'Cowboy Monks' Operation Sent Out To Pasture

A Roman Catholic monastery in North Dakota is putting its ranching operation out to pasture because it lacks monks with cowboy skills.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

LYNN NEARY, host: And I'm Lynn Neary. Some ranchers in North Dakota are getting ready to sell off their livestock. This sale isn't driven by drought or by the rising cost of feed - two of the big reasons a lot of cattlemen are selling these days. This is about having enough folks around to care for the herd.

As Jim Kent reports, the Benedictine Monks of Assumption Abbey are reluctantly giving up a century-old tradition.

JIM KENT: There's a chill in the air today as high plains winds beat against the walls of Assumption Abbey. The Benedictine Monastery stands like a great stone fortress at the edge of the small town of Richardton, North Dakota.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

KENT: As bells echo on the hour in two towers, the sounds of 25 monks who live here year round fill the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONKS SINGING)

(SOUNDBITE OF MONKS PRAYING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Bless this meal and unite us in the peace of Christ in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

KENT: Nearby, there's another sound that's not usually associated with religious orders.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWS MOOING)

KENT: That's some of the 300 head of cattle the Benedictine monks have cared for since the monastery was built at the end of the 19th century. Brother Placid Gross has been the main cowboy wrangler for the black angus herd almost since he arrived here at the abbey in 1957.

PLACID GROSS: The monks came here, started the monastery here in 1899 and they have had a farm right from the beginning. It was a way of raising our own food. In the early days, everybody had beef cattle and dairy cattle, but now, in recent years, we are selling most of the cows. We still butcher our own, but we don't butcher very many, so it's the source of income for the abbey.

KENT: A source of income that's about to disappear as the monks prepare to sell their herd at auction, probably around Thanksgiving. Abbott Brian Wangler, who's in charge here, says it's strictly because there just aren't enough monk cowboys to manage the herd. Most monks here are older than 40 and fewer young men are entering religious orders these days.

BRIAN WANGLER: Well, it's people willing to do the work, knowing how to do the work and so it almost requires somebody who was raised on a farm. I mean, you can learn the work, but you really got to have an interest in it and we just don't have enough young people who are really interested in that kind of work.

KENT: Interested in the hard life of both caring for cattle and being a monk, which requires group prayer sessions four times a day. At 76, Brother Placid is finding the task of handling the substantial herd with one assistant just too taxing.

GROSS: The hardest part of the work is the calving time. Very often, we get really bad weather. You have to be out there to help bring the calf inside into a warm place, so we get up during the night to check or we check at least every four hours.

KENT: Brother Placid says he hates to see the cattle go, but he'll have plenty of outside chores to keep him busy on the extensive monastery property. As for the abbey, the monks still have a small garden to help provide for their needs. They'll replace some of the funds lost when they give up the cattle by leasing their pastures to nearby ranchers. They're also trying to market the abbey as a spiritual center for people of all faiths who seek solitude, whether they're around cattle or not.

For NPR News, I'm Jim Kent.

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