MONCKS CORNER, S.C. (AP) — The daily cycle of work, worship and contemplation at Mepkin Abbey still follows the simple pattern that Trappist monks have observed for a thousand years. But in recent months there have been some changes at the South Carolina monastery near Charleston.
A new retreat center and chapel were dedicated in late August. Also in the summer, the first phase of Mepkin's columbarium, where ashes are interred, was completed.
The community of 15 monks, following the monastic tradition, has always welcomed visitors. But before the completion of the St. Francis Retreat Center, those visitors stayed in worn cottages and a mobile home.
The new retreat center — with its minimalist rooms, constructed only of wood, glass, concrete and steel — has 16 rooms for visitors. It hosts about 1,500 a year, many seeking to experience something of the contemplative life or simply find peace and quiet to reflect.
"It's a place to listen to your heart, to listen to God," Abbot Stan Gumula said.
The abbey, founded in 1949, sits on a tree-lined bluff overlooking the Cooper River about 35 miles from Charleston. It's just outside Moncks Corner — although the town name has nothing to do with the abbey. The town was founded by a man named Thomas Monck in 1728.
The retreat center rooms include a bed, a couple of chairs, a reading light, a desk with a Bible, bare walls and a bathroom. There are no TVs or radios and no cellphone reception inside thanks to the steel roof.
"It's unlike other retreat facility because it's very stark. It's beautiful. It's cut to the essentials," the abbot said.
There's no cost, although most of those who come for visits leave a donation. There is a requirement that during a stay, visitors remain at the abbey. That helps prevent from staying and then driving off to visit Charleston or the beach.
"It's not a tourist destination," Gumula said.
The simple architecture is echoed in the Father Francis Kline Memorial Chapel that stands at one end of the retreat center. No services are held in the chapel named for a former abbot; it is simply for prayer.
Those on retreat are welcome to join the monks in their daily worship at the main abbey church nearby, but there no requirements to do so. Indeed, there's no requirement that visitors be Catholic, or of any religion. Gumula estimates that only about 40 percent of those who stay for retreats at the abbey are Catholic.
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