Rockdale residents may not realize it, but there's a little slice of heaven in Conyers.
More than 80,000 people visited a local landmark known as the Monastery of the Holy Spirit last year. Nestled on 2,000 acres in south Rockdale, the Monastery of the Holy Spirit hosts both day and retreat visitors on their picturesque grounds. "People from all walks of life find this place a refuge," said Brother Callistus, a monk who has called the monastery home for seven years.
The Monastery began when 21 monks from Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky first arrived at the old Honey Creek Plantation in 1944. They lived in a hay barn for 10 months before the first simple monastery was erected with wood cut from their land and built by their hands. Sixteen years later, the brothers completed the gothic Abbey Church, the only American Trappist monastery built by its monks.
For 66 years, the monks have strived to fulfill their Cistercian order's tenet of self-sufficiency, to live by work "of their own hands." In the early years, the monks made their living farming. As modern times encroached, they developed new industries.
Today, the monks create stained glass work for churches all over the country. They are also well-known for their bonsai tree artistry, as well as their fudge and fruitcake. The Monastery is also home to Georgia's first conservation burial ground, the Honey Creek Woodlands, a "green cemetery". Not only is this concept ecologically sound, but it also costs much less than a typical funeral and burial. In 2007, a portion of monastery lands was designated as one of the five gateways to the Arabian Mountain Heritage area, establishing a federally protected green space.
Abbot Francis Michael Stiteler, who's been at the monastery since 1974, noted one of the biggest changes is "more than half my job is economically administrative where before the role was more pastoral. The heart of monasticism hasn't changed all that much just some of the external expressions have." The 40 monks in residence still begin their morning vigil service at 4 a.m. followed by four other prayer services and mass, in addition to their respective jobs on the grounds. They adhere to the Benedictine motto oro et laboria, "pray and work".
Despite their current industries, the Monastery struggles economically, partly due to rising medical expenses of its aging population. Brother Callistus explains they plan to embrace these challenges by enhancing their facilities to accommodate their largest industry, tourism. To this end, "A Season of Renewal" campaign has been launched to raise funds for restoring the original barn, which will also house a museum, and building a public gathering space. This will allow them a long-term fix to offer hospitality and insights into the monastic life while securing the cloistered area where the monks reside.
To date, during the "silent" phase of the campaign over 3 million dollars, which include pledges, of the projected 6.5 million cost has been raised from major benefactors and foundations. Now they are entering the "public" phase with an appeal going out this weekend to all the Catholic churches in north Georgia.
"We minister to Christians of every denomination and to people of no faith...Our focus is the spiritual realm where denominations fall away," explains Brother Callistus of the benefits of group and private retreats.
Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery is located at 2625 Hwy 212 SW in Conyers. For more information, visit their website at www.trappist.net or contact them at (770)483-8705. Visitors are welcome daily 7 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. The welcome center is open Monday-Saturday and the Abbey Store is open Mon-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and on Sundays, 12:30-4:30 p.m.