This 98-year-old monk clashed with Thomas Merton over cheesemaking (and capitalism). But concern for the poor changed his mind.
The last time I was with Frederic Collins, O.C.S.O., in person was in December 2019, just months before the pandemic shut down much of society, including the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky where Brother Collins is a monk.
He has a keen interest in politics and in what is going on in the church at large, so we spent some time discussing both Pope Francis and the shape of political discourse in the United States over a couple of glasses of wine. Collins reads voraciously—about a book per week—so we talked about what he was reading. (At the time, he was reading a massive biography of Margaret Thatcher because, as he said, he disagreed fervently with her during her life and wanted to understand her more thoroughly as a person.)
The only clue that Brother Frederic Collins was 97 years old at the time was the walker he used to get around. He was already the oldest monk in the monastery, but when he turned 98 on March 31 of this year, he became the oldest monk in the 173-year history of the Abbey of Gethsemani, itself the oldest monastery still operating in the United States.
When Brother Collins turned 98 on March 31 of this year, he became the oldest monk in the 173-year history of the Abbey of Gethsemani, itself the oldest monastery still operating in the United States.
Gethsemani is a monastery in the Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, a contemplative religious order that emphasizes silence and prayer. Given this focus on contemplation, it is perhaps surprising that, over his 67 years as a monk at Gethsemani, Collins experienced a profound conversion that led him to devote much of his energy to the cause of the poor, a cause that continues to be paramount for him.
A Businessman in the Monastery
Born Ralph Patrick Collins Jr. on March 31, 1923, in St. Joseph, Mo., he was the oldest of six children. His father was Irish Catholic, though he rarely went to Mass. His mother, a German Lutheran, agreed to raise the children Catholic. There were occasionally prayers at meal times, and the children were all sent to Catholic schools. But religion played only a minor role in the family.
He graduated high school in 1941 and spent the next four years during World War II with the Navy in Hawaii. After his military service, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill and attended the University of Kansas, where he obtained a business degree.
After graduating in 1950, Collins spent the next four years working in business, first for the Prudential Insurance Company and then with the Ford Motor Company. During his years at school and in business, his faith blossomed. While at school, he got involved with the Newman Center and joined a Catholic fraternity. In the years following, he became more involved in his parish.
He had never heard of Merton and knew nothing about the monastic life, but the book resonated with him so deeply that in 1954 he quit his job, gave his car to his younger brother and caught the bus for Kentucky.
The parish priest noticed Collins’s interest in the faith and recommended that he read Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. He had never heard of Merton and knew nothing about the monastic life, but the book resonated with him so deeply that in 1954 he quit his job, gave his car to his younger brother and caught the bus for Kentucky.
He was among a wave of vocations that saw the number of monks at Gethsemani almost double in size in the decade after World War II. “When I arrived at Gethsemani,” Collins said, “they asked me two questions: Could I sing? No! Did I know Latin? No!” He was therefore made a lay brother rather than a choir monk, a distinction that disappeared after the Second Vatican Council. The choir monks were generally ordained or pursuing ordination, and they chanted the offices of prayer in the church in Latin. Lay brothers lived and worked separately from the choir monks. They wore brown habits and recited the Divine Office in English. Collins was in the novitiate alongside 40 other novices and was given the name “Frederic” by the abbot.
At Gethsemani with Merton
When Collins arrived at the monastery, he was very much a product of his upbringing. As a businessman with a degree in business, he was uncritical of U.S. free-market capitalism. Thanks in large part to the influence of Thomas Merton, who arrived at Gethsemani in 1941, Collins’s understanding of economics would change over the next decade.
While the monastery was in better financial shape in the mid-1950s than it had been in previous decades, the abbot, Dom James Fox, wanted to put it on stronger footing. Knowing that Collins had a background in business, Fox asked him to start and manage a direct mail business, selling first cheese and then fruitcake. Collins ended up managing this aspect of the monastery’s business for 10 years.
The monastery’s decision to enter the world of business did not sit well with Merton, who considered the commercialization of the monastery to be a capitulation to worldliness. Merton felt that Gethsemani was too active, that it wasn’t focused sufficiently on contemplation, and understood the new direct mail business to be yet another way in which the monastery’s contemplative life was compromised.
When Collins arrived at the monastery, he was very much a product of his upbringing. As a businessman with a degree in business, he was uncritical of U.S. free-market capitalism.
Merton’s ire was often directed at Collins, who was, after all, the manager of the monastery’s business. He tacked anti-cheese notes on the monastery’s bulletin board, at one point posting a caustic poem called “CHEE$E” that ended with the lines, “Poems are nought but warmed-up breeze,/ Dollars are made by Trappist Cheese.” He also sent Collins personal notes, once referring to the direct mail business as “Cheeses for Jesus.”
For his part, Collins once took advantage of a loophole in the monastery’s rules regarding silence to give Merton a piece of his mind. The busy season was in November and December, and Merton came with the novices to help out. As manager, Collins was allowed to speak, but those who came to help could not. Collins took the opportunity to emphasize to Merton that the monks took a vow of obedience, that the abbot wanted a business that could support the monks, that Merton’s conception of a farm run by horse and buggy was romantic and unrealistic and that it was time for Merton to accept the abbot’s will.
Nevertheless, Merton was having an effect on Collins. “I kept listening to Father Louis [Merton’s monastic name] and reading some of his books, and he kept needling me,” Collins said. “I gradually came around.”
Thomas Merton sent Collins personal notes, once referring to the direct mail business as “Cheeses for Jesus.”
The former abbot, Timothy Kelly, recalls that Collins was during this time concerned that lay employees of the monastery be respected and well paid, and he developed a reputation for helping the needy in the area surrounding the monastery. In 1966, the direct mail business was generating enough income to support the monks’ living expenses. Collins was by this point increasingly uneasy about the monastery’s business and was asking the abbot the sort of questions about simplicity and poverty that Merton had been asking him. When he asked Dom James Fox if the business could stop expanding, Fox said no.
A Turn Toward the Poor
Desiring a simpler and poorer monastic life, Collins volunteered in 1966 to go to a monastery in Chile that had been given to Gethsemani. While it turned out that life at this monastery was less austere than at Gethsemani, it was during his three years in Chile that Collins had his “first experience relating to the poorest of the poor.”
In 1969, Collins returned to a Gethsemani that had changed; Merton had died, and Dom James Fox had retired. In 1972, the abbot who succeeded Dom James Fox, Flavian Burns, appointed Collins as the liaison monk with a community of Catholic families that had formed about five miles from the monastery. Called the Families of St. Benedict, this contemplative community was founded by Carl Mitcham, a conscientious objector who was teaching at nearby Berea College.
This community, and Mitcham in particular, “influenced my life a lot,” Collins said. Merton had already challenged Collins’s perspective on capitalism and the military. Through Merton, Collins was exposed to the nonviolence of Gandhi, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as to the nonviolence preached by Merton himself. Merton also raised questions about the justice of the American economic system. Mitcham further pushed Collins on these issues, and according to one of Collins’s fellow monks, Father Michael Casagram, Collins’s “contact with Merton and the Families of St. Benedict brought about a profound shift in his perspective.”
Through Merton, Collins was exposed to the nonviolence of Gandhi, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as to the nonviolence preached by Merton himself.
Abbot Flavian Burns appointed Collins as treasurer of the monastery in 1973, a position he held until 2013, when he retired at the age of 90. Timothy Kelly, who succeeded Burns in 1973, was abbot during most of the years that Collins was treasurer, and he remembers that Collins was “the driving force” behind the monastery devoting a substantial portion of its income toward the poor in the counties surrounding Gethsemani. The monastery was earning more than enough money to support itself and its daughter houses, and, as Kelly said, Collins thought that we “owed something to the local community since we enjoyed its resources.”
In particular, Collins felt that the monastery, despite being a community focused on contemplation rather than action, needed to do its part to alleviate the suffering of the poor. Under his leadership, the monastery started giving money to charitable organizations in surrounding towns, such as the St. Vincent de Paul mission in nearby Bardstown. The monastery also hired Sister Judy Popp from the Sisters of Loretto to distribute funds directly to the rural poor, going so far as to provide her with a vehicle so that she could meet the needs of as many people as possible.
Collins also became personally involved with the poor. He worked with Habitat for Humanity, serving on the board, helping to build homes and visiting families helped by the organization. He regularly gave money from the monastery to poor neighbors directly, visiting them in their homes and getting to know them as people. He still maintains contact with many of those he has helped over the years.
These days, both because of his age and the pandemic, Collins is not as personally involved with the neighboring poor as he once was. He rises at 3 a.m. and spends much of the night in prayer and meditation. After Mass at 6:15, he devotes himself to lectio divina (meditative reading of Scripture). When not praying the offices of prayer, which he generally prays alone as a lay brother, he spends most of the day doing what he calls “light reading,” though few would consider Collins’s reading material “light.” (He gave me a snapshot of his reading in a letter last spring: I Want You to Be, by the Czech theologian Tomáš Halík; the monumental book on the history of capitalism, The Enchantment of Mammon: How Capitalism Came to be the Religion of Modernity,by Eugene McCarraher; and Capital and Ideology,by the French economist Thomas Picketty.)
The latter two books, in particular, point to Collins’s continued concern with economic disparity. The poor are continually on his mind.
“Even though I am half-Irish,” he said, “my Marian devotion is with Our Lady of Guadalupe and the poor.”
As such, he prays daily to Our Lady of Guadalupe for the marginalized, and over the past year he has focused his prayerful attention on those who have experienced economic devastation as a result of the pandemic. He has also recently educated himself more thoroughly about the problem of racism in the United States and mentioned that he has particularly appreciated the work of the Rev. Bryan Massingale, a professor at Fordham University who works on racial justice and the Catholic Church.
On his 98th birthday, Collins undoubtedly spent the day doing what he normally does. He exercised, and he read. And he lifted up in prayer the poor and the marginalized who have been at the forefront of his mind throughout so much of his monastic life.
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