Members of Lewallen Construction lower a bridge over the South River into place on Tuesday, connecting the Monastery of the Holy Spirit to the 13-mile Rockdale River Trail. The monks hope the trail connection will increase traffic to the monastery, which celebrated 70 years of operation in Rockdale County on Saturday. (Staff Photo: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith)
CONYERS — The Monastery of the Holy Spirit was founded 70 years ago when a group of Trappist monks travelled from Kentucky to Rockdale County to establish a new community of faith. In many ways, their journey continues today as the monks look to the future.
A lot has changed since March 22, 1944, when the monks spent the first night in a barn on the property once called Honey Creek Plantation. There was only one Catholic family in what was then rural Rockdale County, and the center of the church in Georgia was in Savannah, not Atlanta.
One thing that has not changed is the monks’ effort to adhere to the monastic tradition, dedicating themselves to worship God in a hidden life within the monastery and under the Rule of St. Benedict.
“We know it every morning we wake up here that we will be here with God,” said Brother Callistus Crichlow, a monk who serves as a spokesman for the monastery. “We know God is here to, first of all, put the desire in our hearts and give us the grace to act on that desire. He then gives us the grace to live it, to endure it, to persevere through it every waking moment, God, God, God.”
Despite the monks’ solitary lifestyle, or perhaps because of it, the monastery has always had plenty visitors throughout its history. Callistus said the monks have always wanted to welcome others who come on their own spiritual journey, seeking respite in a peaceful environment.
He said that has always been the case from the beginning; the monks have welcomed people of all faiths to pray and meditate with them.
“It’s open to all denominations, people of all faiths, and even people of no faith searching for faith,” Callistus said. “That’s the cool part because we have people of that element who come. This is a place where people who are searching come to and who are looking for answers — Is this God thing for real? You know?”
The monks began building the monastery from day one. It wasn’t long after they moved here that they started work on the Abbey Church and monastery cloister. From donated architectural plans, they built the concrete Gothic structures by hand and completed their work in 1960.
To pay for the structures and keep the monastery solvent, the monks went to work to do whatever was needed to generate revenue. In the early years, they grew crops and raised livestock. Callistus explained the monks are always looking for that “next widget” or industry that will keep them going.
The monastery developed several industries over the years. The better products today include fudge and biscotti made in their kitchen and honey harvested on site. They started a stained glass workshop that has produced some of the most beautiful works found in churches across the United States. The monks also sell Bonsai trees and accessories.
All of those products, and more, sold in the Abbey store, generate a profit but not enough to keep the monastery going in the long term. Callistus said the monks realized this and a few years ago sought out advice from supporters and business leaders on developing a long-term, sustainability plan. During one meeting, they came to the conclusion that the monastery’s biggest asset was people.
“They said ‘How many people come here?’ ‘70,000 a year!’ They said that was an industry that we weren’t tapping into,” Callistus said.
A capital campaign was soon organized to build the Monastic Heritage Center complex. The new facilities were opened in 2011 and include a welcome center, museum, Abbey store and Bonsai garden with nursery and garden center.
However, before ground was broken for the Heritage Center, the monks met to vote on whether to move forward with the project. The decision was not unanimous. Some monks feared accommodating more visitors would encroach on their silence and solitude.
That turned out not to be the case. The Heritage Center, part of which is built into a former dairy barn, offers a history of the monastery and an educational opportunity to teach people about the monastic life in both Christian and non-Christian traditions. Visitors enter, watch a 20-minute film about the monastery and then are free to walk the grounds. A roughly quarter-mile path leads from the Heritage Center to the Abbey Church.
“They gather at the Center and there’s this buffer between that area and the monastery proper,” said Callistus. “So tourists, visitors who want to just come and enjoy the day, they would go there to see the museum and shop. But if you want to go to the monastery, then you quietly walk up. It’s a whole different thing.”
Another part of the monastery’s journey to remain sustainable entails a journey unto itself; the Rockdale River Trail. Build it and they will come. That is what local tourism officials and the Monastery of the Holy Spirit hope will come to fruition once the final leg of the Rockdale River Trail is completed.
Workers completed the construction of a bridge this week that spans the South River and represents the last major water crossing for the 13-mile trail which originates from DeKalb County’s Arabia Mountain area and travels into Rockdale County. Later this spring, the final trail section will be completed and will provide a walking and cycling path from Alexander Lake and Panola Mountain State Park to the monastery.
The trail is a partnership between the PATH Foundation, Rockdale County and the city of Conyers, and is one component of the 7,000 acres that make up the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area. And while green space preservation is the main goal of the Heritage Area, locals see the trail as a potential economic driver.
The monks call the trail a “boom” for them to share what they have with others, Callistus said.
“The monks have a history of being good stewards of the land,” he said. “In today’s world where green space is shrinking and shrinking we’ve shouldered the responsibility to try to maintain the green space initiatives, to be environmentally conscious and to share with (others) what we have.”
To learn more about the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, visit www.trappist.net.
Jay Jones is a freelance writer based Rockdale County. Contact him at email@example.com.