Film chronicles Utah abbey’s final years
In 1972, Mother Teresa visited the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity in Huntsville, Utah. She came to see Br. Nicholas Prinster, who had traveled to India to work with the future saint for a short time. Mother Teresa was the only woman to ever stay at the abbey.
Br. Nicholas, who died in June 2018 at the age of 91, was one of the last five monks to live at the abbey before it’s closing in September 2017. In the final years of the abbey, outside developers — wanting to build a ski resort nearby — offered the monks millions of dollars for their 1,860 acres located in the Wasatch Mountains. Their land lay between the two ski resorts that were used for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Not only would the monks not sell their land to developers, they also donated their $400,000 in savings to a local food kitchen.
Inspired by the writing of Thomas Merton, the abbey opened in 1947. At one time, 84 monks lived, prayed, and worked the land. They sold honey and freshly baked bread, as well as running a cattle ranch and a dairy farm to support the abbey.
When the brothers first arrived in Utah, they found no welcome. Catholic Digest spoke to John Slattery, who created a documentary film about the monks called Present Time: Journal of a Country Monastery (release date spring 2019). He explained, “They began life in Utah under enormous suspicion. They were not wanted in that small valley of Latter-day Saints where a well-loved president of the LDS church came from.”
However, the monks won the community over so much so that when a local Mormon farmer or even a local LDS Church leader died, their family would ask a monk from the monastery to speak at the funeral.
Slattery, an award-winning filmmaker from the east coast, hoped to make a film about the monks because he was curious about their way of life. When he was young, he used to live and bike race in Utah. “I’d always known about the monastery but, like many folks, my ideas were based on myths and movies,” he says.
He wrote the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity a letter asking to make the film, and a year later, in 2003, he received an invitation to do so. Slattery would spend a few weeks each year living with the monks and filming their way of life. He assumed it would only take him a few years to make the documentary, but the project ended up taking 15 years.
One reason the film took so long is that time is different in a monastery. When Slattery filmed, “I knew I was on ‘monastery time’ where time is not measured the same as elsewhere — not in days, or hours — but in epochs.”
He also continued to film because he realized that the project meant something to the monks. “I would send them rough cuts to see over the years and sometimes they’d reply in a letter and a thank-you note that they were happy to see a particular brother had been filmed as he had since passed away.”
Slattery calls the documentary, “a poetic-historical film of the Huntsville, Utah monastery, representing 15 years and told over five seasons. Woven into these seasons is an intimate, observed chronicle of the everyday lives of monks.”
What happened to their land?
After the closing of the monastery, the monks went to live in a Catholic nursing home.
They donated about 25 acres of their property to the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City for a potential future parish. To ensure that the remainder of their land remained protected, they handed it over to a trust where it may only be used for agricultural or preserve proposes. “This decision comes from their notion of stewardship, and their wish to leave a positive impact on the valley and neighbors who nurtured and supported them for 70 years,” Slattery says.
He adds, “Their quite humble existence, over time, provided an example of how to live a life, how to be a neighbor, and how to make a powerfully positive impact through deeds, not words. They took seriously how to build a monastery, and in the end, they took as serious how to close one.”