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Born in a barn, Oklahoma abbey grows up

Monastery near Hulbert sheds its humble beginnings to become ‘something permanent that's beautiful'
by Bryan Painter Published: March 31, 2013

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.'”

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by Bryan Painter
Assistant Local Editor
Bryan Painter, assistant local editor, has 31 years’ experience in journalism, including 22 years with the state's largest newspaper, The Oklahoman. In that time he has covered such events as the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah...
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