The Abbey, located at Conception, MO, in Nodaway County, is a minor basilica, meaning the church is a place where the Pope could come to live or say mass whenever he is in this country. It also houses a special collection of Indian artifacts from as far away as North and South Dakota, including the first wooden tombstone of the Sioux medicine man Sitting Bull and very rare photographs of Sitting Bull, Gall and Red Cloud. (article written by Ken Hansen)
Every morning at 6, the bells of Conception Abbey ring, calling the Benedictine monks to morning prayer. This ritual has been followed faithfully at Conception for the past 100 years and has been followed by the monks of St. Benedict for the past 1,400 years.
The Abbey, located at Conception, MO, in Nodaway County, is a curiosity to many people, but it can hardly be called a relic. It is a living, breathing and, in many ways, quite modern organization.
It is a conservatory of art, philosophy, history and Christian thought. It is an educator of young men. Most of all, it is a place for prayer and meditation.
The Abbey was founded in the 1870s by Swiss monks who came to the area at the invitation of Bishop Hogan of St. Joseph. At the time, the Benedictines were fleeing the threat of suppression by the newly formed government of Switzerland. It is almost ironic that they chose Missouri for their home.
Although there was a large Catholic community in the area, Missouri’s own anti-cleric law, called Drakes law, had been declared unconstitutional by the by the U.S. Supreme Court less than 15 years earlier.
The heart of the physical plant at Conception abbey is the church building. The twin-towered structure is of Romanesque design which among other things, is supposed to provide better acoustics for choral liturgical singing, which is an important part of Benedictine life.
Architecture of church buildings often contains subtle messages. The Abbey church is no exception. The center square of the cross-shaped church, where the main altar now stands, measures 33 feet on each side. The church is constructed of six of these modules, each corner of each module being marked by a round pillar. The overall dimensions of the church, 198 feet long by 99 feet wide, are multiples of the number 33.
Thirty-three is the traditional number of years of Christ’s life on earth. It has even been suggested by some that the measurement of a rod, 16 ? feet, was devised from this common unit of measurement used in church construction. The word rod is a derivative of the word root, which means cross.
To the left of the main altar stands an umbrella; to the right, a bell symbols of the fact that the church was given the title of minor basilica in 1941 on the 50th anniversary of the church’s dedication. The title, which is mostly an honorific one, signifies the church as a place where the pope could come to live or say mass when he is in this country.
The church building is interconnected with three other buildings which form a quadrangle with an open courtyard at its center. These buildings house the monks’ quarters. This design is common to many European monasteries.
Other buildings include classrooms, offices, housing for the students and separate quarters for some of the day workers who live at the Abbey. one large building houses the monastery’s printing business which provides a good share of the funds to run Conception Abbey.
One of the newer buildings is a fitness center which houses a pool and gym. The facility was built mainly for the students, but the monks use it, too. Good physical health is a part of the Benedict.
The Abbey library contains 95,000 volumes, in addition to 2,400 old and rare books and manuscripts which the monks brought with them from Switzerland. The range of reading material is broad. Besides the religious books and periodicals one would expect to find, there are editions of “Rolling Stone” and the latest in science fiction paperbacks. On the third floor of the library is a special collection of Indian artifacts contributed to the Abbey by its members who have been assigned to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. For over 100 years the members of the Abbey have served the reservation which lies along the Missouri River in North and South Dakota. Among these exhibits is the first wooden tombstone of the Sioux medicine man Sitting Bull, who was killed at Standing Rock in 1890. Several other very rare pictures of Sitting Bull, Gall and Red Cloud are included in the exhibit.
Part of the monastery support system is a large apple orchard and almost 900 acres of farmland tended by the monks. The farm has 300 tillable acres. The livestock consists of over 100 head of cattle. The Abbey’s dairy was closed in 1976.
— written by Ken Hansen