Sanctuary in the Hills: Subiaco’s Abbey, School Showcases Beauty of God’s Creation
In western Arkansas, rolling hills of green pastures abound, speckled with cows and sheep and trees, encapsulating the wonder of nature. Further down the road, peeking through the hills, a monastery emerges, its centuries-old Benedictine design serving as both a contrast to the nature around it, as well as a complement to its isolated beauty.
In the middle of the vernal landscape, Subiaco Abbey and Academy has stood since the 1870s, serving as a boarding school for young men and a place of community for the Catholic clergy members and religious who frequently gather there.
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Subiaco was founded in 1877 as St. Benedict’s Colony, a settlement for German immigrants in western Arkansas. Catholic Abbot Martin Marty was looking for a location to establish a Benedictine mission and move from southern Indiana during a time when Americans were urged to go west and explore the land.
When Martin caught wind of a growing German Catholic community, he contacted the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad in order to acquire the desired land. A small group of German Catholic priests arrived in Logan County from Indiana in a mule-drawn wagon.
The colony boomed with more than 150 families in its first two years of existence, and the colony was designated St. Benedict’s Priory in 1878. Swiss monks soon began arriving to help ease the workload of the German monks, who were outnumbered by the quickly growing community.
In 1887, the monks opened a school called St. Benedict’s College to educate young men in the basic humanities. The school was closed in 1892, as there were never more than 20 students at a time. However, St. Benedict’s College walked so that Subiaco Academy could run. Big things were on the horizon.
“In the summer of 1891, Pope Leo XIII raised the status of St. Benedict’s Priory to the rank of abbey. With its new status as an independent monastery ruled by an abbot, the priory was renamed Subiaco Abbey,” writes Jamie Metrailer with the Arkansas History Commission. “Starting in 1892, Bishop Edward M. Fitzgerald sent seminarians from the Diocese of Little Rock to be trained at the abbey. The training of seminarians at the Subiaco Abbey lasted until 1911.”
A new monastery was constructed in 1902, located on a hilltop, where it sits today. This was good timing, as the old monastery burned down shortly before the new one was completed. With a change in location, Subiaco opened a high school for boys, no longer serving seminarians alone. Many boys would arrive at Subiaco and leave as priests and men, ready to serve God, the church and The Natural State.
Subiaco became a town when the growing settlement surrounding Subiaco Abbey gained a post office of its own in 1910. As time went on, Subiaco began to merge with the contemporary Arkansan culture around it, losing many of the German and Swiss characteristics that had been pivotal in its founding and initial growth.
Subiaco suffered another major fire in 1927 and took much longer to recover. The magnitude of the fire, combined with the economic setbacks of the Great Depression, delayed Subiaco’s full recovery until after World War II. However, Subiaco had recovered by the 60s, as the property saw a boom in building, expansion and services. In 1963, Subiaco opened the Coury House Retreat Center as a retreat ministry for visitors from across the nation.
Subiaco spent the next 50 years serving as a religious home to Catholics from all over the South and Midwest, building the faith across the region. It was in 2007 that Subiaco announced it would be readmitting seventh and eighth grade boys to the school for the first time in more than 60 years. Subiaco quickly became an international boarding school destination, with students from as far as South Korea, Mexico and China. Nearly a quarter of the staff is made up of Benedictines, still, today.
Today, Subiaco Abbey provides residence to more than 50 monks from diverse backgrounds. In addition to teaching at the academy, some monks also serve as pastors for surrounding communities.
But the monks at Subiaco don’t just pray: they create a wide array of products for the general public. On the farmlands surrounding the abbey, monks raise Black Angus cattle, tend to vineyards, operate a sawmill and grow the produce necessary to make their own goods (URI).
One such product is Monk Sauce, a habanero pepper sauce that can be found on Subiaco’s Country Monks website. In 2018, Subiaco opened a public brewery and tasting room called Country Monks Brewing Taproom. The monks also sell peanut brittle, called “Abbey Brittle,” as well as handmade soaps, candles, calligraphy and various handmade woodcrafts.
Brother Sebastian, one of the monks at Subiaco, recalled how he developed a joy for soapmaking.
“While I was working as the assistant to the brewmaster in the brewery, I took an interest in helping make the scented candles, which had become a bestseller in the Coury House gift shop and were also being offered on our online store,” he explained. “We continue to use the original formula, which gives the candles a perfect aroma — a great mix of sweet and strong — but not overpowering. The candles have moved from a side hobby to one of the main artisan items that we offer here at the abbey.”
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Job 37:14 advises that we should “stop and consider God’s wonders.” The monks, clergy and students at Subiaco often do just that. Whether they’re praying, learning, tending the land, pouring candles or making soap, Subiaco and its residences remind Catholics and Protestants alike across the Natural State to stop and consider God’s wonders.