HINGHAM — Glastonbury Abbey is celebrating its 60th anniversary, and the monks are marking this milestone in ways you wouldn’t expect.
The Hingham monastery recently presented a game show called “Monkeopardy!” — a “Jeopardy!”-style trivia contest in which teams of Benedictine monks were quizzed on the abbey’s illustrious history.
“The Godfathers” team included the Rev. Nicholas Morcone, who wore a black fedora and sunglasses for the occasion, while members of the “Mad Hatters” team sported some interesting headwear of their own: One donned a striped top hat; another wore a cap shaped like a penguin.
The offbeat game on Aug. 10 was part of an anniversary celebration that included a Mass and a picnic.
“It was a day to bring everyone together . . . with no serious intent, but to have fun,” said Abbot Thomas O’Connor, who competed on the “Mad Hatters” team wearing a polka-dotted bow and fuzzy bunny ears on his head.
“It was fun,” said O’Connor. “The Godfathers won.”
Glastonbury Abbey’s anniversary celebrations are far from over: The festivities will continue on Sept. 13, when the monks host a dinner and dance at the South Shore Country Club, and will culminate the following day with a 60th-anniversary Mass on the monastery’s expansive lawn.
Hosts with the most
Since its founding on Sept. 14, 1954, Glastonbury Abbey has grown from a $40-a-week Benedictine retreat house to a multifaceted operation that offers a wide array of lectures, classes, workshops, suppers, concerts, movie screenings, and even hatha yoga. It hosts weddings throughout the year, and an annual golf tournament complete with a “Monks Putting Contest.”
The abbey has also invited a diverse range of guest speakers, including a Jewish Holocaust music scholar, a Muslim activist, a Tibetan Buddhist filmmaker, a retired chaplain from the Texas Department of Corrections, an ex-Central Intelligence Agency officer, and Barney Frank, the outspoken former congressman.
The monastery is open to the public, and people are welcome to walk around its grounds. So-called “recovering Catholics” — people who are disillusioned with the Church, or questioning their faith — are among those drawn to the abbey. For many, it is a spiritual refuge.
“It’s like an oasis,” said O’Connor, a native of Holyoke who first came to the abbey in 1968 and was elected its third abbot in 2013.
“We try to have an environment that’s welcoming and open to all people, no matter who they are, or what they believe in, whether it be religion or sexual orientation. . . . We’re welcoming to all people,” said the 64-year-old. “I think a lot of times, people don’t feel that way when they think of church.”
The Benedictines’ property on Hull Street spans 65 acres, and visitors who pull off Route 228 and drive up the curving driveway will find themselves in a spiritual sanctuary surrounded by a sprawling lawn and towering shade trees. It’s very serene. Tucked away within a grove of evergreens, there’s a labyrinth made of stones where people can walk around quietly and contemplate. A cross sits atop an observation tower made of fieldstone.
The abbey is home to colonies of bees that make honey and 10 goats that produce milk and cheese. It boasts a community garden — with a dozen plots named after the 12 apostles — that grows vegetables for local shelters and food pantries.
Its bookstore is a quaint shop filled with angel figurines, butterfly charms, rotating racks of laminated holy cards, and bookshelves stocked with inspirational and introspective titles like “Why Be Catholic?” and “Surprised by Scripture.”
Glastonbury Abbey was founded by a group of monks from Benet Lake, Wis., who belonged to a Catholic religious order named after Saint Benedict. Benedictines focus on prayer and contemplation; they are also known for their hospitality. In their tradition, every guest should be received like Christ.
Seeking to expand to the East Coast, the monks bought property on Hull Street that had previously been the estate of a wealthy wool merchant. Until the Benedictines arrived, the estate had been used as a summer camp and restaurant.
The monks promptly turned the house into a priory and started a Latin school for seminarians. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Benedictines expanded their footprint on Hull Street. They named their home after a medieval monastery in southwest England, believing it a fitting title for a new abbey in New England.
Over the years, it has evolved and changed with the times. The Glastonbury Abbey Conference Center was built and opened in 2001 as a venue to host meetings, retreats, weddings, and corporate events.
The monks have big plans for the future. They want to renovate the inside of the monastery building, which hasn’t been updated since 1970, and freshen up the offices in the carriage house.
They’re also talking about turning the observation tower into a visitors center; it’s used for storage now.
Meanwhile, they continue to try to recruit new vocations — monks — and continue their outreach. They are not afraid to try new media: They once advertised on a billboard along the Southeast Expressway.
They maintain a Facebook page that is updated regularly and occasionally features the monks’ tongue-in-cheek humor. A post from January 2010 said, “The Monks enjoyed seeing the Saints win the Superbowl. Prayer is powerful,” accompanied by a smiley face.
Last year the monks posted a story about a Benedictine brewery in Oregon, and they quipped: “Another ‘sister’ monastery is getting in on the brewing action. Should we?”
Meet the monks
Of the nine monks who live at the abbey, the oldest is 80 and the youngest 55. When they’re not praying — which they do five times a day — they spend much of their time working. There’s plenty to do, and each monk is assigned specific roles and tasks. One is in charge of editing the monthly newsletter; another is in charge of building maintenance and retreat programs; another is responsible for car maintenance; and so forth.
Brother Dan Walters is the prior, serving as the administrative assistant to the abbot. He’s also in charge of the abbey retreat center and recruiting new monks, and he has seen how the monastery has evolved over the years.
“It has come a long way,” said Walters, who is 70 but looks much younger. He wears glasses and has salt-and-pepper hair cut very short, like a whiffle, and an easy-going smile that puts people at ease. He was born at St. Margaret’s Hospital in Dorchester, and grew up in Milton and Quincy. He arrived at the abbey in 1972, when he was in his 20s, and spent his early monastic career living in an apartment in Boston’s South End and working with the homeless.
On a recent afternoon, Walters, dressed in a long black robe, walked around the abbey grounds, stepping over pine needles, stones, and pine cones. “It’s very peaceful,” he said.
But the serenity was suddenly shattered by the sound of a train roaring by on the Greenbush commuter line.
The train tracks next to the monastery became a point of contention for the monks after the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority took a thin strip of their land by eminent domain in 2004. The monks objected, and took the MBTA to court in 2007. Their lawsuit against the MBTA was settled in February 2012 after several years of arbitration, according to O’Connor; MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said the agency paid $451,700 “for the eminent domain property taking.”
As for the noise from the trains, Walters shrugged. “We’re all kind of used to it now,” he said.
The 60th Anniversary dinner dance will be held Sept. 13 at South Shore Country Club from 5 to 9 p.m. Reservations are required. For more information, contact Gillian at 781-749-2155, ext. 231, or e-mail email@example.com.
On Sept. 14, the 60th anniversary Mass with Auxiliary Bishop John A. Dooher will take place at 4 p.m. on the Great Lawn.Emily Sweeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.