On most days, the tranquility at St. Joseph Abbey and Seminary College is palpable — birds chirp, soft breezes slip through the piney woods, a lawnmower whirls somewhere in the distance.
March 11 was not like most days, however.
That was the date when water from the usually shallow Bogue Falaya River flooded the abbey and surrounding buildings in the tiny St. Benedict community north of Covington. About 2 feet of water covered the entirety of the property, which since 1889 has been a monastery that has educated Catholic religious leaders from near and far.
For eight hours, the river literally ran through the abbey church, administrative buildings, classrooms, dormitories, the library and the kitchen. When the water receded, it left in its wake about $30 million in damage and a challenge unlike anything the seminarians and Benedictine monks have ever faced.
“Currently, we’re completing the first two phases of the rebuilding process, and that’s cleanup and then remediation,” said Abbot Justin Brown. “We’re taking out all the wet materials: the drywall, the carpet, the flooring, the furniture. Now we’re facing the third stage, which is the actual repair.”
That’s where the real work comes in, Brown said. Because St. Joseph Abbey and Seminary College sits on high ground, it was not required to carry flood insurance. That means a capital campaign will have to be organized to raise money to rebuild the church, school and grounds. “Constructing and executing a capital campaign is something we’ve never done,” Brown said.
“We’re looking at planning to raise $10 million,” he added. “We’re very hopeful. We’ve been able to raise funds already and hope we can do the same in future months.”
Brown said because the seminary is a school, Federal Emergency Management Agency funds should be available to help with the rebuild effort. He also said the abbey will look to Catholic communities both in and out of state for assistance. The most pressing needs are restoring structures that are “most crucial to our mission.” That includes restoring the ground floor of Vianney Hall for dormitories, the Borromeo Hall classrooms, the bottom floor of the monastery (which is used for faculty and student housing) and the kitchen.
The church itself is the center of the property, and it, too, suffered damage. The electrical and air-conditioning/heating units were both at ground level and were ruined in the flood. The church remains closed as repairs are ongoing. Brown said the artwork inside, including the murals painted by Dom Gregory de Wit, was undamaged.
What was lost will be nearly impossible to replace. That includes more than a third of the volumes in the abbey’s 45,000-volume library. Archival documents that could be salvaged were sent to a Michigan company that specializes in historic document repair.
“The two most affecting things, to me, were the church closing and the library,” said Daniel Burns, the senior professor of theology and the academic dean at St. Joseph Seminary College. “It made me tear up when I went into the library. The first two shelves of books were just swollen with water.”
Burns also had to figure out how he could keep the seminarians on track for finishing studies in May. After the school’s 138 seminarians returned from a two-week break because of the flood, they began having class every weekday in television rooms and break areas to make up the time missed. They shared dorm rooms, all the while, and were able to finish the semester on time.
“We could have expected some negative feedback,” Burns said. “But we didn’t hear one word. It’s been all hands on deck. Everyone is moving forward. There hasn’t been one complaint.”
With school out of session, work will ramp up over the summer with the goal of having the campus rebuilt by Christmas, Brown said. Programs for which the abbey has become well known (Pennies for Bread and St. Joseph Woodworks, for example) are part of that rebuild plan as well and will continue to keep the abbey and college in the public eye as they have in previous years.
“Fortunately, the woodworks was able to open within three weeks,” Brown said. “We were able to get the equipment cleaned and repaired. That building is a little elevated, so it didn’t take as much water. We’re in the process of getting the bakery back in operation, and hope to be baking bread again soon to bring to the area shelters. We still make soap, but we have no gift shop to sell it from. So, we’ve been selling it at parishes after Mass.
“All the little cottage industries of the abbey will reopen, and that’s a way we help support ourselves.”
Volunteers like Jeff Horchoff are eager to help. An avid beekeeper, he has been collecting bee hives for the abbey and is helping restore the abbey’s collection that was washed away on March 11. That means that the “Abbee Honey” program will continue.
“Beekeeping is monastic in the sense than monasteries have been keeping hives for 1,500 years,” Horchoff said. “The bees are insignificant to what’s going on in the big picture out here, but this is a contributing factor in the rebuilding. It’s a sign of progress.”
A couple of fundraisers to help defray the cost of rebuilding also are being planned; watch for information online at www.saintjosephabbey.com. Donations are welcome.
Brown has remained positive. He sees the flood as a way to bring the abbey and its fellowship closer.
“It’s amazing that when you are faced with an emergency or a crisis, all you have time to do is react. … My main goal was getting our (27 resident) elderly monks from the first floor to the second floor before the elevator wasn’t usable. You have to remain calm throughout.
“This crisis, this catastrophe, has made us stronger. I told the monks early on that this flood was an opportunity not only to rebuild our physical structures but also to strengthen our spiritual center. This isn’t about buildings. It’s about our mission of prayer and work and the education of priests.
“Faith serves to help us grow. This came right before Holy Week, and I just like to think we had a longer Good Friday this year. But there is a resurrection and an Easter coming for us. I have no doubt, we will see new life and new hope,” he said.