Close-knit St. John’s monks seek space to stay safe in pandemic

A man in a mask takes a seat.
Brother David Allen takes his seat Tuesday for midday prayers at the Abbey Church in Collegeville, Minn.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

When COVID-19 hit Minnesota last March, students at St. John's University and its adjacent preparatory school were sent home for the remainder of the academic year.

But the more than 100 Catholic Benedictine monks who are members of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville already were home. Suddenly, their close-knit community and collective way of life meant their most vulnerable members would be at risk.

"Imagination might put the monks as a really safe group, away from society and safe from the pandemic,” said Nick Kleespie, Benedictine father and one of the abbey monks. “In a way, that's true. But our life together also just builds in some real challenges.”

The monks share close quarters. They eat together three times a day and pray together four times a day. And many are still actively involved in teaching and ministry outside the abbey — at the university or in local parishes.

Monks sit in pews.
Worshippers and monks gather for midday prayers Tuesday at Abbey Church.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

"Nobody wants to be the first guy to bring it into the monastery,” Kleespie said. “So everything we're doing is [so] that, even if and when that happens, we're still doing all we can to stay safe."

Early in the pandemic, the monks realized the danger the coronavirus poses. They separated into three groups: according to age, risk factors and how active they are in the outside community. The groups keep apart while eating and praying. Even their daily meetings are now virtual.

"Never would have thought monks would have been meeting on Zoom,” Kleespie said. “Fortunately, we still pray and eat in person."

Many of the monks at St. John's are older, and have underlying health conditions. Some elderly and infirm monks live in a retirement center on campus.

A photo inside a church.
To help stop the spread of COVID-19 the Abbey Church has instituted several safety precautions to keep residents and guests safe while worshiping.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

In normal times, monks value the connection and camaraderie between generations, said Brother Paul-Vincent Niebauer, an abbey spokesperson.

"I mean, our youngest is 23, and our oldest is 99,” Niebauer said. “Talk about extended family living under one roof."

But for now, the retirement center is closed to visitors, and its residents have had little interaction with the outside. Kleespie said that loss of connection has been difficult.

“These guys who pray with us, eat with us, recreate with us,” he said. “So it's a two-way street of missing that older generation within the community.”

Kleespie said it’s also helped the monks understand what the rest of the world is going through during the pandemic.

"A lot of the important elderly in our lives have had to make considerable changes to keep themselves healthy,” he said. “And the social cost and emotional cost that comes with that is definitely felt, even within the monastery."

COVID-19 also forced changes inside the spacious Abbey Church, designed by architect Marcel Breuer and dedicated in 1961, where monks gather daily for Mass and prayers.

Color-coded pews inside a church.
Color-coded pews direct the congregation on proper social distancing at the Abbey Church in Collegeville, Minn.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Before the pandemic, the monks sat next to one another in choir stalls at the front of the church, youngest in the front, oldest in the back. Now, they sit, one to a stall, in every other stall, with an empty row in between.

"We are a community that you can tell how somebody is doing just by looking across at them,” Kleespie said. “Now that we're spread out throughout the space, it's almost like there's more breath, more air, more vastness to what we're doing."

The abbey managed to keep its members healthy over the summer. But when university students returned to campus in September, the monks were on edge, Niebauer said.

"I think those two weeks before school was starting, we were all just wondering, ‘What are we up for? How's this going to fly?’" he said.

But despite a spike in positive COVID-19 cases on campus, so far, the monastery has been spared. All of the members have been tested three times to make sure no one’s infected, Niebauer said.

This isn’t the first pandemic St. John’s Abbey has endured. The monks mention in their daily prayers the names of those who have died, and sometimes that includes monks who perished in the Spanish flu a century ago. It's a grim reminder of why the safety measures are important, Kleespie said.

"I think part of our care for each other is not to repeat those losses,” he said.

A person walks under a bell tower.
A person walks under the iconic bell tower of the Abbey Church.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

It’s the familiar rhythms of monastic life — the same psalms, liturgy, prayers and people — that bring comfort and reassurance during uncertain times, Kleespie said. As chaplain of St. John’s University, Kleespie said he’s noticed students are also hungry for connection and answers.

They have gathered for outdoor Masses, and even watch the monks' evening prayers — a 1,500-year-old tradition — livestreamed on social media.

"It's been such a wonderful way to connect in new ways to students, who need a little bit of stability and a little bit of community in the midst of the goofiness that is the pandemic,” Kleespie said.

Beautiful autumn weather has made it easier to social distance outdoors on the sprawling St. John's campus, which covers almost 3,000 acres of lakes, woods and prairie west of St. Cloud. But Niebauer wonders what will happen when winter comes.

"Let's worry about that when it comes. But it is coming,” he said. “It's exhausting for everyone. You have to turn up your patience, your sense of humor, and your prayer."

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

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