Michael Patrick O’Brien: My unlikely ‘Tin Can Abbey’ in Utah’s Zion is gone, but its spirit lives on

The Quonset hut was supposed to be a temporary spiritual home, but it stood for decades — a simple symbol of the simple monks who prayed, served, labored and lived inside its walls.

I have a strange and nostalgic affection for Quonset huts.

My odd architectural ardor for the prefabricated, semicircular metal structures that housed World War II airplanes and soldiers started when a much younger me first visited one of the most unusual monasteries in the world, located right here in Utah.

In July 1947, three dozen monks traveled by train from the Cistercian Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky to start a new Trappist foundation on an isolated 1,800-acre mountain valley ranch in Huntsville. At first, they lived in surplus wooden barracks that had housed German and Italian prisoners of war near Ogden.

The Trappists wanted to build a permanent and more traditional European abbey from sandstone quarried from their new property, but that would take time. They needed a temporary structure, something that could bridge the gap between barrack and Baroque.

Famous Kentucky monk/writer Thomas Merton — who, I think, wanted to come to Utah, too — chronicled all this in an August 1947 Commonweal magazine article called “The Trappists Go to Utah.”

(Huntsville monastery archives) The Quonset hut abbey under construction in 1948.

“A temporary monastery is already under construction,” Merton wrote. “It will be made of metal ‘Quonset huts,’ but will be one of the most elaborate ‘Quonset’ structures that has ever been attempted.”

Merton was hardly the only person intrigued by the Utah project. In late 1947 and early 1948, dozens of newspapers across the United States carried a short wire story from United Press reporting on the Trappist building effort and calling it “the first monastery constructed of Quonset huts.”

Who designed and built it?

(Huntsville monastery archives) Design drawings in 1948 for the Quonset hut abbey by Salt Lake City architects Raymond Ashton and Raymond Evans.

The monks hired some impressive area experts to help them.

Their Salt Lake City architects — Raymond Ashton and Raymond Evans (today the firm they started is 100 years old and known as MHTN Architects) — had designed the Utah State Prison and several buildings on the University of Utah campus, including the iconic yellow brick field house.

Ashton was a former president of the American Institute of Architects. Both Ashton and Evans were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In retirement, Ashton said the Huntsville monastery was one of his favorite projects. He told the Davis News Journal in 1958 that he put “the feel and heart” the monks sought into the building, even though it was a temporary structure.

The monks’ construction company, George A. Whitmeyer & Sons from Ogden, was prominent, too. Whitmeyer’s firm built the U.’s field house, as well as two of the loveliest art deco-style buildings in northern Utah: Ogden High School and the Ogden/Weber Municipal Building.

These architects and builders toiled for about 14 months, and the monks finally moved into their new Quonset hut monastery 75 years ago in October 1948.

Soon after, the first Huntsville Trappist abbot, Father Maurice Lans, told a newspaper that although funds must be secured, “architectural plans are ready” and he “would like to start” building the new grand stone edifice soon.

It was not meant to be.

(Huntsville monastery archives) This 1952 architectural drawing shows plans for new Huntsville abbey, which was never built. The Salt Lake Tribune published this drawing Feb. 29, 1952.

My journeys up abbey road

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The road to the former site of the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity in Huntsville.

Funds were not secured. The post-World War II monastic boom — large numbers of men joining monasteries in the late 1940s and early 1950s — slowed to a trickle a few years later.

In the mid-1960s, the Utah monks announced that because of changes occurring in the Catholic Church after Vatican II, they had postponed plans to construct the new stone building.

All of that set the stage for the early 1970s, when I started to visit the abbey as a young boy with my family. Spending many days and hours there, I bonded not only with the monks, but I also fell in love with the Quonset hut structure.

It was an important backdrop for the next decade of my life, a story told in my August 2021 book “Monastery Mornings.” As a result, I was thrilled when the artists at Paraclete Press included part of the building on my book cover.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Father Patrick Boyle hugs Emma Vore, 14, Erin Vore, 12, and Ally Vore, 10, in the bookstore and gift shop at the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity in Huntsville Wednesday, August 23, 2017.

I was not the only one to fall in love with the unusual architecture. Two of the Utah monks now in heaven, my friends Father Patrick Boyle and Father Alan Hohl, told me that the simple and distinct Quonset hut drew them to the Ogden Valley abbey.

Like me, many visitors, Huntsville residents and others came to associate the word “Quonset” with the word “monk.”

In February 1992, popular Salt Lake Tribune architecture columnist Jack Goodman visited, sketched and wrote about the building. He said no abbey in history “was as strange in concept and design as the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity.”

(The Salt Lake Tribune) Drawing of the abbey at the Hunstville monastery by Salt Lake Tribune architecture columnist Jack Goodman.

Goodman speculated that the monks had shelved plans for another monastery because they “realized the original Quonset shapes lent a unique look to the whole monastic religious community.”

Plans for a new building emerge

(Lynn R. Johnson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Monks at Our Lady of the Holy Trinity Abbey celebrate Mass in the monastery's main chapel in 1997.

Maybe, but in the early 2000s, the monks designed and tried to fund a new monastery building. Abbot Casimir Bernas said the “utilitarian” Quonset structure was intended to last only a decade or two and in the new millennium hindered efforts to recruit new monks.

Some of his fellow Trappists agreed and, despite their love for the place, acknowledged it suffered from defects, such as being heated in the summer and air-conditioned in the winter.

Pointing to his aging fellow monks as part of his case for the newly proposed building, Father Casimir told a newspaper, “It’s now or never.” He was right — but only about the “never” part.

In 2016, the remaining Utah monks, most of them in their 80s and 90s, sold their property to their good friend and neighbor, a water lawyer named Bill White. A year later, they all retired to a Salt Lake City assisted living facility.

White and his wife, Alane, preserved the Trappists’ farm with a conservation easement.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bill White, alongside his wife, Alane, shown in 2021, helped preserve the farmland surrounding the Trappist monastery in Huntsville.

They hired the McFarlands — seventh-generation Latter-day Saint family farmers from West Weber — to work the land. Among other things, the McFarlands now grow wonderful pumpkins on fields named after Catholic saints.

Bill White also saved many of the monks’ barns and their cemetery. And he made herculean efforts to save the old monastery building as well.

The upkeep costs on the deteriorating Quonset hut were enormous. White constantly had to chase away vandals and rodents from the unoccupied 58,000-square-foot site.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The cemetery remains at the site of the historic Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity monastery.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Monk Michael Straham is depicted by area artist Jake Songer on one of the remaining buildings at the former Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity.

Conditioned on their agreement to restore it, White offered to give the structure and nearby acres — without charge — to several educational, religious and preservation groups. None could afford the baseline $12 million tab to bring the building up to code.

Last rites for the Quonset hut

In 2019, White made the gut-wrenching decision to tear it down, landscape the area and eventually replace it with a smaller chapel or open pavilion to honor the monks.

He made the right decision.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Awash in blue light cast from the giant stained-glass window in the church at the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity, Brother Carl Holden sits with the body of 93-year-old Brother Felix in Huntsville in 2010.

Before demolition day, White let me walk through the place several times and salvage anything I wanted, including the choir benches on which the monks sat. Those were bittersweet days, but perhaps they were inevitable, given what it is that monks do and believe.

Some folks called the Utah abbey the “Tin Can Monastery.” Perhaps intended as an insult, I kind of like the monastic moniker. It captures the monks’ simple, down-to-earth nature. Winston Churchill once wrote that “we shape our buildings and then they shape us.”

The nickname also reveals the monks’ uncanny ability to turn the mundane into the marvelous, and their minimalist otherworldly focus. White calls the “temporary” Quonset hut abbey that lasted 70 years a testament to the genius and resourcefulness of those men.

In the years since its demolition, I have noticed that although my Tin Can Abbey is gone, the remarkable spirit that built it, and made the monastery unique, still lives on there, as if the monks left an imprint on the land.

Whenever I start to miss the old Quonset hut, which is often, the words of the last Utah Trappist leader comfort me. In 2017, Father Brendan Freeman wrote in Cistercian Studies Quarterly about the final days of the abbey:

“It comes down to this: No matter where we are on this earth, we have no permanent dwelling. Our true homeland is not here: Our true monastery is not a building or a visible place. It is in the heart — a space that can never be diminished or demolished. It is eternal and everlasting as the heavens.”

(Courtesy photo) Writer and attorney Michael Patrick O'Brien.

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.