The Cistercian chapel, designed by Gary Cunningham, a ’72 graduate. Photo by Tim Rogers

Education

Cistercian Monks Test Positive for Coronavirus

But these guys know how to shelter in place like no one else.

If you’ve spent any time on this blog, you know I’m a homer for Cistercian Prep, in Irving. (Hox vobiscum!) I graduated in 1988 and give that place much credit for making me the man I am today (sneaky fast first step, deadly outside shot, dominant trash talker). So when I got an email update from the abbot, Fr. Peter Verhalen, about how the coronavirus has hit the abbey, I asked if we could talk.

Fr. Peter taught me English. And he is an evil man. He told me this morning that he and the other priests are making students wear their uniforms as they take online instruction. What fiend would subject boys to such torture? It’s bad enough that they’ve been forced to shelter in their homes as a pandemic rages beyond their doors, causing the entire city to shut down — except, of course, Hobby Lobby. But now these kids must put on a pressed Oxford before they sign on to Zoom?

Kidding aside, Fr. Peter told me how important it is to maintain routines. Those rhythms reassure us, both teachers and students alike. So the boys are still getting dressed for class, even eighth-grade Latin, a subject Fr. Peter teaches. He said he has found it a challenge to get the work done via screen. On one hand, he doesn’t experience the emotional exhaustion that he feels after a typical classroom session. (Fr. Peter is a great teacher and throws his whole self into the process.) On the other hand, everything takes twice as long, and without that face-to-face, in-person connection, he wonders how much the kids are actually absorbing.

Which brings me to Fr. Peter’s home, that atypical place where he is sheltering in place. He lives with 18 other monks in the Cistercian abbey. Some of these men are not young. Heck, they weren’t young when they had me in their classes more than 30 years ago. They survived the Hungarian revolution, found their way to Irving of all places, and then had to deal with insolent punks doing impersonations of them. Can you imagine?

Without revealing names and violating privacy, then, here’s what I can report. Of the 19 monks at Cistercian, nine have tested positive for the coronavirus. The eldest is 88; the youngest is 25. Five of those who tested positive are younger than 40. Earlier, one monk, along with an abbey employee, had to be hospitalized but they are now recovering at home. After that happened, with a little divine intervention (or the earthly equivalent thereof), everyone at the abbey, including employees, got tested. The school nurse, Kathy Nevitt, (with help from her husband, sister, and brother-in-law) performed 25 tests on Wednesday, the results of which have the monks living in their current state.

Thankfully, as of today, none of those who’ve tested positive are dealing with any serious symptoms. Their biggest battle is with the isolation. They each live in a room a little under 500 square feet (with its own bathroom). They cannot leave it. Fr. Peter says the “negative” monks are playing “one-on-one defense.” Each is assigned a “positive” monk. He gets his brother’s meal at the refectory, walks it to his room, leaves it on a table, knocks on the door, and runs.

The negative monks all wear masks when in the abbey, removing them only to take solo walks on the grounds. The refectory is large, but they nonetheless eat in two shifts, to create more space between them. The windows remain open to keep air circulating. Two monks are assigned to wipe down all touchable surfaces twice a day.

This is not, then, the routine to which these men are accustomed. Fr. Peter said there are two aspects that drive life at the abbey: communal prayer and community. That prayer must now be a private endeavor. Their focus is on the community, keeping each other healthy and safe.

“There’s something really beautiful about that,” Fr. Peter said, “how utterly important it is that we rely on each other.”

That sounds like a routine we’d all be fortunate to fall into. God bless the Cistercian monks.

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