Michael O’Brien: Utah’s monastic torch passes to a new generation

After graduating from Judge Memorial High School, Salt Lake City native lives a monk’s life in New Hampshire.

(Michael Patrick O'Brien | Special to The Tribune) Utah monk Father Alan Hohl, left, who has since died, speaks at lunch with Brother (now Father) Basil Louis Franciose.

A few years ago, I watched a kind old man, dressed in a simple white shirt and black pants, lean over and speak softly with his lunch companion.

The companion, a man almost 70 years younger and dressed all in black, sat closer and listened with rapt attention.

Casual observers probably assumed the conversation was insignificant, but I knew better. The moment was extraordinary. I was watching the passing of the Utah monastic torch.

Although Christian monasticism has been around since the third century, Utah is no monk factory. As far as I know, there really has been only one monastery for men here: the old Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity in Huntsville.

At its peak in the 1950s, about 80 men lived there pursuing their shared mission of ora et labora — Latin for prayer and work. The abbey closed in 2017 due to an aging population and lack of new vocations. The surviving monks moved to a Salt Lake City retirement home.

The Utah monastery was my beloved boyhood home away from home after a difficult family divorce in the 1970s. After the abbey shut down, I wrote a book, “Monastery Mornings,” to help the world remember the monks, but I’ve often wondered if their way of life was racing toward extinction.

During a podcast, I asked a fellow writer — Brother Paul Quenon, a Trappist monk from Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky — whether monks had a future. Brother Paul explained that monasticism is like “a desert plant” with “a knack for hanging in there and coming back to life when the rains arrive.”

Apparently, one of those “desert plants” is from Utah.

From boy to convert to monk

(Michael Patrick O'Brien | Special to The Tribune) Utah native Father Basil Louis Franciose prays during his June 17, 2023, ordination at St. Anselm Abbey in Manchester, N.H.

Louis Franciose was born in Salt Lake City in 1993. He was baptized as a member of the United Church of Christ and grew up active in that faith.

Louis attended public school but then followed his older sister to Judge Memorial Catholic High School. I met him there, when he and our middle daughter, Megan, became friends.

At the end of his sophomore year, Louis attended the school’s annual baccalaureate Mass at downtown’s Cathedral of the Madeleine. He later told the Intermountain Catholic newspaper, “I was, to say the least, taken aback by its beauty. It very much pulled at my sensibilities.”

With the support of his parents, Larry and Lori, Louis began attending Mass regularly. He joined the Catholic Church in 2012, confirmed by my old friend and teacher Monsignor Joseph M. Mayo.

Louis graduated from Judge the following year but wanted to continue his education at another small Catholic institution. He chose St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.

The Benedictine monks of the nearby St. Anselm Abbey operate and work at the college. The monks founded both in 1889 and named them after the former archbishop of Canterbury in England who defined theology as faith seeking understanding.

Louis graduated in 2017 with a degree in theology and a minor in philosophy. He felt drawn to the monastic life at St. Anselm and joined the abbey the next year.

When Louis told me that he wanted to be a monk, I invited him to meet my Utah Trappist friends. I suspected he’d like to have a few more monastic mentors, but I thought Louis might help my friends, too.

Meeting the monks

(Michael Patrick O'Brien | Special to The Tribune) Utah monk Father David Altman, right, and Brother (now Father) Basil Louis Franciose.

The surviving Utah monks were content with their new home but also sad about the demise of the monastery they’d loved and nurtured for seven decades. I hoped Louis would be an antidote to their fear that the monastic life they loved so much was vanishing.

He was. The old Utah monks were thrilled to meet a young person following in their footsteps.

On Louis’ first visit, we met with Father David Altman, in his 80s and a former abbot of the Huntsville abbey. Father David told my young friend, “In a monastery, there is little or no escape. The monk must put forth great effort to make many relationships work and to grow through them.”

Next we met Father Patrick Boyle, then over 90 years old and at the time zipping around St. Joseph Villa (with a walker, of course) like a spry 70 year old. He missed the Huntsville abbey, but he told Louis: “The past is past, and God will take care of the future, so live in this moment!”

(Michael Patrick O'Brien | Special to The Tribune) Utah monk Father Patrick Boyle, who has since died, left, and Brother (now Father) Basil Louis Franciose.

Finally, we took Father Alan Hohl to lunch. Father Alan was a World War II Navy veteran, the 93-year-old former manager of the Utah abbey farm, and cantor of the monk choir. His body had slowed him down, but his mind was sharp as ever.

We ate at Sugarhouse Barbecue. At the end, Father Alan leaned over with tears in his eyes, looked at my young friend becoming a monk, and said, “Stay with it, for it is a beautiful life.”

‘God brought me to this place’

(Michael Patrick O'Brien | Special to The Tribune) Utah monk Father Alan Hohl, left, who has since died, and Brother (now Father) Basil Louis Franciose.

Louis has been doing just that — despite the challenges of monastic formation. Father Brendan Freeman, the last leader of Utah’s Holy Trinity Abbey, described that formation as a two-part process: “The first step is learning to have compassion for yourself. The second step is learning to have compassion for others.”

Louis took his final vows as a monk at St. Anselm in July 2022, choosing the religious name of Brother Basil, after St. Basil the Great. Basil was a fourth-century priest in Turkey known for his work in education, caring for the poor, and establishing guidelines for monastic life.

After taking his vows, Brother Basil returned to Salt Lake City and visited the Utah monks again. He mourned the loss of Father Alan, who died in December 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic. He compared notes about monastic life with Father David.

The young monk then held hands with, blessed and prayed with the old monk Father Patrick, who was on his deathbed. A few days later, as the Trappists like to say, Father Patrick graduated to heaven. Basil’s journey there is just starting.

(Michael Patrick O'Brien | Special to The Tribune) Manchester Bishop Peter A. Libasci ordains Utahn Basil Louis Franciose on June 17, 2023, at St. Anselm Abbey in New Hampshire.

In June 2023, a Catholic bishop ordained the Utah native as a priest at St. Anselm’s Abbey. My wife, Vicki, and I were there to watch and support our friend.

How did such a wonderful thing happen? My friend — now known as Father Basil — thinks he knows.

“God brought me to this place,” he said, “and he will be the one to sustain me here.”

I cannot predict the future of monasticism, but I do know that monks never fail to amaze me. Who else could make the Utah desert blossom in New Hampshire?

(Michael Patrick O'Brien | Special to The Tribune) Father Basil Louis Franciose, a Utah native, blesses a guest attending his June 17, 2023. ordination at St. Anselm Abbey in Manchester, N.H.

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.