By George Siamandas
The Trappist Monastery, started in St. Norbert in 1892 and was known as Our Lady of the Prairies. The ruins are from a larger masonry building constructed in 1904. The Trappists originated in France but moved to Oka Quebec in 1881 to escape religious persecution. It was the first Trappist establishment in western Canada. Father Richot and Archbishop Tache approached the monks in Oka in 1890, and asked them to come to the Red River settlement. The two Winnipeg clerics donated money and land for the monks to come. They built on 1,500 acres in St. Norbert on the La Salle River where they carried on a simple monastic life of prayer, contemplation, study and humble manual labour.
The site supported 30-45 monks at a time. They wore robes. They worked in silence communicating only with sign language. They rose before dawn and attended seven religious services each day. In the early years women were not allowed onto the site. The order believed in self sufficiency. Each monk tended to specialize in a particular craft such as gardening, carpentry, iron work, decorative art.
They were really good farmers. Even though their traditions and clothing are 900 years old, they made the effort to use up to date equipment and agricultural practises. They were self sufficient and had their own bakery, shoemaker’s shop, forge, outdoor sawmill, stables, greenhouses, etc. While they were strict vegetarians they kept cattle, pigs, and poultry which they sold to get the goods they could not produce themselves. They became famous for their cheese and honey.
The monks found that by the 1970s the city had spread too close and they relocated to Holland, Manitoba in 1978. About 20 Trappists continue their dairy, beef and grain operations about 175 km south west of Winnipeg.
After the monks left, the buildings remained closed while heritage people talked about what could be done with them. Sadly in 1983, some young vandals burned it down. The ruins were subsequently stabilized and a provincial heritage park was developed on the site. The guest house was rehabilitated in the early 1990s by a new organization called the St. Norbert Arts and Cultural Centre.
The Trappists were sued in 1897 by a neighbouring farmer who claimed that a fire set by a monk went out of control burning down his property. They were found not guilty.
In the same year, six monks replaced 6 farm workers who went on strike just prior to seeding time. And in 1907 the Trappists were accused of accepting bribes to vote in the provincial election by a local newspaper. The matter was not pursued by authorities, but the Trappists did not try to refute it.