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Saying goodbye to Brother Felix

Published March 16, 2010 6:56 pm

Ogden Valley » Having arrived in 1947, Felix helped win over wary LDS neighbors.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Huntsville - Brother Felix McHale, one of the founders of Utah's 63-year-old Trappist monastery, was sent out of this world Tuesday the same way he lived: simply.

After a funeral Mass in the chapel at the Abbey of the Holy Trinity, Felix was lowered into his grave on a plywood slab, taking his place next to a couple dozen other monks whose lives are marked with plain white crosses.

In the tradition of Trappist monks, there was no casket. The body had minimal preparation; there was no makeup to disguise death.

Felix -- a monk known for corny jokes and spontaneous singing -- wore his simple white habit, the cowl covering the top of his head, and black socks.

"We brought nothing into this world, and it's certain we can carry nothing out," said the Rev. Leander Dosch, who led his fellow monks in chanting psalms and other prayers over their 93-year-old brother's body in the shadow of the church, snow still covering much of the ground.

The distant honking of geese filled the chilled air.

Some 50 friends of the monastery -- neighbors from Ogden Valley and Roman Catholics from northern Utah -- attended the funeral and burial for the beloved brother, who for several decades was the most visible member of the community, selling bread and eggs, buying dairy cows, even speaking at the funerals of Mormon friends.

Sprinkling his body with holy water and swinging the censer to spread the smoke of incense -- a visual representation of prayers rising -- the Rev. David Altman, abbot of the monastery, asked God to "grant our brother eternal life."

Felix died Friday at Christus St. Joseph Villa in Salt Lake City after several weeks of declining health. His body was returned to the monastery church on Monday afternoon and his fellow monks kept vigil by candlelight all night, each spending an hour at a time praying in a chair at Felix's feet.

From New York to Utah

A native of Geneva in upstate New York, Richard Leo McHale lost his mother as a toddler, his niece said, and was reared in poverty by an alcoholic father.

His face partially disfigured after a bout of infantile paralysis, he traveled the country as a young man working for the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Like dozens of other young Catholic men, he was drawn to the contemplative life of the monastery in the postwar years.

He joined the Trappists at Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky as a brother, taking the name Felix.

He was among the 32 young monks who arrived in Ogden by train in 1947, bent on building a monastery from scratch in the mountain valley east of town.

For the first few years, Brother Felix was the "procurator" for the monastery, essentially the business manager who met with neighbors, creating relationships by which the monks could sell bread and eggs and buy cattle and seed for crops.

Brother Nicholas Prinster, who came two years later and worked closely with Felix, said LDS neighbors at first were suspicious of men who never married, whose lives of farming and ranching were punctuated by chanted prayers seven times a day, beginning in the middle of the night. In those years, the monks kept silent much of the time.

Some Ogden Valley residents even got up a petition, trying to force out the Trappists.

Indeed, David O. McKay, a Huntsville native who became the ninth president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1951, fretted about the monastery, according to the 2005 biography, David O. McKay and The Rise of Modern Mormonism .

On two occasions in the 1950s, when the monastery was raising funds for expansion and looking to buy land, McKay warned other LDS general authorities that the moves were evidence of a Catholic campaign to convert Mormons, wrote author Gregory A. Prince.

Making Mormon friends

LuDean Robson, a devout Mormon neighbor who attended Felix's funeral, said valley residents "were worried that something really bad was moving to Huntsville."

She said her grandfather, Abner Allen, was Huntsville's mayor at the time, and he and Felix became friends. Allen, a rancher, argued for tolerance. When her grandfather died, Robson said, Felix spoke at his funeral.

It was one of several Mormon funerals to which Felix was invited as a speaker. A couple of times, he even was asked to sing, even though his deep baritone voice was known to wander off pitch.

"He thought he had a nice voice," Brother Nicholas said.

Felix's niece, Doreen Bosch of Syracuse, N.Y., said that whenever she visited her uncle in Huntsville, he would insist she bring sheet music so the two of them could serenade neighbors.

Just before her uncle was lowered into his grave Tuesday, Bosch sang "Song of Farewell," an Irish blessing, over his body.

Margot Smelzer, a neighbor, recalled Felix's remarkable kindness when she was a young mother and her husband died in a plane crash.

Felix, a stranger, read the obituary and appeared on her doorstep. "He said, 'If you need anything, you call me."

A friend, Debbie Jensen, said Felix was ornery, but loved to make people laugh. Every time a new nurse would take his medical history, she would ask when Felix had had his stroke.

Felix's hand would move swiftly to his paralyzed face. "I'm having a stroke?" he would ask before breaking into a smile.

In later years, Felix grew a huge garden to supply much of the monastery's vegetarian diet. He also was a baker known especially for his fruit cakes. In 2008, he received a certificate from the U.S. government for 20 years of recording Ogden Valley's weather.

Brother Nicholas said the suspicion from Mormon neighbors didn't last long once the monastery was established and friendships sprouted.

In recent years, the monastery even deeded a couple of acres to Huntsville for its water-treatment plant at the springs the two communities share.

The monks, Brother Nicholas said, now are the old-timers in the valley, having outlived most of their neighbors.

"We're now the pioneers."

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How the monks got to Utah

The Abbey of the Holy Trinity essentially was planted in Ogden Valley in 1947 by Trappist monks from the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, home of noted spiritual writer Thomas Merton.

The abbot at Gethsemani was looking for "foundations" in parts of the country where there were few Catholics and the Rev. Duane Hunt, then the Catholic bishop of Salt Lake City, invited them to look at rural Utah, according to Brother Nicholas Prinster, a longtime monk in Huntsville.

The Order of Cistercians, better known as Trappists, bought a 1,640-acre farm from the Parks family on the Ogden Valley's east side, he said, and later purchased another 180 acres.

Thirty-two monks arrived in 1947 and lived for a couple of years in barracks left over from the war. Quonset huts replaced the barracks, and although they were intended as temporary structures, they remain in use today.

Through the years, the monks supported themselves by farming and ranching, selling bread and eggs. In recent years, the monastery has leased out its land and makes money selling honey, books and gifts in a shop at the monastery.

At its peak, the monastery had 84 monks and prospective monks, Prinster said. Today, it has 17 monks -- priests and brothers -- and two of them live at Christus St. Joseph Villa in Salt Lake City.

The monastery several years ago suspended a fundraising campaign to raise money for new buildings.