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MONASTERY Dec-12-2007 (850 words) xxxn

Georgia monks find sustainable route to preserve monastery

By Gretchen Keiser
Catholic News Service

CONYERS, Ga. (CNS) -- They were in Conyers in 1944, living one of the most ancient expressions of Catholic spirituality, when there was only one Catholic family in Rockdale County. And they are there today, 63 years later, in an archdiocese that today has 650,000 Catholics.

And the monks at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in the Atlanta Archdiocese want to be around for their 100th year and beyond, according to Abbot Francis Michael Stiteler, elected the community's leader in 2003.

So over the past few years, the Trappist monks -- formally known as Cistercians of the Strict Observance -- have prayed, reflected and discussed how best to stabilize their community financially yet retain the precious gift of their cloistered contemplative life.

Also, in light of developments around them, they are concerned about sustaining the natural and historical treasure of the monastery and its land.

The 45 monks now have a vision for their future and a master plan, which they call "a season of renewal" for the 2,000-acre monastery property.

Monks' lives are lives of work as well as prayer. The manual labor required for monastic life also supports the monastery.

Today's industries at the monastery include a bonsai pottery business, the baking and packaging of homemade fudge and Southern-style fruitcakes, and the designing and creation of stained-glass windows.

The largest source of revenue comes from monk-directed retreats for both men and women, but this income is only one-tenth of what the monks need to sustain themselves.

The next strongest source is sales at the Abbey Store, the monks' shop of religious articles and books, or sales made online. As a religious order, the monks do not receive funds from the archdiocese, nor do they have a parish to help sustain them.

When the abbot, 57, was elected, many of the senior monks, including those who founded the monastery and built the buildings, had become infirm. They could not perform manual labor and were being cared for, primarily by younger monks.

The cost of medical care and the need to employ laypeople for work formerly done by monks put the monastery in the red, said Abbot Stiteler, who has been in Conyers for 33 years. "We were running several hundreds of thousands of dollars in the hole every year."

Two studies commissioned by the monastery reached the same conclusion, he told the Georgia Bulletin, Atlanta's archdiocesan newspaper: "The best way to survive into the future was through visitors and tourism."

Many visitors are not Catholic. Harriet Gattis, tourism manager for the city of Conyers' convention and visitors bureau, is a Protestant, but her father and grandfather, both doctors, were involved with the monastery from the beginning.

"It is a tranquil, peaceful place that in today's world is hard to find. I enjoy the opportunity I have to take groups out there. I always tell them my blood pressure is lower the minute I turn on (Highway) 212," Gattis said. "This is what all of us are seeking in this busy technological world. We are all looking for a place to turn our cell phones off and encounter God."

"I get a sense now a lot of Catholics who have arrived in the last 15 years don't know the monastery is here and don't know the history of the monastery in the archdiocese," Abbot Stiteler said.

The monastery's master plan includes a capital campaign with an initial goal of $11.7 million, with fundraising set to start in 2008. The plan involves building a new retreat house on the shores of a lake, with 48 private rooms, each with its own bathroom.

The old retreat house will be renovated to accommodate a new kitchen and dining facilities for retreatants, whose numbers are projected to double. There will also be a larger Abbey Store and an expanded bonsai garden center, plus a new museum and cafe.

Recently the monastery was designated as one of five gateways into the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area.

The monastery last year also agreed to protect a section of its land in perpetuity as a natural habitat. In exchange, the city of Atlanta paid the community more than $750,000 for the conservation easement to help the monastery acquire a key parcel of land in the midst of its cloistered site and secure it from development in the future.

Future phases propose building a conference center that would allow groups to come in for a daylong meeting or reflection without impinging on the solitude of the retreat house. Another proposed building within the cloistered area would allow the monks to make their fudge and fruitcake and perhaps other baked goods in a modern commercial kitchen to replace their 50-year-old bakery.

The full master plan also would include restoration of the Abbey Church, built by the monks over a 15-year period, and other original monastic buildings.

"There is a unified sense that we are going to move forward and do it. It is embraced by the majority of the community," Abbot Stiteler said.


Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/USCCB. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed.
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