By G. Mark LaFrancis
NATCHEZ – The broad stately oaks and rolling manicured lawns of Edgewood just off Airport Road beckon those who visit to enjoy its serenity.
Thus, it seems, Edgewood has become a natural setting for a monastery, the new home of a chapter of the international Institute of the Incarnate Word, a Catholic religious order of missionary priests and brothers.
“So, the monastery is a place where he (the monk) can find solitude where he has everything that he needs, and, and it’s the place where he can orient his whole life towards God, through work, through prayer, through silence,” said Father Charles Yaklin, a member of the order and local superior.
The institute will occupy a portion of the property, which is owned by Jerry and Hedy Boelte. Including Father Charles, there are four monks living there who are from around the globe.
Establishing a monastery at Edgewood was, in a way, decades in the making. Hedy Boelte has attended and organized many religious retreats and prayer groups in her Roman Catholic life. “Ever since I was a little girl, I have always desired to do things for others based on my Catholic faith, so I was born to serve. And in doing that, I worked with the nuns at my school and my priest. And I love my Catholic faith more than anything.”
The moment of significant religious transformation for Boelte came in 1987 when she attended a retreat. “I went on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje and had the call to devote the rest of my life to serving Jesus through Mary. Starting prayer groups, organizing retreats, giving testimonies, serving God by living a fully dedicated Catholic life was the outcome of this willingness to work for the Kingdom of God. The Monastery is the pearl of great price, and we will continue to pray, serve and trust.”
She began what could be described as a religious stepladder, each new rung creating a new opportunity for her to invest her life and property to serve the Lord. All the while, she said, she prayed for direction. “Every time my husband would buy a piece of property as an investment or for the protection of the land and wildlife, I would always dedicate that property to a saint. And I would ask the saint, ‘What are we going to do with this property?’”
For years, Boelte sponsored retreats, prayer groups and events at those properties and at Edgewood, but the concept of the 100-acre property becoming a monastery gelled several years ago when she and her husband traveled to Wyoming where they own a ranch. There, she learned about Institute of the Incarnate Word and the monks. After a series of meetings and consultations, including with Father Scott Thomas, pastor at St. Mary Basilica in Natchez, wheels were in motion for the establishment of the monastery at Edgewood.
“It’s stunning,” Father Charles said of his first impression of Edgewood. “So, we’re seeing how we can make our mission work in this beautiful place to foster a move to prayer, which is really what we’re trying to do.”
Father Charles said the monks will pray for the entire Natchez community, not just Roman Catholics. “Yes, absolutely, for everyone. God wants all men to be saved and to come the knowledge of the truth. So, we pray for everyone.”
He said other monks may arrive and become part of the local monastery. Although the order is contemplative, that is, they spend considerable portions of the day in prayer, there will be opportunities for interaction with the community.
Already, retreats and prayer groups are in the planning session. “As a rule, we will be staying put here in the house and working on the grounds here, but we do have to get groceries, for example. So, you may see us at Walmart; that has happened a few times already, but other than that, we try to stay put.”
Father Charles said his journey in the religious life took many turns until he said he discovered his calling with the Institute of the Incarnate Word, a missionary religious congregation established in Argentina in 1984, which now has missionaries working in more than 40 different countries. Its members are priests, seminarians and brothers, the majority of them forming part of the “apostolic branch” of the Institute, typically working in parishes. The four monks who now live in Natchez belong to the “contemplative branch” of the Institute and contribute to the missionary work by their life of prayer.
A brochure about St. Joseph Monastery and the congregation states, “We want to be rooted in Jesus Christ. We want to love and serve Jesus Christ, and to help others love and serve Him. The Eucharist is the center and root of our consecration as religious.”
Father Charles added, “Seven times a day, we go to the chapel to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. This is a way of sanctifying all the hours of our day by interrupting our activities and returning to chapel, to pray, to be in the presence of God, and in this way to prolong each morning’s Mass throughout the whole day.” The pool house has been converted to a chapel for the monks and the celebration of the Mass for the community. Special additions to the chapel will be made soon, Boelte said.
A monastery in Natchez might seem unusual, but monasteries exist worldwide. Father Charles said, “Monastery comes from the Greek ‘monos’ meaning alone. And so, the monk lives alone, even though he can be in a community. He spends the majority of his time in solitude and not for the sake of being away from other people, but for the sake of being in silence with God.”
Father Charles said that a Spanish Mass is under consideration as well as regular Masses on weekends. Also, the monks are considering producing items to sell as a way to help sustain their lives at Edgewood.
(Story special to Mississippi Catholic. More information is available at the website saintjosephmonastery.com.)