Return of the Monks: The Trappists Go Back to Norway

More than 500 years after most abbeys and monasteries in Norway were dissolved and destroyed in the Protestant Reformation, the northernmost Trappist monastery church in the world was consecrated Dec. 5 by Trappist Bishop Erik Varden of Trondheim.

The new Trappist monastery Munkeby Mariakloster, where four monks from the Abbey of Cîteaux of France arrived in 2009.
The new Trappist monastery Munkeby Mariakloster, where four monks from the Abbey of Cîteaux of France arrived in 2009. (photo: Bénédicte Cedergren / National Catholic Register)

MUNKEBY, Norway — After an absence of more than 700 years, Catholic monks have returned to Munkeby in Norway.

In Norway, as in all the Nordic countries, the Middle Ages have traditionally been considered a Catholic period — and while the country ranks among the least religious nations in the world today, the numerous ruins of Catholic abbeys and monasteries destroyed in the Protestant Reformation continue to bear silent witness to the country’s rich Catholic legacy and history. 

The ruins of Munkeby Abbey are no exception. Located a little more than 60 miles north of St. Olav’s Shrine in Trondheim — the resting place of the earthly remains of St. Olav, patron saint of Norway — the weathered stones of the old Cistercian monastery have persisted through the harsh Nordic climate and continue to tell a story that nature has refused to let fade away. 

“We don’t have any detailed account of what happened at Munkeby,” Bishop Erik Varden, Trappist monk and bishop of Trondheim in Norway, told the Register. “What we know for sure is that Cistercian monks lived there long enough to establish a monastery, but not long enough for it to be recorded in the chronicles of the order.” (Trappists are members of a reformed branch of the Cistercian order that was established in the 17th century.)

Munkeby
Trappist Bishop Erik Varden of Trondheim arrives at Munkeby.(Photo: Bénédicte Cedergren/National Catholic Register)


According to historical records, Munkeby Abbey was founded between 1150 and 1180, as the Christianization of Norway was nearing completion. Similar to the Cistercian abbeys in Lyse and Hovedøya, which were founded by English monks from Fountains Abbey and Kirkstead Abbey respectively, it is believed that Munkeby Abbey was a part of the evangelizing efforts of Catholic England.

“While Sweden was mainly evangelized by Germany and France, we know that Christendom came to Norway from England and Ireland,” Bishop Varden explained. “What probably happened in Munkeby is that the English monks from Lyse Abbey traveled to Trondheim, most likely as pilgrims to Nidaros Cathedral, to pray at the grave of St. Olav, and decided to found another abbey near Stiklestad, the place of death of St. Olav.”

With its establishment, Munkeby Abbey became the most northerly Cistercian foundation in the world. But as Bishop Varden explained, the monks did not remain there for long. Indeed, “while there are records mentioning Cistercians living in the area at the end of the 12th century,” the Norwegian bishop noted, “the monks suddenly disappear a few decades later.” 

Shortly after the foundation of the abbey in Munkeby, it is believed that the monks moved about 40 miles south to Tautra, escaping the local climate conditions, where they founded Tautra Abbey. The abbey grew both wealthy and powerful and flourished until the Reformation, when it was dissolved and destroyed, along with many others. 

The ruins of the medieval Cistercian abbey from the 12th century
The ruins of the medieval Cistercian abbey from the 12th century(Photo: Bénédicte Cedergren/National Catholic Register)



Cistercian Comeback

In 1999, more than 500 years after the dissolution of that Norwegian abbey, the Trappistine nuns of Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey in Iowa decided to begin a daughter foundation near the ruins of Tautra Abbey. The foundation stone of the first permanent Cistercian settlement in Norway since the Reformation was laid by Queen Sonja of Norway on May 23, 2003. 

In a similar fashion, the now-Trappist Abbey of Cîteaux in France — the original house of the Order of Cistercians — decided in 2007 to establish a new Trappist monastery in Munkeby (locally known as Munkeby Mariakloster) near the ruins of the old abbey, making it the first new foundation to come directly from the very first house of the order in 500 years.

“I providentially met a sister from Tautra Abbey during a formation session in France,” Father Joël Regnard, a Trappist monk from Cîteaux and the new prior of Munkeby monastery, told the Register, “and she invited me to come to Tautra for my six-months sabbatical.”

It was there that the French monk, who had previously perceived a need for renewal in the monastic life and return to its roots, got the idea to begin a new foundation in Munkeby. “People were saying, ‘The sisters came, so why not the brothers?’” Father Joël recalled.

The idea wasn’t as well-received at first by his abbey as Father Joël had hoped — it was “not only considered crazy, but almost as treacherous” — and a long process of acceptance began upon his return. It was eventually approved in 2007 by the abbot general of Cîteaux, and in 2009, the abbey sent four monks to Munkeby, including its two youngest and most recently professed brothers. 

Four monks at Munkeby Mariakloster
The four monks at Munkeby Mariakloster; from left to right: Father Joseph, Brother Bruno, Father Joël and Brother Arnaud (Photo: Bénédicte Cedergren)


While the new monastery couldn’t be rebuilt on top of the ancient abbey ruins for reasons of practicality and historical preservation, the monks quickly found a suitable location within walking distance from them. “The first time I saw it I thought to myself that this was a typical Cistercian place,” Father Joël described. “The entire place is a small shrine. It’s a mostly uninhabited and peaceful place, with a lot of silence and beautiful surroundings.”

In addition to the many ruins dispersed across the Nordic countries, the names of the areas once sheltering the monasteries also have persisted throughout time: Munkedal, “the valley of the monks,” named after the Premonstratensian canonry Dragsmark Abbey in Sweden; Munkholmen, “the islet of the monks,” named after the Benedictine monastery Nidarholm Abbey in Norway; and Munkeberg, “the mountain of the monks,” named after the Cistercian monastery Alvastra Abbey in Sweden. 

“Even if people have forgotten where the names come from,” Father Joël said, “the names have remained. People knew that there had been monks here once. And, because of the name Munkeby — which means “the village of the monks” — when we arrived in 2009, many people called it ‘the return of the monks.’”

Bishop Erik Varden Trappist Norway
Bishop Varden receives the key to the monastery church.(Photo: Ivan Vu/Trondheim Katolska Stift)

 

Trappist monastery Norway dedication
Sisters from different Norwegian monasteries are present for the consecration of the monastery church; joining them are Frøydis de Damas and her youngest son.(Photo: Bénédicte Cedergren/National Catholic Register)



Recovering Norwegian Catholic Roots

Thanks to generous donations from friends of the Abbey of Cîteaux, the construction of the Munkeby monastery was able to begin. Help from the Bonifatiuswerk, a Catholic charity in Germany, also proved essential, Father Joël noted.

Founded 175 years ago in Regensburg, the Bonifatiuswerk supports Catholics in countries and areas where they are in a minority, especially in largely Protestant areas, in order to “pass on the faith that St. Boniface brought to Germany,” Msgr. Georg Austen, secretary-general of the Bonifatiuswerk, told the Register. 

Msgr. Georg Austen
Msgr. Georg Austen, secretary-general of the Bonifatiuswerk (Photo: Bénédicte Cedergren/National Catholic Register)


In addition to financially supporting the clergy in Northern Europe, the aid organization also supports projects that include the construction and maintenance of churches and monasteries in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and the Baltic states. 

While acknowledging the challenges of the Munkeby project, and having questioned the sustainability of such a small monastic community, Msgr. Austen admitted that, “in Germany, we are now encouraged by what is happening here.”

“I believe it’s a good thing that the old roots are coming back to life and that the monks have now gained a strong foothold here, especially among the local population, for that is our mission: to give people a taste of the Gospel even in secular landscapes,” Msgr. Austen explained, highlighting the importance of having sacred places in non-religious environments where people can go with their questions about life and faith. 

The deep Catholic roots of the location, Father Joël said, point to a past and heritage that cannot be erased and, ultimately, connects the Cistercian monastery to the Norwegian people in a unique and indisputable way.

“Bishop Bernt Eidsvig of Oslo usually refers to this region of Norway as Norvegia Sacra,” Bishop Varden commented. Indeed, the monastery’s proximity to St. Olav’s shrine — which was of major religious importance to both Norway and to the other Nordic countries and other parts of Northern Europe — must not be overlooked, the bishop added. 

Retelling the story of how a blind man regained his sight after rubbing his eyes with hands stained with King Olav’s blood, Bishop Varden explained that “here once lived and died a man of flesh and blood, and his dead body became, in a paradoxical and marvelous way, a source of life,” asserting that St. Olav, just as he was more than 1,000 years ago, continues to be a source of life and faith today.


The Monastery as a Sacramental Reality

“The liturgy for the consecration of a church is grandiose, sensual,” Bishop Varden stressed in his homily during the consecration of the monastery church of Munkeby Mariakloster on Dec. 5. “It is also pedagogical. By means of texts and symbols the Church, our Mother, lets us see what a church really is.”

Indeed, the bishop explained, everything can easily become very abstract when speaking generally about “community” and “communion.” By contrast, the visible symbols and concrete gestures performed during a church consecration, such as the exorcism of the church, the blessing of the faithful with holy water, and the anointing of the altar and the walls of the church, remind us of a reality. 

Trappist monastery consecration 2024
The faithful attend the consecration of the monastery church.(Photo: Ivan Vu/Trondheim Katolska Stift)


The monastic church, the bishop added, “is no longer, then, a mere building. It will have become a sacramental reality, the tabernacle of divine presence, a concrete epiclesis.”

In contrast to the fleeting sunlight hours of the Norwegian winter, the new monastery now perpetually shines as a beacon of hope and sign of faith in a country characterized by strong secularization and growing irreligiosity. 

Bishop Erik Varden Trappist monastery
Bishop Varden burns the incense on the altar.(Photo: Ivan Vu/Trondheim Katolska Stift)

 

Bishop Erik Varden of Trondheim Trappist monastery
Bishop Varden anoints the altar of the monastery church.(Photo: Ivan Vu/Trondheim Katolska Stift)


Several young men have already come to visit the monks to discern religious life with them, Father Joël shared, and others, “especially elders, have changed their view on the Catholic Church.” Locals also have approached them to ask for prayers, to seek refuge in times of need, or simply to tell them that “they like the sound of the bells ringing throughout the day.” 

Frøydis and Louis de Damas have known the monks at Munkeby Mariakloster for 10 years, “and in many ways our journey towards a common Catholic faith began with them,” Frøydis said.

The couple, who now have many friends at both Munkeby Mariakloster and Tautra Mariakloster, explained to the Register that it is important for them and their three young children to have close relationships with religious, whether it is asking them for prayers, attending Mass with them, praying the Liturgy of the Hours with them or simply having good conversations with them.


‘A Heaven’s Gate’

Reflecting upon the distinctiveness of the place and the historicity of the event, Bishop Varden, in his comments to the Register, emphasized that “in a way, there is nothing special about this monastery,” explaining that Cistercians usually seek withdrawal, rather than to be seen or heard. The very constitution of the order itself reads that the monks are called to persevere in a “life that is ordinary, obscure and laborious.” 

“In that sense,” the bishop continued, “this monastery is as normal as any other. But at the same time, every abbey is a heaven’s gate and, in that sense, something absolutely extraordinary.”

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