PRINCEVILLE, Illinois — Between his junior year of high school and his 18th birthday, Charlie Leidel left behind his family and joined a new one with the Community of St. John — a monastery located just south of Princeville.
Eating the same food, attending the same prayer sessions and living the same silence as the monastery’s six professed brothers, Leidel joined the community’s priory in Princeville. The location is one of the France-based order’s nearly 60 priories worldwide, and one of four in the United States. The monastery houses just eight — six brothers, and two new members.
Housing a handful of brothers — those who have given lifelong vows to the church — the Roman Catholic priory’s main emphasis is to serve as a house of formation, which is unique in the United States according to Fr. John-Luke, who serves as novice master to postulants, or new members.
“It’s what we call a novitiate house,” John-Luke said. “When young men enter our community, they first come here and receive formation for three years before they make temporary vows and finish their formation at the motherhouse in France.”
When a man — usually in his early to mid-twenties — believes he has been called by God to seek out the religious life, he first must find a community to join. The new members are called postulants who must petition to join the religious life. Once they join, the process takes six to seven years before final vows of profession are made that seal the man’s membership in the lifelong brotherhood.
“I have always been serious about my faith,” said Leidel, 19, who joined the community just over a year ago. “I lived it out in the sacraments and everything, but deep down inside I wouldn’t have said ‘I’m cut out to be a religious.’ It was a transformation process. I really upped my prayer life late in high school because I had no idea what I wanted to do.”
Prior Fr. Joseph Mary has been head of the Princeville monastery for 21 years. He said because of the tremendous age gap, elders in the community take on a fatherhood role to offer guidance and discipline to young men in the beginning of the formation process.
“It’s certainly a spiritual fatherhood,” he said. ”...I don’t serve as much as an authority figure, but really a father.”
Following in the footsteps of his older brother, Leidel left his Grand Rapids, Mich., home and moved to the Princeville monastery. “Being the youngest one here at 19 years old, I just came from my real father,” he said, “but right away I saw Fr. Joseph Mary as a dad. I really see them both as father figures in my life.”
The typical day begins at 6 a.m. for the first of five daily prayer services, which are referred to as offices and can last as long as two hours. Between prayer sessions, time is scheduled for quick meals, manual labor and classes to teach the postulants new skills and languages including French, which is required before proceeding to the motherhouse in France.
There is no lack of signage reminding you to “respect the exterior silence” around the 84-acre, forest-wrapped property. The brothers eat and work in silence, speaking only when required. The most talking encountered is in the chapel during Mass and the prayer offices.
Chores at the monastery mirror those in any home — washing dishes, lawn mowing and mopping floors. Side by side the brothers and postulants spend two to three hours each afternoon doing physical labor, just one of the many encounters old and young have daily.
“I am a bit concerned that Charlie could be hurt with the blades and all that, but I’ve got to trust that he’s going to be be very careful with the new mower,” Fr. Hugh-Mary said after teaching Charlie to use a new riding lawn mower. “We try to welcome everyone in a fatherly way where the father is trusting in the son.”
Even though young men coming to the monastery learn from the elders, their seasoned counterparts agree that they all learn valuable lessons every day.
“It’s very beautiful to see the fervor of the first love of Jesus Christ in these young men willing to give their life to God,” said Hugh-Mary. “To see them show up at the chapel first for 6 o’clock prayer and arrive early for Mass, that love gushing forth from their hearts. It renews our relationship with the Lord every day.”