May 16th, 2019
The Abbey of the Hills is nestled amid farm fields and woods in the northeastern corner of South Dakota, quite close to the Minnesota border. It was the last stop for Karin and myself, as we made our way home from the Pacific Northwest. To say that the abbey is out of the way would be a gross understatement. The abbey’s address uses the town of Marvin as its location, and I don’t recall ever even seeing a town called Marvin. If there is a Marvin, South Dakota, it is carefully hidden, or remarkably small.
The Abbey of the Hills actually sits atop of a hill. There aren’t many hills in that part of the world. Most of the land is flat or nearly so. Cornfields stretch across the prairie for miles upon miles. The home of Laura Ingalls Wilder is not too far away. That might give you a sense of the landscape. After all, she wrote all of those “Little House on the Prairie” books.
Karin and I arrived at the abbey after a long drive from Rapid City, South Dakota. We had to call Valari at the monastery for additional directions when we got close to the place, because we got confused. There were no landmarks to use as guides. Valari got us on to the right road, and eventually we saw the church steeple in the distance. We came up the driveway and parked. Ours was the only car in the lot.
We got out of the Toyota, and we were grateful just to walk around and stretch. We met Valari inside. She worked as the receptionist. Like many retreat houses, this place was nearly empty during the week. Valari welcomed us, and escorted us to our room for the night.
We asked her about the abbey. Valari explained,
“This abbey was run by the Benedictines for many years. At one point, there were over eighty monks in this monastery. Their numbers dwindled. Five years ago, they were down to fourteen monks, the average age of which was eighty. They just couldn’t do it any more. So, we took over. We are part of a non-profit that handles the property and provides retreats here.”
Our room was down a long corridor in the “monks’ wing”. It was nice room, with a queen-size bed, and a vanity with a sink. Our window faced to the east. There was a separate shower room, and a separate restroom. Karin did not like the restroom because it had urinals. Well, the building was designed for monks. Monks are men, and they often use urinals. Maybe, at some time, they will redesign the bathrooms, but not yet.
We made our own supper in the kitchen. Karin and I ate alone in the dining room. Everything there was clean and well-organized, and abandoned. I kept imagining how that dining room would have been when it was full of monks. It was probably noisy and chaotic and alive. When we were there, it was not alive We ate quietly in a museum.
After supper, Karin and I went for a walk. We did some exploring. We went outside and looked over the grounds. We found an old handball court, and a tennis court. We found sheds and outbuildings that clearly had not felt the hands of men for years and years. We walked past a small lake (or pond). It was cold and windy, with the threat of rain. The bells in the clock tower rang every quarter hour. We heard nothing else, and we saw no one else.
Karin and I returned to the abbey. We went into the church. It had choir stalls for the monks, monks who would never, ever return to fill them. The church felt empty and forlorn. Karin said that it was because the chapel no longer held the Blessed Sacrament. The Eucharist no longer resided in that space. so, in a way, God no longer resided there. I didn’t stay in the church very long. There was there nothing for me.
I went back to our room. Karin found a nice meeting room with a fireplace and a portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe hanging on the wall. Karin stayed there to knit and do her evening prayer. I walked around. The rooms were all immaculate, and they all had a donated quilt as a bedspread. The corridors were eerie, a bit like the hallways in the hotel from the movie, “The Shining”. I never quite felt alone. I felt the presence of the spirits of the monks, or at least of their memories. ‘
Karin and I had breakfast in the dining room near the kitchen. We were on our own. I made some coffee. There was cereal, yogurt, fruit, and bread available to us. We ate mostly in silence. We cleaned up after ourselves.
As we packed our things after breakfast, We met the caretaker, Sylvia. She is our age (i.e. old), and she is tall with grey hair and eyeglasses. She was wrapped up in a shawl. Sylvia apologized for not being there early enough to make coffee for us.
I told her that it was okay. We know how to make coffee.
Sylvia asked about our stay.
I told her, “It’s a nice place, but it’s full of ghosts.”
Sylvia gave me a stern look, and she asked,
“Were they bad?”
“No, no. They were okay. They were just here.”
“Who were they?”
“Sylvia nodded, “I know what you mean.”
We talked for a bit. Sylvia told us about how empty it was here during the winter. They had had a brutal winter here, much like that in Wisconsin. Sylvia and I talked about Native American rituals. She seemed to know a lot about them. Eventually, the conversation faded, and Sylvia said,
“I want to go to the lake and pray.”
We said our goodbyes.
Karin and I went home.