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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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NEW MELLERAY MONASTERY. Faced with rapidly depleted soil and political turmoil in Ireland, Dom Bruno Fitzpatrick, the Abbot of Mount Melleray Abbey, County Waterford, Ireland, looked to America in 1848 as a site for a new monastery. Brother Macarius Keegan had traveled to America previously and had, since 1845, been making appeals for funds. During Keegan's visit to Dubuque, Bishop Mathias LORAS offered land and financial aid to the monks. Responding to the offer, Brother Ambrose Byrne left for Dubuque on May 14, 1849. After visiting eastern Iowa, he wrote to his superior describing in glowing terms the shady valley, "verdant rolling prairies," and "lovely creek."

Dom Bruno, after deciding to investigate the Iowa region personally with several companions, arrived in Dubuque in June. Agreeing quickly with Brother Ambrose, Dom Bruno rapidly began the efforts to complete the deal with Bishop Loras fearing that land speculators would purchase the land in hopes of making a quick profit.


Bishop Loras fulfilled his promise by giving the Trappist brothers 440 acres. Another 480 acres were secured through three land warrants of $145 each paid by the order. Eighty acres were purchased from Jeremiah Healy, a farmer, for one hundred dollars. Several months later, Bishop Loras donated an additional 160 acre tract of trees.

The first frame building used by the monks, a structure 15 feet square, was found on the land when it was purchased. Brother Ambrose and Dom Bruno drew plans for a building 60 x 12 feet and the cornerstone was laid on July 16, 1849. Father Clement SMYTH served as the prior of the new monastery from July 16, 1849 until August 18, 1849, when he left New Melleray to become the second bishop of the diocese of Dubuque.

Before Dom Bruno left New Melleray, he wrote to Prior Francis Walsh in Ireland asking that three choir brothers and eleven lay brothers be sent to the new monastery. Dom Bruno also named the new monastery "Our Lady of New Melleray."


After the close of the CIVIL WAR, the present stone structure was constructed from plans drawn by John MULLANY, a prominent Dubuque architect. The monastery was built in a 13th Century GOTHIC REVIVAL ARCHITECTURE style.

Since the founding of the monastery in 1849, the monks served the religious needs of the surrounding region. When the pioneers living in the area felt the need to build their own parish church, the monks provided pastors to the parish. In 1889, the present parish church was dedicated, and named Holy Family.


The Abbey was remodeled several times. One of the most notable projects was the completion of the Abbey's chapel. Because of financial concerns, the Abbey's chapel was not completed as originally designed by the architect. It had originally been on the second floor of the east wing, then was moved in 1920 to the second floor of the north wing. In the 1970s, the abbey was able to convert the entire north wing of the Abbey into a permanent chapel. Red oak is used in the choir stalls, doors, Eucharistic chapel, and other furnishings. The altar was made of granite that had been quarried in Minnesota.


On April 1, 1933, the New Melleray Monastery witnessed its first ordination to the priesthood with the ordination of Frater Pius Hanley, a native of Ireland. The end of WORLD WAR II saw an increase in the number of monks from twenty to over one hundred.

The Abbey began rebuilding the infirmary for the elderly and sick monks. The Abbey did build an infirmary in the 1950s, but it has since become outdated. (1)

For years the monks farmed the land. That became unsustainable in the late 1990s and the monks transitioned to making and selling caskets. They grew their own trees on 1,600 acres of forest — the state’s second-largest privately owned forest. They harvested mature pine, walnut and oak hardwoods and occasionally supplemented lumber from other vendors. They planted native saplings. (2) Over the years, the monks have preserved their forests and even earned an award from the state in 1998 for their woodland management. (3)

Trappist Caskets cost between $1,200 and $1,500. Originally the caskets were sold by funeral homes but the low cost led many funeral directors to focus clients' attention on more expensive options. The Trappists have since relied on word-of-mouth and their website with about 40 caskets and 25 cremation urns shipped in a typical week. (4) The men, who ranged in age from their late 30s to early 90s, had been offering free child caskets for years. In 2020 in response to the PANDEMIC they decided to offer adult pine caskets as well. (Shipping costs were not included.) (5)

Honey, one of the products sold by the monastery. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Incense container
Back of incense container.



1. Pratt, LeRoy G. Discovering Historic Iowa, Iowa Department of Public Instruction, 1975

2. "As Coronavirus Death Rates Multiply, These Monks Are Giving Away Caskets," Religious News Service, Online: https://religionnews.com/2020/04/03/with-death-rates-multiplying-these-monks-are-offering-the-needy-caskets-for-free/

3. Samuels, Sam Hooper, "Making Ends Meet," Smithsonian Magazine, October, 2002, Online: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/making-ends-meet-70394738/

4. Ibid.

5. "As Coronavirus Death..."