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Huntsville monastery has faded away, but preservation prayers have been answered for its farm fields

Conservation easements will keep Trappist monks’ legacy alive in Ogden Valley

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bill White, alongside his wife, Alane, talks about the central pivot watering system he purchased to help preserve the farmland surrounding the Trappist monastery in Huntsville on Tuesday, April 13, 2021. A deal has been reached to preserve most of the 1,800-acre agricultural operation that surrounds the monastery grounds in the rapidly subdividing Ogden Valley. White has agreed to donate much of the development rights to the land so that it remains as agricultural open space. White has invested heavily in the land's agricultural operations so that it would qualify for the $8.8 million in federal grants that are funding most of the deal.

Huntsville • The monastery that once flourished in Utah’s Ogden Valley may be gone — the building razed and the surviving monks living out their days in a Salt Lake City senior center — but its spirit remains rooted in ground where the prayerful priests carved out an agricultural stronghold.

These once-isolated lands were ideal for a farming-based religious retreat for the Catholic faithful in the years after Word War II, when 80 or so veterans established the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity just outside Huntsville.

But with the monks’ departure in 2017, these fields became ripe for mansions and cul-de-sacs arranged around a golf course, all nestled against the rolling Monte Cristo foothills in this rapidly developing residential enclave in one of northern Utah’s most bucolic settings.

Bill White was not going to let that happen.

So he cashed out his stock holdings in 2016 and went to work trying to persuade his Huntsville neighbors to help put up the cash to buy the 1,700 acres from the Catholic Church.

Seeing how his “business model” was a loser, White didn’t get a lot of takers.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A deal has been reached to preserve most of the 1,800-acre agricultural operation that surrounds the former site of the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity in the rapidly subdividing Ogden Valley. Landowner Bill White has agreed to donate much of the development rights to the land so that it remains as agricultural open space. White has invested heavily in the land's agricultural operations so that it would qualify for the $8.8 million in federal grants that are funding most of the deal.

“The area is under intense development pressure as more and more people move into the valley seeking the lifestyle that comes with three ski resorts, a beautiful lake and miles and miles of hiking trails in the surrounding mountains,” White said. “When the monks decided to close the monastery because of their advanced ages, I realized that this was a ‘once in forever’ opportunity to save this beautiful farm from development.”

With the financial help of the one person who answered his call, Park City resident Winston Wangsgard, White met the undisclosed purchased price, fixed up the farm and finalized a deal to sell conservation easements for much of the property to the Ogden Valley Land Trust.

The Park City-based Summit Land Conservancy provided the professional expertise to work out the easements and secure federal funding. Part of the deal will be funded by an $8.8 million grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, with additional money from philanthropic donors.

“It takes philanthropy on the part of the landowner as well, because what we are paying Mr. White and Mr. Wangsgard is less than half the value of the easement,” said Marlin Jensen, a land trust board member and lifelong Ogden Valley resident. “They are donating a $12 million value as a charitable contribution to the land trust.”

Monks, Mormons and memories

Since its founding 25 years ago, the land trust has accumulated easements on 6,500 acres of agriculture lands, not including the abbey. Saving the monastery farm was always a top priority because of the monks’ legacy of labor and love, and the farm’s importance to wildlife.

“The monastery farm has always been viewed as the finest example of agriculture in the valley and the finest example of diligence and faith,” said Jensen, an emeritus general authority for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “The monks coming here in 1947 was a little bit of a jolt to what was then a Latter-day Saint community. But everyones has had an interest and enjoyed relationships with the monks. The farmers traded livestock, farming ideas and equipment. The monks were wonderful neighbors, very generous. If there’s such a thing as holy envy, we always had that for the monastery and the monks.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The cemetery remains but the the historic Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity monastery that housed the Trappist monks in Huntsville, Utah, has been removed, as seen on April 13, 2021. A deal has been reached to preserve most of the 1,800-acre agricultural operation that surrounds the former site in the rapidly subdividing Ogden Valley.

The two land conservancies still must raise $287,000 to nudge the deal across the finish line.

“It’s about what’s important in our hearts, and the monks embodied that,” said Cheryl Fox, executive director of the Summit Land Conservancy.

Though pricey, this transaction is worth every dollar, according to Michael O’Brien, a Salt Lake City attorney and author of the forthcoming memoir “Monastery Mornings: My Unusual Boyhood Among the Saints and Monks.”

“These men had a tremendous impact on all sorts of lives, not just in the Ogden Valley, not just in Utah, but all around the country,” said O’Brien, who has represented The Salt Lake Tribune and blogs at the theboymonk.com. “These men left an imprint of kindness and compassion and love and selflessness. I firmly believe that 70 years of working and chanting and praying has left an imprint on that land and makes it special.”

After his parents’ divorce when he was 11, O’Brien spent much of his youth at the monastery, learning from the monks in the absence of a traditional father figure.

Last month, O’Brien drove Father Patrick Boyle, who was the public face of the monastery for decades, to the site to bless the fields, each named for a prominent Catholic saint, asking for a productive harvest.

At 93, Boyle couldn’t get around like he once could, O’Brien recounted in his blog, so he did all the blessing from one spot.

“O God, by whose help we cultivate the earth and all that will grow by the effect of your power, grant that what we know to be lacking in our labors may be supplied abundantly by you,” the robed Cistercian monk intoned while sprinkling holy water in each of the four cardinal directions.

While he was at it, Boyle blessed Huntsville Mayor Jim Truett’s medal of St. Hubert, the patron saint to hunters. With a wink, he told Truett, the town’s first Catholic mayor, he prayed that all his shots would miss.

‘Entranced’ by its beauty

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A deal has been reached to preserve most of the 1,800-acre agricultural operation that surrounds the former site of the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity in the rapidly subdividing Ogden Valley. Landowner Bill White has agreed to donate much of the development rights to the land so that it remains as agricultural open space. White has invested heavily in the land's agricultural operations so that it would qualify for the $8.8 million in federal grants that are funding most of the deal.

White, who was there that day, also built a close bond with the monks, whom he and his wife, Alane, hosted for regular barbecues before the coronavirus pandemic confined the priests to the senior center.

An attorney who moved to Huntsville in 2009, White served on the Planning Commission and worked with the monastery to safeguard a spring on the property that supplied the town with water.

Saving the land had been worth the effort and financial risk, he said during a recent tour of the spot where the monastery stood, recounting all the steps he took acquiring and rescuing the property. The process started years before, when he befriended the monks and bought their jam every time he and his family visited, usually by bike.

“Every time I would ride by here, I was just entranced by the beauty of this place,” White said. “We’ve got a lot of jam because I came up here a lot. I just wanted to be here. Everybody wanted to be here because it has a special feeling.”

While saving the abbey itself was beyond the new landowners’ means, they spent heavily updating the agricultural operations on the 1,080 acres now subject to the conservation easement.

The monks had donated virtually all the farm’s income — from selling bread, honey, jam, books and clocks — to charity, spending little on themselves or the property. Consequently, the operations were run-down and out of date. Barns weren’t exactly perpendicular to the ground, pipes were corroding, roads falling apart.

“We’ve spent close to a couple million dollars in infrastructure improvements, and we have a lot more to go,” White said. “This place is so huge; these improvements cost a fortune.”

They bought six irrigation pivots, each costing $150,000, shored up some buildings and razed others, cleaned up dump sites and repaved the entrance road.

“These are things we need to do or this place would turn into a giant weed patch,” White said. “In its heyday, this place was run like a Swiss clock. That was the standard the community loves to see happen again, but it’s sort of hard when you don’t have 85 young men work for free.”

White anticipates having to spend up to $4 million more to replace two aging pipelines.

“The problem is the farm was losing a ton of money in part because of the dilapidated equipment, so we have invested to modernize it and make it more efficient so we can at least break even,” he added. “That’s our goal. We are not trying to make money on agriculture. We just want to break even so, in the future, this thing can stay as a farm.”

A lessee grows alfalfa on the irrigated fields, which yield about 2,000 tons a year, and a rancher runs 150 cattle on the land during the summer.

It remains hallowed ground

(Steve Griffin | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Monks sing chants as they watch vigil over the body of 93-year-old Brother Felix at the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity near Huntsville in 2010. Brother Felix, who came to Huntsville in 1947, was one of the founding members of the monastery. His body was returned to the monastery, where we was buried March 16. He died in an assisted living center in Salt Lake City. A deal has been reached to preserve many of the farm fields that remain at the monastery.

The abbey itself, fashioned from a large military-surplus Quonset hut, could not be salvaged, at least in a way that made financial sense. Razing it was a heart-rending decision for Wangsgard and White, who explored numerous options for saving the iconic building.

The owners tried to donate the abbey and the five acres it sat on to large public institutions, starting with the Catholic Church. None was interested in taking on a project that would cost $12 million just to bring the 58,000-square-foot, three-story structure to code.

The ground where the abbey once stood is now a covered in lawn, but its presence can still be felt when walking among the trees that stand in what used to be the quadrangle and courtyards.

The spot remains consecrated ground, serving as the final resting place for the monastery’s deceased inhabitants. Thirty-four identical white metal crosses, crooked and misaligned, remain in the churchyard that is more frequently visited by elk, judging from the droppings in the grass, than humans these days. The five surviving monks can count on joining their brothers in that peaceful spot some day.

Elk aren’t the only wild creatures that use these lands, which are part of migration corridor. Deer, foxes and coyotes also roam here, along with hundreds of sandhill cranes, turkeys, owls and eagles.

White is not sure how the land will be used in the coming decades, but he is certain it has to be for more than growing hay.

“I hope someone who has more brainpower than Winston or I will have a vision we can adopt here. I just don’t know what exactly that is,” White said. “For now, it’s just going to be a beautiful farm, but someday when we are old, we hope that we have a vision that will outlast us. There are enough interested people in the valley to get something going.”

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