Last weekend the kids and I went to the open house at the former Blue Cloud Abbey, now Abbey of the Hills, near Marvin South Dakota. This place is a gem upon the prairie. It somehow captures so much about this place and its prairie beauty and foreshadows some of the past century of this place.
Abbey of the Hills rises up out of the Prairie Coteau. You can see the Prairie Coteau rising up out of the prairie from where we live, on a crisp clear day. The first time I drove west from our farm, with my mom and kids to buy vegetable from the Hutterite Colony, my mom said "what's that rising up out of the prairie." "Must be a bank of clouds," I said, because I hadn't heard of any hills or mountains on the other side of Big Stone County, MN. But I was wrong. The Prairie Coteau is hauntingly lovely "Alps of prairie" as described by the early 1800's explorer Joseph Nicollet.
It is in these hills that a group of Benedictine monks built their Blue Cloud Abbey in 1950. This place is just 40-some miles from our farm. A refuge.
I'm not Catholic and so won't claim to know the heart and spirit that went into these monks, whose stained glass window says "Pray, Read, Work", finding and building this place. There's a good story (click here) about how they found this piece of land on their way from one place to the next.
And they built this place both simple and glorious. An Abbey in the Prairie Coteau- a place of subtle and astounding beauty in which to seek G-d under blue skies. They built it, really, at the peak of its population and maybe hopefulness. Or before we even knew we needed to be hopeful. Because family farming was still thriving all around them out on the prairie and there were still young men and women inspired to live lives of "Pray, Read, and Work."
But things have changed since 1950, haven't they? The independent farms that dotted every section of land have been consolidated and the homesteads are coming down. The number of young people going into full time religious life has plummeted. And both of those demographics meet out here on the prairie.
And so it was exciting news that after more than a year and a half of looking for people to buy the Abbey, that a group of 6 local families decided to buy it. It was bitter sweet news to learn that our inspiring grape growing and biodynamic farming neighbors were among the visionaries stepping up for this great adventure. They have relocated there are applying their skills and innovation to this place.
Here's the kayak that Dan built as a fundraiser for the Abbey. Now imagine that kind of craftsmanship and heart going into a place.
What's remarkable to me is that Abbey of the Hills is being remastered, in part, on a hope for this place that is a palpable hope for so many rural and family farm advocates--that we can find a way to thrive out in the country. What is that way? Well, for one thing, that is by having a healthy and local food system that nourishes our bodies, souls, and communities. Because when we lost those family farms, we lost the small town creameries, butcher shops, as well as the kids who attended schools, and the Masons who built sturdy and lovely brick buildings on Main Street. So those folks at Abbey of the Hills are looking at their sustainable farming operations, their greenhouse, their wood shop, art lofts. They are baking bread in their commercial kitchen and selling it in local grocery stores. They are hoping for a rural renaissance that includes a people landscape with good food and satisfied souls.
I found this butterfly on one corner of a wall of stained glass. It spoke to me of that transformation that I hope for our rural places and prayers for the success of Abbey of the Hills. The chapel was completely full of well-wishers for last Sunday's prayers and hymn.
On the way out, I had to wait for my kids. They'd met up with their friends and were having a great time catching up and exploring. I was standing in the concrete hall, the working part of the Abbey, between the greenhouse and the mechanic shop. I lingered there wondering where the heck my kids were. And then I looked up at the ceiling with the exposed pipes. And what did I see?
Even this 'industrial' corridor of the Abbey was touched by the spirit, where some Brother had discreetly put Leonardo da Vinci's Creation of Adam and the hand of G-d reaching towards humanity in between the electrical conduit.