13. The Motherhouse
This house of monks is known as the “motherhouse” of monasteries, for those who follow the rule of Saint Benedict. Their vows are to live a life of consist of work, prayer and contemplation.
12. It all began in 1805.
French Trappists from an Abbey in Switzerland journeyed first to Pennsylvania, Louisville Kentucky, and finally Bardstown. They met with the first ordained Catholic priest, Stephen Badin, who invited the monks to become a part of the community. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out due to consistent floods, and they left in 1809.
11. The Abbey of Melleray’s Abbot, Dom Maxime, reconsidered Kentucky in the 1840s.
He sent two monks from the French Abbey to check out land in Kentucky that would be suiting for a base monastery. The monks again met in Louisville, and were guided to Nelson County via a local Bishop Benedict, Joseph Flaget.
10. The new land
The land was deemed Gethsemani, and was owned by the Sisters of Loretto. The previous Trappist Monks had made their home in this area almost four decades prior. Things had changed and improved since the original exploration of the land, and the monks purchased the acreage.
9. The French Revolution was in motion.
This made the land purchase even more convenient, as 44 monks and Father Eutropius Proust departed a hostile France to build a new life in Kentucky. One monk stepped onto the spirit path during their journey, but the rest made it unscathed, traveling on a steamboat called “Martha Washington.”
8. Life was hard.
The monks struggled to build and create a new life after tearing down the old, dilapidated cabins. In their place they built new homes, a new chapel, and eventually, the monastery itself. During the initial months, Proust grew gravely ill with pneumonia, almost dying. He miraculously recovered during last rights. He grew well enough to travel back to France and acquire more funding for the monastery's growth.
7. The architecture is partially Neo Gothic.
The building itself was made to last. The brick exterior was supported by heavy timber roof and wall supports. The church was a rectangular abbatial design with a plaster and lathe Neo Gothic interior. The steeple could be seen for miles and became a recognized symbol of the Abbey.
6. The monastery sits on more than 2,000 acres.
It was initially deemed the “Proto-Abbey of the New World,” and Proust was the Dom. The acreage was/is a working farm where the monks support the monastery by making fruitcakes, cheeses, and modern day treats, like their renowned bourbon fudge. Today, their foods are said to be some of the absolute best available in the southern region. The fruit cake was voted best of the best by the Wall Street Journal.
5. Thomas Merton lived on site several decades.
If you are unfamiliar with Thomas Merton, he was a renowned social activist, author and Trappist Monk. He made his home at Gethsemani from 1941, till he drew his last breath in 1968.
4. The locals saw the monks as sad.
The second Dom of the monastery was said to be stricter, ensuring his people led an austere existence. The people who saw the monks reported that they seemed not at peace, but more so unhappy and troubled. This did not dampen the positive aspects of the peaceful community.
3. Being a monk
It isn’t as easy as you may think to become a monk. There is a process that beings with psychological testing. Several visits must be made to the Abbey prior to testing and acceptance. Just like in a fraternity, though nowhere near as fun, future monks start out as Postulants, or candidates. This lasts for six months, and then the candidate receives their white robe. Another six months is given to prove competency as a monk. Then, there are levels, starting with a Novice Monk for two years, Junior professed monk for three years, and then another test prior to becoming a fully professed monk. The gist is, it takes real dedication.
2. The first Monastic interreligious dialogue
The Abbey of Gethsemani hosted what was basically a panel with monastics of Buddhist and Catholic orders during July of 1996. The monks of various orders openly discussed and prayed on the topics of meditation, work ethics, monastic roles and prayer. The 14th Dalai Lama was present during this renowned meeting of the minds.
1. The monks
Though some monks stick with a vow of silence, some will chat and speak of the history of the area. There are currently around 40 monks who live on site, tending the gardens and making the foods. Unlike in the past, outsiders are hired for construction and other types of maintenance. The monks receive medical care off property as well, whereas in the past, everything was handled on site. Mass is available weekdays at 6:15 am and Sundays at 10:30 am in the primary chapel. Other services are also available, such as vespers.
This ancient monastery in Kentucky is the oldest of its kind in our state, and just a visit to the grounds can be relaxing, if not enlightening. The Abby of Our Lady of Gethsemani Monastery has long embraced visitors and has an air conditioned building with private baths available for those wanting to stay and meditate. This is a one of a kind Abbey in our state, but we have other historical attractions you can visit