Lutheran Monastery offers peaceful retreat from hectic world
St. Augustine's House in Addison Twp.
ADDISON TWP. – Tucked away in the beautiful wooded areas along East Drahner Road is a local treasure where the days move at a slower, more deliberate pace so as to allow residents and visitors more time for personal reflection, prayer and hopefully, enlightenment.
|Father Richard Herbel, Father Tom McElwey and Associate Member Ernie Baker.|
Since 1958, Saint Augustine's House, the only Lutheran monastery in the United States, has served as a spiritual refuge from the fast-paced modern world.
Founded by the late Father Arthur Carl Kreinheder (1905-1989), the monastic community – formally named "The Congregation of the Servants of Christ" – is situated on 42 acres of mostly woodlands between Barr and Hosner roads, and consists of a guest house, new chapel (in use since June 2001) and two-mile nature trail.
The community is currently home to only three permanent residents – Father Richard Herbel (the monastery's prior), Father Tom McElwey and David Blythe, an "associate member" or "oblate," which is a person living in or associated with a religious community, but not bound by vows.
Although they don't live there, Herbel said there are 35 associate members who share in the legal, financial and other responsibilities connected with continuing the monastic community's existence.
"They support us in a variety of ways," Herbel said.
Due to the extremely small number of people living in the community – the number of residents has fluctuated between one and four over its 45-year existence – the associate members play a "significant role" in its continuance.
Herbel said associate members can be laymen or clergy, males or females, married couples, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, or members of other Christian churches.
"We're very inclusive here," Herbel said.
The only requirements for associate members are that they "need to be active Christians in their own churches" and "visit us at least once a year for a retreat if not more often," the prior said.
Each year St. Augustine's House hosts about 913 visitors who spend an average of 1,000 days on spiritual retreats in the five-bedroom guest house, which Herbel hopes to someday expand to accomodate more visitors.
St. Augustine's House is partially supported through the voluntary donations of retreatants. Although there is no fixed fee for retreats, a $30-$35 per day donation is suggested. However, retreatants are asked to only offer what they are able to afford.
Unlike other monastic retreats which tend to have formal structures for participants, Herbel said those on retreat at St. Augustine's House are free to spend their time as they please, be it reading, walking in the woods, joining in the regular daily prayers, etc.
"Ours are more personal retreats," Herbel said.
"I know several people that have come here for retreats that were going through some emotional problems," said Associate Member Ernie Baker, who started coming to St. Augustine's House regularly for Sunday services in the 1990s. "They found it very helpful to come here for a few days and just get away from the world."
"I just find a real comfort and reassurance of my faith coming here," Baker said. "I find it very strengthening and supportive."
Baker added that Herbel and McElwey give "wonderful sermons" at the monastery's weekly 10 a.m. Sunday service.
Herbel said an average of 12 to 15 people regularly attend the service.
"We have people who come very regularly and some that come every now and then," the prior said.
"One of the problems is people just aren't aware it's here," Baker added. "If more people knew about it, they would come."
Herbel noted that "a lot of Lutherans think Lutherans don't have religious communities or monasteries."
"There's nothing in the official documents (upon which the Lutheran faith is built) against having monasteries," the prior said. "It's kind of an accident of history that they disappeared. Immediately after the Reformation, there were Lutheran monasteries, but they slowly died out. Over the last 100 years, Lutheran religious communities have made a successful comeback mainly in Europe."
Today, with the exception of St. Augustine's House, most Lutheran monasteries are in Sweden and Germany, Herbel said.
McElwey, who visited St. Augustine's House since the 1960s and came to live there on a permanent basis in November 2002, said he "felt drawn to this life, the contemplative lifestyle, for a long time."
"It's quiet. It's busy, but it's quiet," he said.
For more information call St. Augustine's House at (248) 628-5155 or (248) 628-2604; write P.O. Box 125 Oxford, MI 48371; or e-mail at StAugHouse@aol.com.
Be sure to visit the monastery's web site at www.StAugustinesHouse.org.
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader.