The Franciscan Monastery
by Gary Swilik
Today, Franciscan Village on Rocky River Drive, just north of Lorain Avenue, provides pleasant housing and a community life-style for active senior citizens. The building is actually a century-old monastery where for decades Franciscan monks lived a simple life of religious study, prayer and meditation. Many remember seeing the monks, in their brown robes and leather sandals, tending gardens on the monastery grounds.
In 1904, the Catholic Church granted permission to the Franciscan Fathers to establish a monastery on what is now Rocky River Drive in West Park. The cornerstone was laid on June 13th, 1906, and the massive building was ready for occupancy in the summer of 1907. Originally it was intended to be the center of philosophical studies for all Franciscans in the country. However, due a territorial division, the monastery became a center for the St. Louis Province which encompassed twenty states.
The monastery extended back to the cliff overlooking Rocky River Valley. The grounds included gardens, orchards, and a large open courtyard surrounded by graceful arches of brick and stone.
The building contained class rooms, dining rooms, a library and kitchen, along with a cobbler shop, barber shop, laundry and tool room. The walls were bare of ornament and the monk’s rooms were simply furnished with an iron bed, wash stand, desk, bookcase and chair. There were no closets as the dress consisted invariably of a brown robe and cowl. At odds with the image of austere life in a monastery, the facility included a tennis court, swimming pool, and bowling alley!
The new institution was originally called “St. Mary’s of the Angels Monastery.” Later it seems to have been “Our Lady of Angels Monastery” although it was most often referred to simply as the “Franciscan Monastery.” Novices began their studies at the Franciscan order in Teutopolis, Illinois, before coming to West Park to learn philosophy and fundamental theology. They then went on to higher studies in St. Louis before their final ordination to the priesthood.
By 1909 the monastery in Rockport Village (West Park) was home to 38 Franciscan monks, most of them students studying for the priesthood, each of whom made a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience. As Rev. Father Jasper Thonnessen, guardian of the monastery, explained, "Our fare is simple and the life is not easy."
A typical day for the monks began at 4 am and was spent in meditation, study, chanting, and recitation. There were also daily housekeeping duties and work in the gardens, orchard and kitchen. However, periods were set aside for recreation or just strolling the countryside. Students retired at 9 pm if they wished but reportedly it was common for many monks to stay up until midnight.
For nearly sixty years the monastery on Rocky River Drive offered philosophy classes to students preparing for the priesthood. The classes were discontinued in 1964 when the philosophy program was moved to another facility in Quincy, Illinois. However, the building continued to serve the Franciscans, in one form or another, up until the late 1970s. When the Franciscans finally left the monastery it was converted into senior apartments and an 82-unit addition was added to the building. First Lady Rosalynn Carter spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony on October 29, 1980.
Maureen Scalley McGlynn lived on Dartmouth Avenue near the monastery for many years. “In 1948 my parents were married in the front parlor of the monastery,” Maureen said. “The backyard was fenced in and I think the monks had a baseball diamond back there. In the late 1950s, they kept a pet collie, his name may have been ‘Laddie,’ which would come to the fence to visit with the school kids. Every Christmas at midnight mass the monks would come into Our Lady of Angels Church holding candles and singing. They still used the Gregorian chant and their singing was beautiful.”
“I think the Franciscans finally closed the monastery sometime while President Carter was in office,” said Maureen. “They left because there were fewer vocations and less need for college level theology and philosophy classes. There was talk of tearing the monastery down but the neighborhood was horrified. Fortunately Franciscan Village senior housing took over the building.”
Krista Guardi, of Avon Lake, Ohio, also lived on Dartmouth Avenue. “The monastery played a big part in my childhood,” said Krista. “As a kid, to see the monks in their robes working in the garden was always very intriguing. I’d chat with many of them and they’d often give us veggies through the fence. I remember the swimming pool in the courtyard and the bowling alley. I’d sometimes play on the grounds, always thinking of it as a sacred and holy place.”
“My grandmother lived on Dartmouth Avenue,” remembered Diane Williams Beal of Cleveland. “Her backyard butted up against the monastery. She would go out every morning and buy bread from the monks. It smelled wonderful when they were baking!”
Edward Kelly grew up across the street from the monastery and shares some of his memories: “Theology classes had been discontinued when I was still very young,” Edward recalled. “However, about twenty Franciscan monks remained in the building, enough to run their household and host various ministers to the community. They’d have vocational awareness days and invite a group of us boys to spend a day in the monastery. Everything was wood; simple, clean and immaculately polished. There was no carpeting. Sometimes they let us swim in their pool in the courtyard. The pool was still intact when the monastery was converted into senior apartments but eventually fell into disuse.”
“The two-lane bowling alley was indoors,” Edward continued. “It was located on the west end of the courtyard on the ground level by the pool. The windows let in lots of light to brighten up the alleys. They let us use the bowling alley provided we took turns being pin setters. There was a manually operated pin-setting machine. You were careful never to return the ball until you were well out of the pit!”
“Each ‘brother’ had his own responsibility,” said Edward. “Brother Matthew Middlebeck was ‘Brother Mechanic,’ in charge of the plumbing, electrical system, washers, dryers and mangles. They also made their own sandals in the cobbler shop. Brother Matthew spent hours as the cobbler. We enjoyed watching him hammering heels on shoes and gluing sandals.”
“Incidentally, Brother Matthew was originally from Brockdorf, Germany,” related Edward. “He was born in 1904. He took his final vows in 1942. He enjoyed a hobby in the wee hours of the night. He was adept in radio and often conversed in Morse Code with friaries, missionaries and military chaplaincies around the world. The base of the radio antenna is now a base for a flowerbed.”
“On the east end was the barber shop,” said Edward. “I remember George Pavicic, who had a barber shop next to the Riverside Theater (George’s Barber Shop, 16903 Lorain Avenue) would visit the monastery weekly to give the monks haircuts at no charge. Of course, this was in later years. Back in its heyday one of the brothers had barber duty.”
“Brother Myron Robinson, another native Clevelander, was “Brother Cook,” the last cook at the monastery,” Edward remembered. “He was probably the friar who sold bread over the fence. We used to see him on the north end of the building with the door open. He'd be standing there taking a cigarette break. They had quite a big kitchen. We got to visit the kitchen whenever the Franciscan Mission Guild would be having their mission Card Parties.”
“The Franciscans had their own tailor,” Edward explained. “Brother Luke Boehmer, a native Clevelander, who is buried at Holy Cross. The brown robe was known as a ‘habit.’ Brother Luke was good at making the monk’s habits. He showed us his full-sized patterns and said it usually took him about two days to make a single habit. This included the intricate detailing of the cowl which could not be purchased anywhere. It had to be made. Each monk had a set of two. They used cotton for the summer and woolen-blend for the winter. The cowl had a couple of zippered compartments on the backside. This was one of Brother Luke's special features. The sleeves also had pockets. I remember seeing seminarians taking out their handkerchiefs from their sleeves or prayer books from their shoulder pockets.”
“The monastery was connected to Our Lady of Angels Church by way of an enclosed causeway,” Edward revealed. “The causeway went from their library into an enclosed oratory in the church giving them 24/7 access so they could meditate and pray before the Blessed Sacrament. The oratory, which is now the ‘Crying Room’ of the church, still has a row of fifteen individual light switches – one switch for each light. This way, if one of the friars wanted to visit the oratory they need not light up the entire room.”
“The Franciscan Order made a life-changing decision when they left the monastery and Our Lady of Angels Church,” concluded Edward. “The Order said they were going to concentrate on what they do best – mission work – rather than the city parish.”
The next time you’re passing by, look closely at Franciscan Village on Rocky River Drive. The monks, orchards and gardens are gone but the building’s imposing medieval appearance is easy to recognize as the monastery which was built over one-hundred years ago.
SEE ALSO: http://www.westparkhistory.com/history/churches.htm#FRIARS