Historical Gem: Subiaco Abbey and Academy

Monk at Subiaco Academy
 
Photo courtesy of Subiaco Abbey and Academy

 

An unsuspecting traveler in Logan County might do a double take at the first sight of Subiaco Abbey and Academy. For a moment, that traveler might even think the road is leading to Paris, France, rather than Paris, Arkansas.

Reachable by Arkansas Highways 22 and 197, the abbey sits on a hilltop overlooking the rolling countryside of the Arkansas River Valley and the small town that also bears the name Subiaco; the city’s population was 572 as of 2010.

The abbey is about as Old World-looking as things get in this state.

Especially noticeable is the massive St. Benedict Abbey Church, part of a complex that includes not only a Benedictine monastery, but an all-boys high school and accommodations for retreats. The retreat facilities, including a conference center, a dining room and 32 guest rooms, are open to church groups, families and individuals.

Whether visiting for a weekend or a few hours — the latter being the case the three times my family has dropped in at Subiaco, most recently in March — visitors should check in first at the Coury House. There you can pick up a brochure for a self-guided tour of the abbey and its surroundings. If you have a group of at least 10 and make arrangements, you can get a guided tour.

What you see today is a far cry from the abbey’s beginnings. The monastic presence in this area goes back to the 1870s and the days when the railroad was opening up this part of Arkansas to mass transit and rapid settlement. The abbey traces its beginnings to the efforts of Abbot Martin Marty, of St. Meinrad’s Abbey in Indiana, who, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, had a “dream of establishing a Benedictine mission on the western frontier” and who had heard of a desire for a German Catholic colony in Arkansas. Marty inquired about getting land for such a colony and contacted a representative of the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad, which was building a line through the river valley and owned considerable property. In December 1877, another member of St. Meinrad’s abbey, Father Isidor Hobi, found a site near Paris. It became known as St. Benedict’s Colony.

That, of course, would change, eventually leading to the sprawling complex that now sits upon the hill. But the abbey had a few major challenges to overcome first.

Flames destroyed the abbey’s first home, that wood-frame structure, in December 1901. By that time, however, a new monastery was under construction. The new place was about a mile away, on the hilltop where the abbey stands today.

Yet another fire struck in 1927, and this one was more devastating, largely destroying the abbey’s interior. The abbey’s recovery was slower this time. The fire’s effects, worsened by the soon-to-ensue Great Depression, “did not allow Subiaco to recover fully until after World War II,” according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

Since the 1950s and 1960s, however, the abbey has seen considerable change. The cornerstone for the present-day church was laid in 1953. The church was completed and consecrated in 1959. Coury House opened in 1963.

As for the abbey’s educational arm, Subiaco Academy, it has had several incarnations since the 1800s. In 1887, St. Benedict’s College was opened. Its aim was to educate 14- to 20-year-old males in the basic humanities. With an enrollment never exceeding 20, the school closed in 1892.

That fall, the school re-opened as a seminary, The Scholasticate, training young men for the ministry. It was modeled along European lines, its curriculum consisting mostly of teaching classical languages and music. This school peaked with about 70 students in 1901, the same year as that first big fire. The following spring, the school re-opened as Subiaco College, offering a six-year program of three study areas: classical, scientific and commercial.

The 1927 fire changed things for the school yet again, and from the ashes rose Subiaco Academy in February 1928. Today the academy is a college-prep, private school for grades seven through 12. It has an enrollment of about 180, including a number of students from such countries as Mexico, South Korea and Russia. While the academy traditionally has been a boarding school, Brother Ephrem O’Bryan, an abbey spokesman, noted that about half the enrollment now consists of day students, some coming from as far away as the Fort Smith area some 50 miles to the west.

As for the monks, 43 live at Subiaco. You can find out many fascinating things about their daily lives by logging on to their website, countrymonks.org. Of course, it’s not surprising to learn they devote considerable time to prayer and Bible reading. It might be slightly more surprising to read about the monk’s many other activities, which include farming and woodworking. Some teach at the academy. And some even make peanut brittle, labeled “Abbey Brittle,” and a fiery condiment known as “Monk Sauce,” made from habanero peppers grown at Subiaco. These items are sold online at the website.

Old World architecture. Peanut brittle and hot sauce online sales. An international student body. Yes, Subiaco is hardly the place that three monks arrived in a mule-drawn wagon 137 years ago. It’s definitely an Arkansas gem.

To reserve Subiaco’s retreat facilities, conference center, dining or guest rooms, call the Coury House at (479) 934-4411.

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