who came running from the town and the farms and saw the flames rushing across the roof knew that the building was doomed. They ran into the monastery and called out to the monks: “Save what is to be saved, for the monastery is lost!” and unasked, set to work to take out of the crypt whatever they could.
The library of some 10,000 volumes was over the entrance to the monastery. The entrance was on the first floor, in the middle of the east side of the main building; a stone stairway let up to the stone platform in front of the entrance door. The books, some of them large tomes, were thrown down from above, most of them landing on the platform and on the steps, whence people tried to carry them to safety even at the risk of being hurt by falling books or by firebrands from above. Even children were at hand with their little express wagons to help bring books and other things to safety. Only about one-tenth of the library was saved.
Flaming shingles, whirling high and as far as a thousand feet, alighted [other structures on Abbey property and in the nearby town]. Throughout the neighborhood, people had to be ready to put out fires starting here and there in the dry grass and weeds.
The seminarian who was ringing out the alarm from the Abbey tower stayed at his post until the flames, having raced to the north end of the main building, leaped into the belfry and turned it into a huge torch. In quick succession bell upon bell crashed down, each tolling its own funeral knell.
It did not take long for the blazing roof to collapse onto the ceiling of the top floor, there to find new fuel, and so on in quick succession down from floor to floor to the bottom of the basement. Finally, a little after one o’clock, the massive stone walls were a blast furnace shooting flames and billowing smoke into the sky. By three o’clock the flames had subsided.
As disastrous as the day was, Kleber also notes its redeeming qualities. No one was killed. The Blessed Sacrament was carried from the crypt that was then being used as the community’s worship space to the modest wood-frame church nearby that had been built by the monks shortly after their arrival from Einsiedeln in 1854. (Construction on the current Archabbey Church, in all her sandstone, Romanesque splendor, had not yet begun; it was built from 1899 to 1907.) When the wood-frame structure was also threatened (but not consumed) by flaming debris, the Blessed Sacrament was moved once again to a home in the town. Townspeople and Benedictine sisters from the area began taking up the task of housing and feeding monks and students. Then, toward evening, Abbot Fintan, most of the monks, and many townspeople retrieved the Blessed Sacrament and solemnly processed to the original wood-frame church. “Thereupon,” Kleber writes, “the choir monks, using the few breviaries that had been saved, chanted Vespers and Compline; and so the chanting of the Divine Office suffered no interruption.”

Their home, church, and primary place of work was demolished by fire, reducing to smoldering ruins all the back-breaking toil, economic hardship, and internal struggle they had endured and invested over the previous 33 years. Yet the monks of Saint Meinrad still gathered, as they would any other day, to sing God’s praises, offer thanks, and pray on behalf of the world.

And then, the monks, along with many townspeople and students, began the long and arduous task of cleaning up, making short- and long-term plans for the school and monastery, and rebuilding. The vast majority of their work still stands today—stone upon stone chiseled (by hand), hauled downhill by oxen- or mule-drawn carts from the Monte Cassino sandstone quarry and over as-yet unpaved roads, and then laid in place with hoists and pulleys.

Today, 125 years later, those three-foot thick sandstone blocks may be singed in places, but they are as solid as ever. Together, they enfold the echoes of voices past, present, and future, as the monks of Saint Meinrad gather daily to, borrowing Kleber's words, "chant the divine praises in keeping with the rhythmic beat of monastic life."

And so the beat goes on ...

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