Monks setting up abbey in Charles Town

June 24, 2012|By RICHARD F. BELISLE |
  • Canons Regular of the New Jerusalem order, from left, are Frater John Berchmans, the Very Rev. Dom Daniel Augustine Oppenheimer CRNJ, and Frater Alban.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — Since January 2011, when three Catholic monks of the Canons Regular of the New Jerusalem monastery rented the former Methodist parsonage and reopened the vacant St. James Catholic Church next door, strains of Gregorian chants and Latin liturgy have wafted over that bit of South George Street on Sunday mornings.

The monks, or as they prefer, canons, might appear to be a downtown oddity in their hooded black-and-white habits and tonsure haircuts, but they are on a mission of bringing their old-time pre-Vatican Latin religion to 21st-century Charles Town.

According to their abbot, the Very Rev. Dom Daniel Augustine Oppenheimer CRNJ, the Wheeling, W.Va., Catholic Diocese owns the church. Daniel and the monastery’s two monks, Frater John Berchmans, 40, and Frater Alban, 30, rent the old brick Victorian house, which serves as their priory.

Neither Berchmans nor Alban are ordained priests.

Daniel, 60, grew up in the Episcopal Church and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1991. By 1998, he said he knew he “wanted something deeper, a more focused, disciplined way of life, to live with other men who think and worship together,” he said.

The Canons Regular of the New Jerusalem order was established June 22, 2002, by Bishop Raymond L. Burke of La Crosse, Wis., at Daniel’s request.

Daniel met Berchmans, from Ontario, Canada, in Scranton, Pa., 10 years ago when he was studying to be a Franciscan brother.

“I told him what I was planning to do and he asked to become part of it,” Daniel said.

He said Alban was in a seminary in Iowa nine years ago when he learned that Daniel was establishing a new order that he said would “follow proper apostolic ends by pronouncing the ancient vows of stability, conversion of life and obedience, and live a common life under the rule of Saint Augustine.”

The three monks worshipped and studied at abbeys in Missouri, Wisconsin and for three years in an Augustinian abbey in California before Daniel learned that the church and rental house next door in Charles Town were available.

Daniel said when the three of them walk around town, they get favorable reactions.

“People know immediately who and what we are,” Daniel said. “We are not invisible. They know that we have something to do with God.”

Daniel explained that the monks’ habit — white tunic and scapular topped with a black cap and hood — and the tonsure with its crown-like rim of hair surrounding their bald heads symbolizes the crown of thorns worn by Christ.

“We spend six hours a day praying and meditating,” Daniel said.

The rest of their day is taken up maintaining the property, which he said is overwhelming. The monks also bake and sell bread, and Daniel makes Mass vestments for priests to bring in some income. They mail out regular appeals for financial assistance.

“We live close to our income,” he said.

On an average Sunday morning, 40 to 50 worshippers come to church for the order’s traditional Latin Masses, Daniel said. The high Mass on Sundays, which begins at 10:15 a.m., lasts 90 minutes, he said. Masses during the week begin at 7 a.m. and are rarely attended by others.

At 7 p.m. Monday, the monks will celebrate the 10th anniversary of their order’s founding with a solemn high Mass with Gregorian chants and William Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices. The service will be followed by a reception on the side lawn of the priory.

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