Walking through a grand monastery like Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, at 8 am on a snowy morning and seeing twenty or so seminarians practicing saying Mass in a beautifully designed modernist chapel with traditional elements might make you pause, as I did, and just ponder the beauty of it all.

Ironically, while the Chapel of St. Gregory has a modernist design, it is not ugly in the way that far too many desacralized modern churches seem to be. 

The chapel was located very near my room at the monastery (I had the good fortune to stay in a suite of rooms once belonging to a former prior). A suspended large crucifix hangs above the candle adorned altar; and while there are no side altars — a statue of the Virgin Mary can be seen off to the side — the space retains a traditional feeling, unlike the grand altar in the main basilica which rests in the canyons of an otherwise unadorned space that for me invoked the sterility of Bauhaus architecture. 

The basilica’s high altar was removed in 1954. Later came the removal of numerous side altars at which priests could say smaller, private Masses. Still, this vast empty space does have a kind of beauty: large white marble statues of saints set against the side aisle arches recall certain (Roman) period rooms in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And yet, while attending Mass and daily prayers there, my eyes often drifted to the nave where the former high altar used to be, now filled with small Masonic-looking chairs and a large albeit beautiful Christmas tree. 

By contrast, the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia kept its high altar (including the ornate baldacchino) and side altars intact after Vatican II. Monastery churches, however, tend to be subject to radical design innovations that often push the envelope. 

In 1846, a Benedictine monk named Boniface Wimmer arrived at Saint Vincent with eighteen monks. The group hailed from Bavaria, and their mission was to establish churches and schools. After Wimmer was installed as pastor of Saint Vincent on October 24, 1846, he went on to establish the first Benedictine monastery, college, and seminary in North America. 

The monks at St. Vincent’s are members of the American Cassinese Congregation. Many are foreign born. Some of the younger monks have long beards in the style of Orthodox monastics. The monastery, which houses well over 100 monks, is the oldest Benedictine monastery in the United States and the largest in the Western Hemisphere.

Ground was broken for Saint Vincent DePaul (minor) basilica in 1891. The church took fourteen years to build. 

Saint Gregory’s chapel was designed by Father Vincent Crosby, a graduate of Philadelphia’s Tyler School of Art and a member of the Benedictine community since 1967. 

Fr. Crosby’s international reputation as a designer of liturgical vestments for priests, bishops, popes, and even the Archbishop of Canterbury, is well-deserved. His studio, a few minutes walk from the main monastery, contains a vast collection of icon-like framed images of saints, as well as vestments and copes that are simultaneously contemporary and traditional.

Another of Fr. Crosby’s creations, the monastery mausoleum, where he also acted as an architect, is perhaps the most stunning space in the monastery complex.

Icons lighted by voice candles mark the entrance, and once through the doors of the rotunda, one comes face to face with an Italian marble replica of the Pietà surrounded by votive candles and a massive Crosby-designed stained glass window of the risen Christ.

On the walls are hand carved Stations of the Cross the artist-monk says he found in the monastery basement. Each station is labeled in German. In these heavily detailed works of art, one can find three-dimensional silver helmets on the heads of Roman soldiers.

St. Vincent monastery is a thriving complex: it includes a seminary, the college of St. Vincent, separate dining rooms for seminarians, monks and students as well as a guesthouse for guests of the monks, complete with servers and menu ordering as one would do in any restaurant. 

The St. Vincent Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media is in the monastery complex. Rogers, a Presbyterian minister, was a close friend of the monastery and was a frequent visitor. The town of Latrobe is also the home of Rolling Rock beer (the monastery sold off its brewery to Rolling Rock when one of the abbots did not want St. Vincent’s to be associated with alcohol.) 

I sat with the monks during Lauds, Vespers and Compline, the three sets of prayers arranged throughout the day. These prayers involved the recitation and the singing of the psalms. (The overall effect of this was powerful, at one point causing my eyes to tear up.) Daily Mass was reverently simple but more Bauhaus-driven, meaning: no incense, no bells at consecration, much like the Jesuit Masses at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Philadelphia’s Old City. 

Later, I took the liberty of asking a monk if incense is ever used at Mass because the liturgy seemed “scaled down.”

“Occasionally, yes; but if I had my way, I would have incense at every Mass. But that’s the way they want it here. But I’m with you 100 percent,” he said. 

This is not to disparage the beauty of Saint Vincent’s. As an Orthodox Christian, I am used to certain ceremonials and when I don’t see them in Catholic services my usual reaction is to think: Oh no, one more notch on the road to evangelical Protestantism. 

Benedictine monasteries closely aligned to tradition do exist, such as Clear Creek Monastery in Oklahoma, where the Latin Mass is celebrated. In fact, while having my medal of St. Benedict blessed by the superior of the monastery’s Oblates of St. Benedict, Fr. Donald Railia told me that some of the monks at the abbey contemplated going to Clear Creek and are in fact, very traditional. 

This was confirmed when I searched the web and came up with a June 4, 2021, article in The New Liturgical Movement that reported on a Latin Mass held at the archabbey. 

Saint Tikhon’s Orthodox Monastery

St. Tikhon’s is located high in the Pocono Mountains on 300 acres of land outside Scranton, Pennsylvania. The small monastery was founded in 1905 by Patriarch (Saint) Tikhon under the auspices of the Russian Orthodox Church. Years later the word Russian was dropped for the more inclusive Orthodox Church of America, or OCA. The monastery houses fourteen monks from various parts of the country. Fr. Sergius, a former Roman Catholic, converted to Orthodoxy and soon after became an Orthodox priest. His conversion happened, he says, because he felt that Orthodoxy offered him a life “more fully in Christ.” 

“My family is still very much Catholic,” Fr. Sergius told me in his office in the monastery bookstore. “Ultimately the important thing is to keep Christ as the center of our lives.”

At St. Tikhon’s, prayer and Liturgy begins at 6 a.m. Congregants mostly stand throughout the three-hour (incense filled) service. Chairs are arranged alongside the church for the old and infirm, but anyone can take a seat if standing becomes unbearable. Prior to my visit I feared that the constant standing would be less than tolerable; however, I soon found that the rhythm of the chanting and prayers produced a transcendent state that erased discomfort. After a while, I almost forgot that I had legs. The sensation was a little bit like floating

The historic debate having to do with which Church is the true Church of the apostles has been raging since the official split of East and West in 1054 AD. Some Orthodox and Catholic clergy believe that the split was a mutual parting of the ways, like a divorce, but this does not stop “experts” on both sides from accusations of schism or heresy.

At first glance, a stranger wouldn’t necessarily pinpoint the young Hieromonk Sergius as St. Tikhon’s Abbott. 

Older monks with long ponytails and patriarchal beards, such as white haired Fr. Alexander, a retired priest who could easily play Moses in an Old Testament play, looks more like the abbot type. Fr. Alexander, also a former Catholic, joins Fr. Sergius in wearing the dramatic kamilavka hat covered with a black veil during church services, which helps give St. Tikhon’s a “Mount Athos” look.

Most visitors to St. Tikhon’s, unless traveling by car, must take a bus to Scranton (where there is no Amtrak service) and then arrange to be met by a monk who will drive them the rest of the way to the monastery. My driver, Father Ken, met me at the station in his black cassock, beard and black hat. In the car he told me that before he became a monk he spent considerable time traveling the world and that for a time he managed restaurants in Phoenix, Arizona.

Father Ken, who was born Orthodox, and who is in his early forties, talked about entering a monastery late in life.

“It’s far better to become a monastic when you are in your twenties. The problem of obedience is especially hard when you are considerably older than the Abbot. Becoming a monk in your mid-twenties is better, when you’ve had some life experiences but are still malleable or ‘in formation.’”

After the lift from the bus station, he escorted me to the newly refurbished men’s guest house. In this “off season,” I was the only guest in the large B&B-style space sans television, radio or telephones.

Meals at St. Tikhon’s are mostly silent affairs as monks and visitors listen to readings from the lives of the saints or the writings of the Church Fathers. The meal concludes when the Abbot rings a hand bell. Afterwards everyone rises for a short prayer and then, if the Abbot allows it (and he almost always does) everyone resumes eating with some conversation. 

While there are many orders of Catholic monks who dress in a variety of habits, in the Orthodox world all monks dress alike: black cassock and belt with a small raised black hat. Orthodox monks do not shave or cut their hair so, depending on the monk, long hair can be bunched up ponytail-style or arranged in a bun of some sort to get it off the neck. The visual effects of this for the first-time visitor can be startling.

One gray haired monk’s rustic demeanor and long ponytail kept reminding me of the Hell’s Angels, whereas a young novice’s appearance—with his long hair arranged in a fan-like web at the nape of his neck—seemed to be modeled after an angelic figure in a Byzantine icon. 

Father Ken told me that he sometimes gets mistaken for Islamic when he goes into Scranton on monastery business. Unlike Catholic monks, who often don secular clothing for trips outside the monastery, Orthodox monks wear the habit 24/7. For Father Ken, the hostile stares he received when being mistaken as a Muslim at first caught him off guard, although he says he soon learned not to pay any attention to them. “Most of the townspeople know us and enjoy seeing us,” he said.

The majority of the monks at St. Tikhon’s are converts from evangelical Protestantism. Fr. Sergius says there’s also a significant waiting list and that plans are underway to expand the monastery. 

Many of the converts are in their twenties, typical “white bread” boys from Kansas, Ohio or Los Angeles, where they found their way — “through the grace of God,” as Fr. Sergius likes to say — to this esoteric mountain top.

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, and Frontpage Magazine. Thom Nickels is the author of fifteen books, including “Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” His latest, “Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” was released in May 2023.

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