Wednesday, March 15, 2017

History of St. Joseph Abbey Presented

On Tuesday, March 14, The Covington Heritage Foundation held a meeting that featured a talk by Father Matthew Clark O.S.B and Father Jonathan DeFrange, O.S. B., on the history of  “St. Joseph Abbey: The Hidden Jewel of the Northshore.” The event took place at the St. Tammany Art Association House, 320 North Columbia Street, Covington. 

They presented photographs from across the 125 year history of the Abbey, telling about the early German monks who first started the seminary college all the way through the present. Starting with an overview of St. Benedict himself, Father Clark explained the influential "Rule of St. Benedict" that has guided life in monk communities throughout the western world for hundreds of years.

Father Matthew Clark O.S.B and Father Jonathan DeFrange, O.S. B.

Father DeFrange wrote a book detailing the history of the Abbey; it is called "The Century of Grace" and is available at the Abbey gift shop. He answered many questions about some of the more intriguing aspects of the facility, which is located on the little Bogue Falaya River about three miles north of Covington.

In fact, some of the buildings at the Abbey were flooded last year when the river rose quickly out of its banks and filled many homes along its flood plain with water, including the Playmakers theater barn down river. The Abbey is still recovering from that disaster. It had also been flooded in 1927 at about the same level.

The presentation was highlighted by questions posed during the slide show, and audience members who answered correctly received a loaf of bread baked at the Abbey's bakery.  Also on display was a selection of "MonkSoap," another product made by monks at the Abbey, beginning in 2011.

Information was presented on each of the Abbots who had overseen the operation of the facility. The early efforts to begin a seminary college looked towards Rayne, La, but it was deemed too far from New Orleans, and land was bought and a facility was built in Ponchatoula in Tangipahoa Parish. It eventually moved to the present location in the Hosmer Mill area of Covington in 1901 and focused on the vocational training of monks.

Over the years, there had been some tension between the local French Creoles who wanted more of a French-oriented seminary and the German influence that started the Abbey, particularly during the Second World War, when some monks found themselves on opposite sides. 

Area residents are familiar with the Abbey's vocational efforts, from the bakery "Pennies for Bread" famous for its baked goods, to the most recent production of MonkSoap. The well-known production of caskets by the woodworking shop there was in the news recently. That casket business was the subject of a lawsuit questioning the state regulation of casket-manufacturing. The Abbey won the law suit and was able to continue to build its caskets. "Actually the lawsuit gave us considerable publicity nationwide, and we got many orders from out-of-state as a result," explained Father DeFrange.

The Abbey has suffered fires as well. The presentation included accounts of several expansions and renovations to the facility over the years, the artwork that graces the walls and ceilings of the church and other buildings, and the newly-installed Dobson church organ that is renowned for its sound and "direct action" technical specifications. 

The many theatrical productions put on by the seminary students were mentioned, as were the "retreats" offered to the general public at the "Christian Life Center." Art classes are being taught in the old Abbey chicken coop, which has been converted to an art studioThe theater building Benet Hall has been the location of many community programs and art exhibits. 

Father Clark said that St. Joseph Abbey and its church is well-known and respected throughout the world, and its outreach has been felt in Central America and even in Europe. 

In 1960, the Knights of Columbus Abbey Summer Youth Camp was established, with many area residents remembering their visits to the camp and who are subsequently sending their grandchildren to the camp. The speakers also told of nearby St. Gertrude's Convent as well as the Abbey's association with St. Peter's Catholic Church, St. Paul's School and St. Scholastica Academy, all in Covington. 

The one-day Abbey Youth Fest is an annual event that attracts thousands of young believers from throughout the region, it was said.

Officers with the Covington Heritage Foundation (CHF) greet the speakers.

CHF President Mark Johnson welcomes the over 90 persons present. 

Father DeFrange answers questions from the audience.

Aerial photo of St. Joseph Abbey in 1975

To celebrate the 125th anniversary of St. Joseph's Abbey, the students in the Summer Video Institute hosted by Channel 13 produced a feature spotlighting the history of the Abbey. 

To watch the video feature on YouTube, CLICK HERE.

Click here for a link to an article about the outstanding art on display at the Abbey. 
Click here for an article about woodworking at the Abbey.
For an article about the 1974 restoration of the St. Joseph Abbey church organ, click here.