HULBERT — How do you get to Clear Creek Abbey?
That's how Abbot Philip Anderson believes he and 12 other Benedictine monks from Notre-Dame de Fontgombault Abbey in France arrived there in September 1999.
For several reasons, few would disagree.
Directions to the monastery run nearly a page deep and include tips such as “pass general store, last chance for gas,” and do not turn left until “the pavement runs out.”
But those willing to wind through rocks and oaks will be amazed upon spotting Our Lady of the Annunciation of Clear Creek Abbey. With several large buildings, including a partially completed Romanesque-style abbatial church, it is about one-third complete. However, this monastery is a striking structure already.
“Well, you see you couldn't explain this very well. If you knew how many millions of dollars this cost, you couldn't explain it I don't think without there being a certain grace of God involved,” said Anderson, the abbot who supervises the monks at Clear Creek Abbey. “This was prepared for many years. You just think about how the whole thing was started by a group of students who were dreaming about doing something in about 1973.
“There's all this preparation — these guys went to Europe and spent years there hoping to do this, and it finally came. Then the 13 people go from the barn to this.”
He was referring to an architectural rendering of what Clear Creek Abbey will look like upon completion.
But it's important to go back — all the way back to the barn.
Commotion in the night
Across the creek, and literally through the woods, from the monastery is a community of Catholic sisters.
“That's where we first started,” he said, “in a barn. It had been used for horses. There's also a cabin, and some monks lived there, but a lot of them lived where the horses' stalls had been. They just closed the stalls in.”
One night a commotion startled some monks as they slept. Initially, they thought robbers were in the barn.
Instead it was some of the previous four-legged tenants who still were living in the area. But not horses.
“The owners bought another property near here, and they had two mules that were just devilish,” the abbot said. “The mules would open gates and stuff and let the horses out. They would come over, and one night the monks heard all this noise.
“It was one of these old mules looking in trying to see ‘What are they doing in my stall.' So it was kind of like Bethlehem.”
This barn, a metal building, was where the monks first held their chapel.
“We fixed it up, and the sisters have fixed it up even more,” he said. “In all that time though, this place was being prepared, we chose this as the best spot. Not on the top of the mountain, not in the valley but kind of halfway up.”
The monastery is at an altitude of about 700 feet, but the sheep are up the hill at about 920 feet. This is country living, tucked away east of Fort Gibson Lake in Cherokee County.
In ways, that rural existence has been educational, especially for monks who weren't familiar with such life — such as one of the French monks who came with the American monks from Fontgombault Abbey in France.
This monk was in charge of taking care of the garden. He went down to turn the water on the garden. It just so happened, that one of the other monks had caught a skunk in a live trap. The French monk hadn't seen one of these striped creatures before. And this one was not pleased with being captured. He sprayed the monk.
“This brother not being familiar with skunks didn't realize how serious it was,” Anderson said. “I thought we were being gassed. I finally figured out which brother it was, I said ‘You are going to have to change clothes.' He said, ‘I already did.' I thought, ‘Oh boy, we're in big trouble.'”
The abbot called a Cherokee woman in the area to ask for advice. She said burn the clothes. Anderson told her it was hand-tailored clothing, and they couldn't do that. So she said, “There's this remedy — it's for dogs, but it can work for a monk, too.” She told him what to mix and then to give it to the monk and have him take a shower with it.
“So this contact with nature has been a challenge,” Anderson said, “but it's been good for us.”
On Aug. 15, 1998, there was a signing of a charter of foundation. The founders began arriving in Oklahoma a year later.
The official inauguration of the monastery was held Feb. 11, 2000, and in November 2003, the stone bridge was completed, and the blessing was held of the first stone of the church.
“The more serious construction began in about 2005,” Anderson said. “In 2004, was kind of the beginning of the infrastructure, putting the electricity in, getting the lines up, and the foundations of the big building here were being done.”
The monks transferred to the permanent building in January 2008, and a blessing of the new monastery residence was held in April that year.
Then in February 2010, Clear Creek was established as an independent abbey. That April, a blessing was held of the first abbot. Two years later marked the completion of the first phase of the church at Clear Creek.
‘It takes awhile'
“We're trying to build something permanent that's beautiful,” Anderson said, “and not just something for 10 years that you tear down later. We take our time, and it takes awhile to build.”
It is built on a square and the cloister, with a fountain in the center, is the inner courtyard.
The third of the monastery already constructed includes part of a residence building for monks and male guests and a temporary refectory where they eat; a gatehouse and half of the church. There's a large basement where they have Mass while work continues on the church.
Their architect, Thomas Gordon Smith, also a Notre Dame professor, is perfecting plans for the upper portion of the church, a permanent refectory and a chapter house. In the case of the latter, monks will meet in this chapter room in the chapter house every day. They read a chapter a day of the rule of St. Benedict, which is kind of the code of monastic life.
More residence area also is needed. They have 41 monks now, and there are only 33 rooms. So they have built some temporary living areas next to the monastery.
As for a timeline, there is nothing set because it depends in part on obtaining more funds. The initial funding came from the French abbey that had saved up money.
They also have received funding from the Warren Foundation. Contributions also have been generated through newsletters.
The right location
Upon arriving at the Clear Creek Abbey, a visitor was asked by Anderson, “Did you have GPS?”
A fair question considering the maze that leads to this monastery.
But it is ideal for the monks, Anderson said. In the words of Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, a monastery is a place where a community of individuals reside, “esp. monks, living in seclusion under religious vows.”
They have neighbors and are thankful for the assistance provided whether it's through a volunteer fire department or just coming over to help with various tasks. But in a sparsely populated area, and with the monastery sitting on 1,000 acres, seclusion is a good description for the location of Clear Creek Abbey.
“Our purpose as contemplative monks is prayer,” he said. “Living in the country, and this is pretty rural compared to most of America, this is good for our form of prayer.
“You can pray in the middle of the city of course, but here in the silence and closer to nature, it's very helpful for us to have that climate.”