Holy Cross Abbey is located on a 1,200 acre farm near Berryville in Clarke County Virginia. The property is mostly open pasture that rolls down to its three-mile border of the Shenandoah River. It rests in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Trappist monks who call this place home live as a monastic community under the Rule of St. Benedict and the 900 year-old Order of Strict Observance (OCSO), also called Cistercians.
Settlement in river valleys has been typical of many Cistercian monasteries since their founding in 1098 at Citeaux, France. Historically Cistercians have worked the land through agriculture. The practice of “ora et labora” or prayer and labor expresses the belief that one can be with God through work and prayer. Thus to establish a respect and responsibility for place yields physical and spiritual nourishment.
The property, named Cool Spring Farm in the mid-18th century, is part of the Shenandoah watershed. Three streams flow off the farm into the Shenandoah, then to the Potomac River, past the nation’s capital, and eventually to the Chesapeake Bay. History is much a part of this place and on several levels it is truly hallowed ground. Nomadic Native American tribes hunted and fished here as evidenced by stone implements unearthed and a suspected burial mound identified. A young George Washington surveyed this land for Lord Fairfax, and it was upon his recommendation that Ralph Wormely purchased it as part of a larger 13,000 acre parcel. It became a colonial plantation with the construction of the Cool Spring House in 1784. The original “mansion” sits at the center of the monastic enclosure today. The battle of Cool Spring was fought on both sides of the river during the civil war in the summer of 1864. Almost a thousand men from both sides lost their lives in the fields, bluffs, and river that day.
The monks worked the land beginning with the founding in 1950 and into the 1970’s. As the community aged and diminished in numbers they could no longer manage the large property themselves. They adjusted their role as stewards by taking new steps that engaged others. They began a lease of a significant portion of the farm to a tenant who raises beef cattle and cultivates crops including hay, soybeans, and corn. And they produced bread, followed by fruitcake and creamed honey.
Fast forward to 2008, when the monks solicited the services of a team from the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment to explore the meaning of sustainability in the context of a Cistercian monastery. “The monks began to evaluate their unique position in the local, regional, and global environment and to envision a more sustainable ecology, community, and economy. Holy Cross Abbey began to pursue sustainability not only to insure that their traditions and spiritual way of life persevere, but also to foster a deeper stewardship of the land as “lovers of the brethren and of the place” (Buckner, K., Cammarata, C., Coultrp-Bagg, C., Linkow, A., Neafsey, J., Stratman, C., Holy Cross Abbey, Reinhabiting Place, School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan. 2010.)
The graduate students conducted research and analyses of the community’s land use, energy consumption, food, water quality and use, solid waste management, toxic chemicals, economies (businesses), and buildings for more than a year. The comprehensive study resulted in a detailed report entitled “Holy Cross Abbey, Reinhabiting Place,” providing the monks valuable insights and rich data with which to make critical, strategic decisions. Together with their 2009 Strategic Plan and recommendations contained in the University of Michigan’s report, the community—with support and guidance from a number of their local stakeholders and members from their Cistercian order—started taking action to correct and revise costly, unhealthy practices. After much consideration, they embarked upon new initiatives and enhanced existing activities more consistent with long-term sustainability. As stated in the Strategic Plan of the Holy Cross Abbey, “We will find ecologically responsible methods of managing our land, buildings, industries, and other resources in order to promote the greatest good for all people, aware of the inseparable link between peace with creation and peace among men” (Holy Cross Abbey, Berryville, Virginia. 2009).
In addition to replacing the oven used for fruitcakes that was outdated and excessively energy consuming, the community has also adjusted its production and distribution of fruitcake to more closely match their labor resources. They continue preparing and selling their line of creamed honey products. A retreat house, gift shop, and more recently a green cemetery and acreage leased to a local community-supported agriculture (CSA) farmer also support the community. Hundreds of newly planted native hardwood trees establish riparian forest buffers and provide many ecosystem services. Harkening back to their original beginning on this property when hope and enthusiasm filled the new homeowners, the monks are now embracing their new directions in what they call a “refounding.”