If you build it, they will come. This famous catchphrase from the 1989 movie Field of Dreams is actually a misquote. In the film, an Iowa corn farmer played by Kevin Costner is walking through his fields one night when he hears a disembodied voice saying: “If you build it, he will come.” He is being urged to build a baseball diamond in his cornfields, an apparently crazy course of action for a farmer. Nevertheless, he does build it and (spoiler alert!) some very fascinating players turn up.
I thought about the famous phrase recently when I visited one of my favourite places, the Benedictine Abbey at Kylemore Castle in Connemara. The Abbey faces Pollacappul lake, which is ringed by mountains. On calm days, the abbey is perfectly reflected in the still water. The sheer beauty of the place is like balm to the spirit.
It is now a thriving tourist attraction, providing much-needed employment for over 150 people at peak times.
Tradition has it that the castle was built originally as a love-gift by Mitchell Henry for his wife, Margaret, who died tragically only a few years after it was completed.
He was a notable philanthropist to the people of the area when Connemara was still in the aftermath of the Great Famine and plagued by poverty.
Like many congregations, in recent years the Benedictine sisters have faced falling numbers of vocations and were forced to close their famous school as it was no longer financially viable.
This might have signalled a slow decline into irrelevance but these are doughty women.
The Victorian walled gardens which the Henrys built have been beautifully restored and other small cottage industries like soapmaking, pottery and a chocolatier are in full swing. The tiny neo-Gothic Church, which is like a cathedral in miniature, has been renovated.
These initiatives are excellent but for me, the most fascinating aspect of Kylemore is the Benedictine Community.
The original foundation was established on the continent during times of persecution in Ireland in the 17th Century. The ‘Irish Dames’ were then forced to flee back to Ireland from Ypres in Belgium when their monastery was devastated during the First World War.
Despite a decline in numbers, under the leadership of Sr Máire Hickey, OSB, the community is actively engaged in promoting the spiritual heritage of Kylemore and making it accessible in new and challenging times.
To the casual visitor, the most obvious visible evidence is a new multimedia presentation in the castle. In the old exhibition, the Benedictines were tacked on to the history of the Mitchell Henry family almost as an afterthought. A visitor might not even have been aware that there is a living Benedictine community there.
(Mind you, I have witnessed tourists becoming visibly excited at the sight of a sister in full habit. The sisters tell me that many worthwhile conversations ensue once the novelty factor wears off.)
The new exhibition is state of the art both visually and aurally, and the Benedictine heritage is given its proper place. (After all, they have been in Kylemore for more than a century.)
What is happening behind the scenes is even more important. The Benedictines have entered into a fruitful and mutually beneficial relationship with the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
Benedictines are putting their religious identity front and centre rather than fading away”
Notre Dame has renovated the area where the Benedictines used to live. It is now a Global Education Centre, hosting not just short programmes for students, but conferences, guest lectures, painting workshops and retreats.
As a result, the Benedictines are building a new monastery, which is a bold statement of faith in modern-day Ireland. Sr Máire is quite serene about this venture despite the fact that many of the sisters are no longer young (although their chronological age is often belied by their sharp minds and energy.)
The first phase will be the monastery itself, followed by facilities which will be hospitable both to casual visitors and more serious seekers.
The aim is to provide not just a monastery but a centre for Faith and spirituality based on the Benedictine ethos of prayer, work and hospitality.
The Benedictines’ faith is inspirational. They are putting their religious identity front and centre rather than fading away.
Catholic schools and parishes who are really trying to live by the vision of Christ will find solace in the Benedictines’ faith. It is a reminder that no matter how hostile the culture is, it is always worth being proud of the treasure we hold. It is always worth promoting this message with energy and enthusiasm.
‘If you build it, he will come’ is guaranteed at Kylemore, because He is already present. The place is suffused with the love of Christ.
The Benedictines’ courage will see Christ’s invitation extended to new generations, both lay and religious.
They deserve our practical and prayer support.
A Flavour of Kylemore Abbey, published by Columba Books, gives an exclusive glimpse into one of Ireland’s most intriguing estates, beautifully documented by award-winning photographer Valerie O’Sullivan.