The Bells of Brother Nicholas
by Michael Patrick O’Brien, author of Monastery Mornings, My Unusual Boyhood Among the Saints and Monks
While sitting quietly at home, in what is fast becoming the evening of my lifetime, I have the solitude to cherish the many profound boyhood hours I spent at the now-closed Abbey of the Holy Trinity in Huntsville, Utah. One of my most beloved of these sweet memories is hearing the bells of the Trappist monks’ church.
The Utah monastery was my home away from home when I was a boy, after my parents were divorced and my father had essentially abandoned our family. My Irish Catholic mother, orphaned young, had benefitted from a close relationship with her uncle, a Vermont parish priest. During our family troubles, she took us to visit the Utah Trappists in 1972. They befriended us and I grew up around the monks.
The monks’ bell tower rose some 15 or 20 feet above their simple Quonset hut monastery and I think it included both a large and a small bell. The tower bells rang out 10 times each day, announcing the monastic morning and Trappist twilight, and many of the most important moments in between. I must have heard the bells ring hundreds of times.
The bells also became a defining and welcomed sound within the farmhouses and pasture lands of the surrounding Ogden Valley. In his August 1947 article, “The Trappists Go to Utah,” the famous monk Thomas Merton wrote: “Deer come down to drink at one of the two plentiful springs on the Trappists’ ranch, and about the only sound you hear in the Valley is the howling of coyotes on the mountain side. At least, that was all you heard until the Cistercians set up their bell and began to ring it for Office and Mass.”
With the monastery now closed, those lovely bells are silent.
Or are they?
One of the Utah monks, Brother Nicholas Prinster, listened to those same monastery bells I heard. In fact, he listened to them almost every day for more than 50 years. A hardworking farmer and rancher, he was friends with Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In 1972, she came to Huntsville to visit him and while there, she heard the bells, too.
Unable to farm or to ranch as the years passed by, Brother Nicholas turned to woodworking in his old age, to keep busy, to contribute to the well-being of his brothers, to proclaim the goodness of God with the beautiful work of his hands. Among other things, he made wooden clocks. And within each one of his clocks, he included bells.
I visited the Abbey, Brother Nicholas’s home, for the last time in August 2017.
I sat alone in the monastery church and watched the colored light of the stained-glass window dance in perfect synchronicity with the silent echoes of 70 years of singing monk voices.
I walked down the tree-lined Abbey road. The road cuts a path between two of the Abbey’s fields, both abundantly filled on this day with a late summer growth of alfalfa hay. As I walked, I saw dozens of small white butterflies gently fluttering between the fragrant green plants.
It was a dream-like vision, almost as if all my boyhood memories had taken to winged flight just so they and I could be together, quietly and one last time, in that lovely place where we had first met.
The last thing I did on my last visit to the monastery was to buy one of Brother Nicholas’s clocks. It might be the very last one he made. Built from chestnut brown wood, it is about 18 inches tall, just over a foot wide, with a brass-trimmed clock face that shows the time in classic Roman numerals. And, of course, it has bells.
Four times an hour and 48 times a day, the bells of Brother Nicholas chime softly in my home. They announce my morning, my twilight and many of the most important moments in between. And they blend seamlessly with my beating heart, silently resurrecting the music of the bells I first heard and loved so many decades ago as a boy monk.
NOTE: This article was published on the blog The Boy Monk on April 15, 2018