St. Bernard Abbey
The history of Saint Bernard Abbey is a rich one. In the 1840s monks from Metten Abbey in Germany, a monastery founded c. 700 A.D., came to America to plant the Benedictine monastic life in the United States and to minister to the growing German-speaking immigrant population. St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, became the first foundation, and in the 1870s monks from St. Vincent were sent to Alabama to serve the needs of German Catholics here. In 1891 those monks gathered to establish St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Alabama. One year later, 1892, a school was opened at the new abbey.
At overlapping intervals from 1892 to 1979 the monks operated a high school, junior college, four-year college, and seminary. The present St. Bernard Preparatory School, opened in 1984, is the recipient of this Catholic educational heritage.
In 1934 the Ave Maria Grotto, a religious devotional creation of Brother Joseph Zoetle, O.S.B., was dedicated in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the Abbey grounds. This garden walk-through of Brother Joseph’s miniature replicas of famous Old Testament and Christian buildings has welcomed visitors every day since. Most famous among the miniatures are the buildings of ancient Jerusalem, thus the creation’s popular name “Little Jerusalem”.
In 1981 the monks opened the St. Bernard Abbey Retreat and Conference Center. This center welcomes religious retreat and pilgrim groups as well as Abbey guests, school groups, and others.
The Life of a Monk
What is an abbey or monastery, and why would a person join one? First of all a monastery of men is a group of monks who share life together with one binding purpose: union with God. An abbey is simply a monastery under the leadership of an abbot.
St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Alabama is such a place. The 36 monks who make up the monastery community share life in common, and that includes prayer, work, housing, property, meals, recreation, etc. In coming together to seek God they, like all Christians, are merely responding to the love of God who, after all, loved them first. The monks of St. Bernard Abbey are Benedictines, meaning they live according to the Rule of St. Benedict, written c. 530 A.D.
At St. Bernard Abbey the monks come together in the abbey church at least five times a day for worship in common. Their life of prayer and work also includes a great deal of private prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, and of course a variety of labors, such as care of its more than 900 acres of property, operating a college Preparatory school, running a retreat center, and working in several parishes in the state of Alabama. The monastery owns and operates the Ave Maria Grotto, located on the grounds.
As Saint Paul recommends, monks do not marry. The monk, like Christ, sacrifices the good things called marriage and personal possessions so that he may give his life totally to God.
A Typical Day
The life of a Monk of St. Bernard Abbey, begins each day while it is still dark. The community gathers in the Abbey Church to pray the first Office of the day, Matins. Throughout the night, the community has observed “Grand Silence.” This silence in broken by the first words of the office, “O Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” Immediately following Matins, the monks pray Lauds. By the time both of these Offices are completed, the sky is light and the day has begun in prayer.
There is a twenty-minute period of private prayer between the conclusion of Lauds and breakfast. Most monks use this time to do Lectio Divina, or Sacred Reading. Breakfast is eaten in silence in the Monastic Refectory. After breakfast, each member of the community begins his assigned tasks. For some, this means teaching in our school, for others it may mean working on the grounds; there are many different jobs that keep a monastery and school running.
Around noon, the monks stop their work and return to the church to pray mid-day prayer, or Sext. Next comes lunch, the only meal at which talking is allowed.
The various work of the monks continues in the afternoon. Around four o’clock, it is time to prepare for Mass. Before Mass, many monks spend time in private prayer in their cells (rooms) or in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.
Mass begins at five o’clock, followed by Vespers (evening prayer). Supper is then taken in the Refectory in silence, with table reading. On feast days, there is a more festive meal and talking is allowed. After supper, there is about half an hour of recreation time. Some monks use this time to chat with their confreres, go for a walk, or just relax. The last Office of the day, Compline, is prayed at seven o’clock. After Compline, the abbot blesses each monk with holy water as he leaves the church. With this, the day ends. Many monks spend the time after Compline to read, study, or perhaps prepare for the next day.
Benedictines are known for their hospitality. In the Rule, Saint Benedict writes, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” We invite you to visit the abbey and encounter the Lord in this holy place. Guests and visitors are always welcome to join the monks for Mass and to stay for the praying of the Divine Office.
We are happy to welcome visitors to experience the hospitality of the Benedictine monks of St. Bernard Abbey. People of all ages and faiths are invited to find here a place of peace, joy and rest. St. Bernard is a place to seek and encounter God, a mission the monks have committed themselves to for the last 125 years.
Whether you are looking for a quiet setting for a private or group retreat, or hosting a meeting, conference or workshop, St. Bernard has a variety of facilities available for various occasions. We offer lodging to pilgrims who are visiting both the Ave Maria Grotto and the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama.