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The monks purchased from the Sisters of Loretto a farm in Nelson County named Gethsemani. Fr Eutropius Proust led the colony of forty-four religious on the journey by ship, steamboat, and wagons, arriving at their new home on December 21. A few log cabins served as a temporary monastery, and work began on the permanent building in 1852. Progress was slow and dragged on for years due to chronic lack of funds and the Civil War. Ready at last for use in 1866, the abbey church was consecrated on November 15 with John B. Purcell, Archbishop of Cincinnati, presiding.

As the twentieth century dawned, the community of Gethsemani numbered sixty-three persons, remained predominantly French in its customs, and had just elected Dom Edmond Obrecht as its fourth abbot.

His thirty-seven year tenure as superior marked a vigorous change of course in the abbey’s history. English became the language of the house, observances were simplified, an influx of American vocations swelled the ranks, and many building projects and capital improvements were undertaken.


Abbot James Fox at the 100th. birthday celebration.

The monastery’s one-hundredth birthday was observed first in private ceremonies and later in public events. On December 21, 1948, Bishop Francis R. Cotton of Owensboro officiated at the early community Mass, followed at mid-morning by an Ordination Mass celebrated by Archbishop John A. Floersh of Louisville. On this occasion two monks, Fraters Amandus and Louis (Thomas Merton) received the order of subdeacon. The brethren gathered afterward in the chapter room to hear several papers read in honor of the centenary, and neighbors provided dinner “so that the monks could eat something besides vegetables once in a hundred years.”

Other historical photos

Much preparation and excitement led up to the June 1, 1949 public marking of this milestone in Gethsemani’s history. Songs, speeches, and pageantry were the order of the day, and the centerpiece was the solemn Pontifical Mass offered under the open sky, with Dennis Cardinal Doughtery of Philadelphia presiding. Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen of the Catholic University of America delivered an address entitled “Thunder of Silence.” After Mass, Dom James Fox, sixth abbot, greeted the large gathering, and Kentucky Governor Earle C. Clements paid tribute to the community for its service and achievements.

With one-hundred-sixty-five monks then in community, the abbey’s vitality and spirit were pulsing. Gethsemani was now motherhouse to filiations in Georgia and Utah, with another soon to follow in South Carolina. Numerous vocations flowed in during the post-war decade, and the community met the tide with further building expansion and foundations in New York, California, and later in Chile. The writings of Fr. Louis and Fr. Raymond reached audiences world-wide. A mail-order food industry replaced the monastery’s agrarian economy. The winds of change were everywhere.

In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council directed the updating of religious life, and the Cistercian Order accordingly modified or discarded many of its customs. Each community now found new ways to live the Cistercian heritage in its particular culture and circumstances, within norms established by the General Chapter. Gethsemani was no exception. Committees, dialogue, and consultation, along with many other adaptations in the daily round, became routine. A “unity in pluralism” has characterized the abbey in the post-Vatican era, replacing the conformity of the past. Physical alterations to the environment were scarcely less radical. Wing-by-wing, the monastery quadrangle was gutted and modernized. Removal of the church’s faux-Gothic decorations, shabby after a century, revealed a setting worthy of the revised liturgy.

The new millennium has continued to bring changes. Fr. Timothy Kelly, eighth abbot, concluded his twenty-seven year service as superior and went on to further administrative duties at the Generalate of the Order in Rome. On April 8, 2000, the community elected Fr. Damien Thompson abbot. His eight-year ministry contributed much to the holiness and development of all. Chosen as the tenth abbot on April 29, 2008, Fr. Elias Dietz begins his service with a six-year mandate.

Learning Christ in the school of charity continues, as leaven for the life of the world. Now numbering about fifty members, the monastic family of the Abbey of Gethsemani perseveres in the search for God and the following of Christ under a rule and an abbot.