This chunk of Utah farmland united ‘saints under two religions’

Once suspicious of one another, Latter-day Saints and Trappist monks bonded over a shared sense of place and hospitality — and now are keeping a former monastery’s legacy alive.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Monk Michael Straham is depicted by area artist Jake Songer on one of the remaining buildings at The Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity in the rapidly subdividing Ogden Valley. A deal has been reached to preserve most of the 1,800-acre agricultural operation that surrounds the former site. Landowner Bill White has agreed to donate much of the development rights to the land so that it remains as agricultural open space.

When Abbot Frederic Dunne emerged with a bus full of Trappist monks at the site of their new abbey in Huntsville, he sized up its verdant fields and expansive view of Mount Ogden.

“This place is near to heaven,” the abbot said, according to an article from Ogden’s Standard-Examiner at the time, “and it should be our endeavor to make it more so.”

Those monks worked diligently over decades with that mantra in mind, tending beehives, baking bread, breaking down barriers and befriending neighbors. They were veterans who lived through the horrors of World War II, then built a haven on 1,800 acres in the Ogden Valley. They vowed lives of poverty, devoted to God and the land, even as the society around them rapidly industrialized.

The brothers called their new home, with its humble military-surplus Quonset hut church, the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Now, nearly 75 years later and with the surviving monks too old to continue their work, a family of another faith is taking up the brothers’ yoke. Owners of McFarland Family Farms plan to grow their famous sweet corn and pumpkins at the site of the former monastery this summer, welcoming members of the public to enjoy a taste of pastoral life, just like the monks once did.

The McFarlands say the place does, indeed, seem a little closer to the divine.

“We weren’t expecting to take on another farm,” said Jamila McFarland of McFarland Family Farms, “but the reason we chose to do it is because of how it feels up there.”

(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.

The McFarlands are a seventh-generation farming family based in West Weber, with roots in Utah’s predominant religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But Jamila said she has enjoyed teaching her children about another faith while they explored the former church grounds and the rows of crooked white crosses, where almost all of the monks have been laid to rest.

“We explain the monks devoted their lives to God ... and that’s why they farmed,” she said. “They didn’t do it for money; they did it to provide for their community.”

Indeed, the old abbey has long served as a place of communion.

“It’s an important part of our history,” said Mike O’Brien, who wrote a memoir about his close relationship with the monks and the childhood he often spent at the monastery. “No earth-shaking experiences happened there, but anyone who met the monks or lived in the valley has a story about them.”

(O’Brien’s day job is as an attorney, and he often does legal work for The Salt Lake Tribune.)

For a forthcoming book, tentatively titled “In the Valley of Monks and Saints,” O’Brien researched journals, pored over newspaper articles and collected the memories of dozens of Huntsville residents, documenting the many bonds forged between the monks and their Latter-day Saint neighbors through the years.

Those friendships weren’t necessarily foreordained.

“[Huntsville residents] worried why this group was coming there, what were their intentions?” O’Brien said of the Trappists’ arrival. “Very few, if any at this point in time, had ever met a monk.”

From nervous neighbors to fast friends

Early Latter-day Saint leaders had called the Catholic Church “the devil” and the “great and abominable church” (although those notions later were officially renounced).

(Lynn R. Johnson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Father David Kinney recites his Rosary in the solitude of the monastery's garden in 1997.

O’Brien notes that relatives of apostle and church President David O. McKay (who hailed from Huntsville) recalled him warning them to stay away from the monastery.

Suspicion existed on both sides.

As Dunne researched sites for a future Utah monastery in the 1940s, Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton wrote that the abbot disguised himself by wearing Army pants and a windbreaker to keep his identity — and intentions — secret. He also lamented that Latter-day Saints had “strange, crazy ideas,” according to Merton’s journals.

“The whole place seems possessed by the devil,” Dunne apparently said of the Latter-day Saints’ iconic Salt Lake Temple. “... I made the sign of the cross, hoping the place would fall down, but unfortunately it did not.”

The fears and animosity melted away soon after the monks arrived in July 1947. Prominent Latter-day Saints from around the state would make pilgrimages to the monastery, buying its famed honey by the caseload.

Perhaps the Latter-day Saints saw something that felt familiar as they watched the Trappist men in their white robes raising honeybees. Beehives have long been an important religious symbol to the the Saints. Mormon pioneers carried bee colonies with them as they trekked west. They initially named the Utah territory “Deseret,” the Book of Mormon term for honeybee. Beehives feature prominently in Latter-day Saint art, architecture and publications. The state flag features a beehive, along with the state motto, “industry.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A solitary Trappist monk walks down a snowy tree-lined road near the monastery in Huntsville in 2002

“You’re going to find very few people who are more industrious than those monks,” O’Brien said, noting the Trappists’ own motto: “ora et labora,” which is Latin for “prayer and work.”

“They took an undeveloped ranch and turned it into this beautiful farm, a haven,” O’Brien said. “The honeybee, I think, is symbolic of all the hard work they put in to create that beautiful place.”

O’Brien documented stories of the monks channeling that labor to benefit their fellow Huntsville residents. The monks helped their struggling neighbors pay for a son’s Latter-day Saint mission. They taught two other boys in their early 20s the ropes of running a farming operation when their parents suddenly died. And they were ever willing to greet a stranger with a smile, slice of bread and jar of honey.

“The people I interviewed called them dear friends. One said they were like brothers. One said they were an inspiration,” O’Brien said. “People focused on the monks’ compassion, kindness, caring for others. Those are the qualities that replaced words like ‘fear’, ‘suspicion’ and ‘worry.’”

The generosity was reciprocated. Latter-day Saints made the monks meals and special treats for feast days. They donated farm equipment and honored them in parades.

Both the monks and Saints invited one another to speak at loved ones’ funerals.

“We’re all just saints under two religions,” one monk, Brother Felix McHale, said at the funeral of a longtime Latter-day Saint friend and neighbor, according to O’Brien’s book. Family members donated a potato digger to Brother Felix to show their gratitude.

“It was two-way hospitality,” O’Brien said. “It was given and given back.”

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Father Patrick Boyle talks with the Vore family, of Farr West, in the bookstore and gift shop at the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity in Huntsville in 2017.

‘I’m a monk, not a prophet’

Water also emerges as a common theme uniting the monks with their Latter-day Saint neighbors.

Water is an important part of the Latter-day Saint sacrament, or communion. Those early pioneers figured out how to harness water to eke a living out of the inhospitable, arid West. And Latter-day Saint farmers found themselves bonding with monks over daily conversations about water, irrigation pipes and the weather.

One neighbor recounted to O’Brien that the only time religion came up in his many long conversations with the monks was when he asked one, named Brother Nick, whether it might rain.

“I’m a monk,” Brother Nick apparently responded, “not a prophet.”

Huntsville’s main source of water also comes from a pristine source on the abbey property. When the growing town needed to build a treatment plant, the monks donated two acres and several easements to help it happen. They then allowed town officials to bore a well on the property to meet state requirements for a backup emergency water source.

“They shared that precious resource,” O’Brien said. “I think it’s another example of the bond that developed between them.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bill White, alongside his wife, Alane, talks about the central pivot watering system he bought to help preserve the farmland surrounding the Trappist monastery in Huntsville in April 2021.

In a roundabout way, water also led to the site’s salvation.

When water rights attorney Bill White moved to the area around a decade ago, he offered to volunteer for his new hometown. He found himself helping the monks resolve a water claim that was improperly documented and regularly interacted with them as he helped the town with its various water-related legal issues.

“The monks were so warm and loving, telling jokes, very much different from what I expected,” White said, recalling his first visit to the abbey. “After that, it was a great relationship. I hit it off with them.”

But the monks were aging, with no younger men, or novices, signing up for monastic life to take their place. The Catholic Church intended to sell the abbey to help pay for the brothers’ growing medical needs and set them up in a senior care center.

White learned a dense, mixed-use development would likely be the monastery’s fate after some Utah State University students commissioned to design the project approached him, wondering how it might impact Huntsville’s water supply.

“It’s the crown jewel of the valley, a beautiful piece of property and the only large farm left,” White said. “It sounded terrible to me.”

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Monks walk back to the monastery at the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity in Huntsville after funeral services for 93-year-old Richard McHale, who took the name Brother Felix, Tuesday Mar 16, 2010. Brother Felix came to Huntsville in 1947 and was one of the founding members of the monastery.

What happened next has been well-documented — White tried to rally his Huntsville neighbors to pool funds and save the monastery, but it became a mostly solo endeavor. He cashed out his retirement savings, bought the land at market value in 2015, poured millions into upgrading its infrastructure and eventually tore down failing buildings, including the Quonset hut church.

“It’s been a real burden,” White said. “My wife is ready to kill me.”

He has placed the land under a conservation easement — protecting it as open farmland in perpetuity — and applied for grants from the federal government to help cover the costs.

White said he has yet to see a dime.

“Right now an appraiser in Washington, D.C., at the Department of Agriculture, he’s giving us problems,” White said. “This guy isn’t familiar with water rights. He’s from the East Coast.”

Lasting legacy

The last monks departed Huntsville’s Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity in 2017. But to O’Brien, White is a kind of monastic novice — taking on the burden of ensuring the abbey’s legacy lives on, even though it requires a lot of trial and sacrifice.

White doesn’t quite see it that way. He’s not religiously affiliated, calling himself a “lapsed” Latter-day Saint, but he did feel a moral calling to protect the site.

“There are people who see the spiritual in all aspects of the monastery, and there is a spiritual aspect to this,” White said. “But ... for me, the monks told me I needed to guard the water resources with my life. They knew water would be in high demand because of development. ... Water is the key to everything in Utah.”

(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. 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 has no experience farming, was also relieved the McFarlands were willing to oversee agricultural operations. O’Brien sees it as a continuation of the long-standing tradition of interfaith cooperation in the Ogden Valley — as the McFarlands care for the land like a group of Trappist brothers once did.

“Those monks who rest in that cemetery there,” O’Brien said, “would be pretty thrilled to know another family is taking up that legacy and mantle.”

Jamilia McFarland is excited to welcome the visitors to the farm this summer and, if they want, feel a bit nearer to heaven once again.

“People could feel the spirit of the work the monks were doing and their motives,” she said, “and I think that’s what changes hearts.”

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