This article originally appeared in the Winter 2023 edition of the Clerestory
By Fr. James Flint, OSB
Abbot Austin and I were driving to Kansas for the General Chapter this past June, so we decided to visit two farms that the Abbey owns in Nebraska along the way. While these are relatively recent acquisitions, there is a lengthy connection between the monastery and the parcels of land.
The properties had been owned by the Shonka family, who hold a prominent role in the twentieth-century history of the monastery. Three of its members (Frs. Emilian, William, and Richard) were monks of the Abbey, another brother (Francis) was a renowned professor of physics at our college, and of the two girls, one (Sr. Aemilia) became a member and superior of Sacred Heart Monastery in Lisle, and the other (Mother Marie) was the founding and long-time superior of the Missionary Oblates of St. Scholastica, who lived near and worked with the monks, especially helping our Chinese Mission and the Church Unity work. The remaining brother (Adolph), an architect, settled in Indiana, and one of his daughters remains an oblate of St. Procopius Abbey to this day!
The ownership of the family farms had come into the hands of Mother Marie Shonka of the Oblate group just mentioned. Before her death in 1996, she set up a trust for the support of the remaining Oblate Sisters, and these farms were among its assets. After the last of the Oblates died in 2018, what remained from the trust was inherited by the Abbey. Since I serve as the monastery’s treasurer, Abbot Austin had long intended that he and I should visit the properties, but the pandemic messed up our plans. Now, with the General Chapter in nearby Kansas, it seemed a good opportunity finally to visit and meet the farmers who have long rented and worked the land.
Happily, in that general vicinity there happens to be another Benedictine community, the monks of Christ the King priory in Schuyler, Nebraska. So we made arrangements to stay at this house of the Ottilien congregation. That grouping of monasteries, founded in Germany, has always been explicitly missionary in orientation, and it today has a number of large foundations in such places as Tanzania and South Korea. The community in Nebraska was founded to assist with fundraising efforts in the United States, but today it also maintains a large and modern retreat house that has become a major spiritual resource for Catholics and others in the Great Plains. A very impressive site!
To return to the farms…the Shonka family was only one of thousands from the Czech provinces who settled in Nebraska during the late nineteenth century. The area about twenty-five miles west of Omaha continues to sport the name, “Bohemian Alps,” because the rolling hills reminded the settlers of their homeland. Czech names are still plentiful thereabouts.
And, in truth, the roots of St. Procopius Abbey in a real sense go back to these pioneers, in that Archabbot Boniface Wimmer’s early planning for a Czech monastery in America was focused on settlements in Nebraska, on whose behalf the Bishop of Omaha was pleading for priests who could preach and administer sacraments in the Czech language. In response, the Archabbot in 1877 sent Fr. Wenceslaus Kocarnik, who ministered to several Czech communities, at one of which, Plasi, he dreamed of building a Czech monastery.
In the end, Archabbot Boniface determined that it would be better to found the community in an urban setting, where the monks would be less scattered (especially during the severe winter months). Accordingly, St. Procopius Parish in Chicago was chosen as the site for what became our abbey. But even after Fr. Wensceslaus was transferred there in 1885, friendly contact with the Nebraska Czechs continued. A number of monastic vocations (the Shonkas very much included!) came from ethnic parishes in the area, and several of these were staffed by monks from Lisle during the 1930s to 1950s.
In all, a fine prelude to the General Chapter, acquainting ourselves with the farms while experiencing sites that were part of the St. Procopius story!