Trappist monks watch for Christmas differently than the rest of us, without colored lights, yard decorations or holiday parties. Instead of Bing Crosby or Mariah Carey, an Iowa monastery gets the spirit of the season from an organ built by Latter-day Saint artisans in Utah.
I discovered this surprising musical fact at the New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque while visiting my friend Father Brendan Freeman. The 82-year-old Catholic monk joined the abbey six decades ago, led it from 1984 to 2013, and now serves again as leader.
I first met Father Brendan while he was in northern Utah, helping Trappist monks close Ogden Valley’s beloved Abbey of the Holy Trinity. He also helped me with “Monastery Mornings,” my 2021 memoir about growing up at the Huntsville monastery.
When my wife and I were in Iowa recently, Father Brendan showed us around his 173-year-old abbey, founded during the Potato Famine by monks from Ireland. We saw a peaceful cemetery with black crosses dating from 1850, a lovely bell tower and a stunning limestone church with 3-foot-thick walls and arched Gothic windows.
In the chapel, my eyes fell upon a 15-foot-tall red oak and pipe organ next to the monks’ choir stalls.
“That organ is from Utah,” Father Brendan told us, “made by the Bigelow company in American Fork.” I was intrigued, so I looked it up.
Since 1978, Bigelow & Co. has hand-built or restored almost four dozen organs for churches, homes, universities and museums across the United States. As a boy, company founder Mike Bigelow fell in love with the instrument while playing for his Latter-day Saint congregation.
Bigelow apprenticed with one of the country’s best organ makers. Now he, his family and a team of experts make their own music in a historic 1903 red brick former Latter-day Saint meetinghouse. The chapel and cultural hall are workshops, and the Bigelows used to live right upstairs.
Bigelow told me that in the early 1980s, the Iowa Trappists asked him to make an organ for their renovated church. After visiting the abbey, Bigelow designed an organ in the Italian style, with a softer and subtler sound than the powerful organs made in the German tradition.
He lived in the abbey guesthouse for several weeks while installing the organ. Father Brendan recalls that Bigelow always attended Sunday services at the Dubuque ward, or congregation, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Being in rural Iowa, we have almost no contact with the Latter-day Saints,” the Catholic monk said. “Getting to know Michael opened our eyes to a different expression of faith.”
According to Father Brendan, “In Gregorian chant, the words are prominent. The music is at the service of the words. The organ also must follow this pattern.” He said Bigelow was “a good listener” and created the perfect instrument for the monastery, one “integral to our praise and worship of God.”
After Bigelow installed the organ, a Julliard-trained monk played a dedicatory concert on it in 1985, and called it one of the best he’s ever played at a monastery. Featured on the Bigelow website site as the company’s “Opus 11,” the organ is still used four decades later by the monks every day.
The Trappists awake in the wee hours to start a day that includes Mass and seven chanting services, called the Liturgy of the Hours. The monks sing the entire Book of Psalms — called the Psalter — every two weeks.
Their Bigelow organ facilitates this lyrical praying all year. In late November and early December, however, the Iowa monk-song changes, adapted for Advent, the four-week period before Christmas Day.
“In a monastery, Advent is observed with deep appreciation for its distinctive character,” the New Melleray monks explain on their website. “This is not shopping season for monks. It is not Christmas. Christmas decorations, which in the general culture appear shortly after Thanksgiving, are nowhere in sight in a monastery until Christmas Eve. Advent and Christmas are different. Advent is the period of joyful expectation. Christmas is the celebration of the birth of God into the world, born of Mary.”
The Advent chants at the abbey feature different antiphons, or refrains, focused on the themes of waiting, anticipation and patience. Father Brendan’s friend (and former Utah monk) Father Charles Cummings noted the value of waiting in his 2015 book, “Monastic Practices,” that “the ability to wait is characteristic of those who have learned to slow down and live in the fullness of the present moment.”
Eventually, of course, the waiting ends and Christmas arrives. Mike Bigelow told me that the week before, he will sing along with one of his organs during holiday chorale concerts at the Provo Central Stake Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He will spend Dec. 24 at home with his family.
The New Melleray Trappists will be at home with their monastic family, too. At Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, the abbey church bells will ring, and the Iowa monks will sing hymns like “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” Their Utah organ will punctuate this moment of joy to the world.
Perhaps the Iowa monks explain it all best: “There is something exhilarating about seeing all the Christmas decorations come out all at once and on the very day in which all the hymns, antiphons and prayers all shift from sober foretelling of the Lord’s appearance to jubilant celebration of his birth. The miracle finds expression in the complete transformation of our ordinarily very austere and plain monastic chapel into a banquet of greenery, candlelight and flowering poinsettias.”
Michael Patrick O’Brien is a writer and attorney living in Salt Lake City who often represents The Salt Lake Tribune in legal matters. His book “Monastery Mornings: My Unusual Boyhood Among the Saints and Monks,” about growing up with the monks at an old Trappist monastery in Huntsville, was published by Paraclete Press and chosen by the League of Utah Writers as the best nonfiction book of 2022.