Irony lies at the center of Michael O’Brien’s Catholic journey.
The church’s escalating priest abuse crisis of the early 21st century rocked the Salt Lake City attorney’s world and caused him to question the institution and its leaders. But it was priests — namely the Trappist monks at a Huntsville monastery — who had instilled his faith in the first place and ultimately saved it in the end.
They also were the figures he turned to after his own terrifying experience as a youthful victim of sexual assault by a stranger.
“I started in a wonderful place with my church, my religion and these men but then struggled with the abuse scandal and the cover-up,” says O’Brien, who often represents The Salt Lake Tribune in legal matters. “Ultimately, I came back to a good place with the church, comfortable knowing it is not a perfect institution, but the good people are far more representative of it than the bad people.”
O’Brien’s generous view was shaped by a childhood in the Ogden Valley, dominated by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where he made frequent — and absurdly early morning — visits to the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity (which closed in 2017).
He has gathered those memories and perspectives in his soon-to-be-released memoir, “Monastery Mornings: My Unusual Boyhood Among the Saints and Monks.”
Writing it, he says in an interview, “was a form of spiritual therapy.”
It all started with a young boy whose life and family were upended by divorce and financial challenges, and an Irish Catholic mother who wanted him to find solace.
Monks in the mountains
In the aftermath of World War II, returning Catholic soldiers “flocked to Trappist abbeys” in a search for peace, O’Brien writes, which prompted the expansion of monasteries across the country from their U.S. headquarters in Kentucky.
Trappist scouts sent to the Beehive State chose to settle on 1,800 acres “of lush mountain farmland and hills in the rural Ogden Valley under the watchful eye of Mount Ogden,” he writes, because they preferred “to create new monasteries in places where the population was predominantly non-Catholic.”
When the monks arrived in July 1947 at the site of their future monastery “some 60 miles north of where Brigham Young arrived,” he writes, the abbot softly declared, “I think this place is near to heaven, and it should be our endeavor to make it more so.”
Holy Trinity Abbey followed the traditional Trappist design, “built in a quadrangle, with each office and cloister exactly located as in all others,” O’Brien’s book explains, “so that a member of one community would know definitely in any other monastery where to find every place where required activities would occur.”
[Hear Michael O’Brien discuss his monastery memories and his new memoir in the latest “Mormon Land” podcast.]
At the outset, dozens of monks arrived and began to farm the land and build the Quonset hut, which would serve as the monastery’s main chapel.
“The monastery farm has always been viewed as the finest example of agriculture in the valley, and the finest example of diligence and faith,” according to Marlin Jensen, an emeritus Latter-day Saint general authority, who has a dairy farm in Huntsville.
It didn’t take many years for them “to work their way into the hearts of everyone in the valley,” he says. “They bought and sold cattle, and had a big poultry operation. They baked bread and had honey, which were sold in local stores.”
Five or six of the monks who met with the public, Jensen says, became “known and beloved and would occasionally appear at a Latter-day Saint funeral.”
After 20 years of marriage and the birth of four children, O’Brien’s parents split up.
It totally disrupted the family, says O’Brien’s sister Karen Taylor. “We were torn apart. Two of our siblings came back to Utah to live with our father. Two of us stayed with mother [in California]. We came back, too, because she didn’t want us all apart.”
They moved to Clearfield in the spring of 1971, when O’Brien was 11.
A year later, their mother took them on their first visit to the monastery — and, little did they know then, their life would never be the same.
“The bookstore at the monastery was open and we walked in,” O’Brien recounts in The Tribune’s latest “Mormon Land” podcast. “...Mom was looking for a book, so she said to one of the monks who happened to be working there, ‘Can I tell you what I’m looking…’ And she was going to say ‘looking for’ and he interrupted her and said, “I know what you’re looking for. You’re looking for peace just like the rest of us.”
Thereafter, the family went about once a week.
Mom took the siblings to see the monks, searching for “a way to get through the difficult times,” Taylor says. “We found them there.”
At the time the threesome started going, the monks were doing a folk Mass on Sundays. Some of the young men, the postulates, had guitars and would sing.
Taylor fondly remembers walking Abbey Road “many, many times,” says the Texas mother. “The serenity of the monks as well as the physical setting of the mountains were calming.”
It was, she says, a salve to a broken family.
For O’Brien, though, it was even more than that. The monks took him under their wing.
One gave O’Brien his first typewriter and another wrote a letter of recommendation for his college application to Notre Dame.
“They were examples for me, they were mentors,” he recalls. “One of them was a matchmaker, who told me to go to the Newman Center [at the University of Utah] and that’s where I met my wife.”
They taught him about life (“living in the present”), work (“essential for dignity”) and death.
For a Trappist, death “is not a sad event, but the fulfillment of a lifelong yearning for a deeper relationship with God,” O’Brien writes. “...Trappists are not morbid and do not actively seek out death. When it arrives, however, they do not fear it as an enemy, but instead welcome it as a beloved brother.”
They also taught O’Brien how to relate to his Latter-day Saint neighbors.
When the monks first arrived in Huntsville — the boyhood home of Latter-day Saint prophet David O’McKay — there was concern that they would try to draw away members of the Mormon flock.
“There was a wariness towards them, as if David O. McKay’s home was being invaded,” Jensen says, “but almost immediately, they came in their humble way, and relationships began to form.”
Jensen had several religious conversations with the monks, he says. “They were always in a good spirit. I don’t recall any animosity between us and them.”
When the Ogden LDS Temple was rededicated, Jensen says, a helpful church guide took four or five of the monks on a private tour, and they had “deep conversations about their church and our church.”
It was a “pretty good model,” he says, “for how Christians could get along and admire each other.”
Indeed, Jensen says, he felt “holy envy” of the monks, because of the way they lived their vows of charity and poverty, their wholesome lifestyle, and their inner peace.
If that serenity comes with personal sacrifice, living a rigorous, disciplined life and “all for the benefit of the world,” Jensen says, “that’s got to count for something.”
A model of respect
On one memorable evening when O’Brien was in the seventh or eighth grade, his Catholic choir was invited to participate in an interfaith event at the Latter-day Saint tabernacle in Ogden.
“It was a very ecumenical Christmas service,” the attorney recalls. “We performed our song, but before and after, we were kind of bratty, some of us were disrespectful to our LDS hosts or made anti-LDS comments.”
When their Catholic leader was introduced, he says, “we acted like it was a pep rally. We were way too boisterous for the moment.”
The monk got word of some of the inappropriate comments and “took it as a teaching moment,” O’Brien says. “He told us we behaved inappropriately and urged us to be better Christians.”
He never forgot it.
‘Here was a Catholic priest in a Latter-day Saint setting who felt the need to teach us about tolerance and love,” he says. “That would resonate with me the rest of my life.”
The monks insisted that building bridges beat “burning them down,” says O’Brien, noting that one of them helped pay to send a Latter-day Saint neighbor’s son on a mission, and after his mission, the young man married and named a son after the monk.
Fond feelings and kind actions, O’Brien says, “went both ways.”
A different ending
As a young teen, O’Brien had a horrifying experience.
While taking a shortcut through a vacant parking lot on his way home from a baseball practice, O’Brien was attacked by a large man, who dragged him into the bushes and sexually assaulted him.
“I had no power or will to do anything,” he writes in his memoir. “No power to do anything, that is, but say a simple prayer, which is what I did.”
He told his mother as soon as he got home, and they called the police, but the assailant was never found.
He became fearful and suffered numerous panic attacks, but his mother told him over and over again, “You’ll get through this. You were the victim, but the entire world is not out to get you.”
She urged him to turn to those he trusted most — priests.
And so O’Brien shared his story with the monastery’s then-abbot, Father Manny, who listened with empathy and said that he had had a similar frightening experience.
He told a second priest, who discussed the young man’s feelings of shame and embarrassment because he was a male who had not been able to defend himself from the assault.
“He told me my feelings were perfectly normal, but that I had nothing to feel ashamed about,” O’Brien writes. “He said the fault was with the attacker, and that I needed to work diligently to not let what had happened define me either now or in the future.”
Without his mom’s complete support and the wise counsel of the priests, the writer says, “I don’t see that ending the same way. It could have gone in a much different direction for me.”
Years later, as he was working through his anger at the priest abuse scandal, O’Brien says, he could see that while “some bad shepherds did some bad things, most of the time priests and nuns are helping traumatic situations like mine instead of inflicting them.”
Not for weak souls
Trappists take five solemn vows:
• Commitment to the community.
• Devotion to living the monastic life to its fullest.
The monks made his life better, too, O’Brien writes, “because I saw them keep promises, by living vows they made to God and to each other.”
For a boy like him, “set adrift in the turbulent sea of divorce, to be accepted and be part of a stable and functioning community of men such as the monastery, even in an informal manner,” he writes, “was a gift and a lifeline.”
So did O’Brien want to become a monk?
No, he says, though he thought about it.
“I took a walk on Abbey Road with one of the monks who was the vocation director, and he asked me what I was going to do and if I was interested in joining,” O’Brien says on the podcast. “And at that point, I had my mind set on law school and I was set to go to the University of Utah, which I ultimately did.”
He also yearned for a family. “I wanted to be a father in the traditional sense. I wanted to get married. I wanted to have kids,” O’Brien says. “... Some of that came from the fact that I didn’t really have my own father, and I wanted to sort of experience fatherhood from the other end.”
He concedes the monastery’s “3 a.m. wake-up call” sort of scared him off, too.
Though still a committed Catholic, O’Brien says his relationship to the church has evolved as well.
“I persevere. I persist. I remain a Catholic today. I do so with less trust for institutional church leaders,” he writes. “Once trust is breached, it takes time to restore it. I do so with more caution, trepidation, and doubt.”
Yet, partly because of the monks, he adds, “I also do so with hope and optimism.”