St. Joseph’s Abbey — Spencer, MA




What distinguishes a Trappist monk from other monks? All monks have a way of life, but Trappist monks have a way of life which includes self-knowledge. Time spent in prayer and meditation leads us to the truth about ourselves, which is humility. Learning the truth about ourselves leads us to recognize the truth about others, which is compassion. Knowing the truth about ourselves and others allows us to catch a glimpse of the truth about God, which is contemplation. This path is not a straight line. Often we find ourselves standing once again in the Dark Wood of error. Over and over we discover humility and compassion, spiraling ever deeper into our conversion and into mystery.

Our community began in 1825.  French monks, anxious to keep their heads, sought a place to freely practice their religion in safety. Safety was found first in Nova Scotia and then in Cumberland, RI. However, with a late-night bar down the street and a racetrack around the corner, the monks moved to Spencer, MA in 1950 where the world did not intrude so much. Today we are the Trappist monks of Spencer.

We begin our day in darkness. We rise at 3 a.m. when peaceful stillness encompasses all. We gather together as a community and then we keep watch and we listen. And if we listen well, the stillness speaks to us. We rise at 3 a.m. because this is different from the rhythm of the world, because to be sacred is to be set apart.

We begin our day in silence and we end our day in silence. The greatest things are accomplished in silence: the progression of our thoughts, our acts of generosity, our ability to endure and overcome, the motions of our hearts. Silent forces are strong forces. The objects you see before you have their source in silence and their foundation in the simplicity our lives, and as you read this, you are silent too.

Artist Biographies

Fr. Emmanuel Morinelli, OCSO

B.A. Philadelphia College of Art 1968-1970|, M.F.A. The Catholic University of America, 1974, 1977 | M.A. St. Joseph’s College, IN, 2001, M.Div. Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary, 2014.

To be both monk and artist is to live a delicate tension between two strong desires; the desire to live for God alone, and the desire to express that which is most meaningful to me. By vocation I am a monk, by temperament I am an artist. They can be, and are at times in conflict with one another. However, they can also be mutually supportive of one another. Together they provide a language and a medium to articulate that which is deepest within me. I have decided to embrace them both and work toward their integration in my life. I was trained as a painter and a designer. I also take delight in textiles. In recent years photography has been my primary media and form of expression. My photography is painterly, as well as a form of visual contemplation. It is a familiar place where I find God.

Br Brian Rooney, OCSO

Br Brian entered Saint Joseph’s Abbey on Halloween 1998 –twenty years ago as this show starts. Before the coming to the abbey he worked as a data analyst at Johns Hopkins University studying environmental health. The University is adjacent to the outstanding Baltimore Museum of Art where he was a member and frequent visitor.

Br Brian’s work at the abbey includes helping out at The Holy Rood Guild and Trappist Preserves. He  has been a photographer since 1984 and practices whenever possible.

Photographs resonate within our hearts because they reveal the heart of the photographer and his willingness to lay it bare before us. –David duChemin

James Palmigiano

1952                Born in Methuen, Massachusetts.                    

1974                BFA, Rhode Island School of Design.

1978                Entered the Society of Jesus.

1983                MFA, Columbia University.

1988-89           MDiv, ThM, Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley.           

1988                Priestly ordination. 

1989-91           Associate professor, Fine Arts, Boston College.             

1991                Entered Saint Joseph’s Abbey, Spencer.

Artmaking is about attentiveness, trying to bring order out of what is confused and apparently hopeless. Each piece emerges from a process of adding, subtracting, and rearranging in a search for balance, order and presence. Whole sections will be torn away, and the work may appear to be ruined. That which is integrated, whole and beautiful is often hidden in what, at first glance, appears chaotic, fragmented, decaying, torn to pieces and not worthy of notice. There, in what could be passed over or ignored, hope and light may reveal themselves.

Autobiography Br. Stephen Shanahan

 As a child I started going to the Boys Club, where I was introduced to painting, ceramics, pottery and other crafts, and I fell in love. When others were swimming and playing soft ball I was creating all kinds of things.

I was an art major in high school, and was going to go to an art college but after a visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum, I decided I wanted to use my creativity to design buildings like that, and live in one.

In time I went to culinary school, became a chef, catered in all the New England States, worked aboard a tall ship and managed to cook in every state on the Eastern Sea Board and Caribbean (I can fire a cannon if I have to). 

No matter what I did I never stopped using my creativity. I have tried many mediums, and I have often used the skills learned in one are or another. Such as taking what I learned in weaving and quilting and using it in paper.

 For me, creativity is a never ending ongoing process, but it’s also about being open and listening and not trying to control the end product just working on the process.

Br. Gabriel Weaver O.C.S.O.

Born Wilmington, Delaware | January 1983 Entered Spencer Abbey

 Lived in various places, attended various schools, received a B.A. in philosophy, did some graduate work in Theology. Worked various jobs, mostly in horticulture. Tried poetry, paintings, took scattered art courses, learned basic pottery skills at a studio in Boston about 3 years before monastic life. Potter became the answer to a puzzle of how to best participate in the wonder and beauty of creation, and, in a mystical sense, how to “touch” God. The effort to make real an inner perceived beauty in a three-dimensional object is a source of immense fascination to me. To engage with so many variables of nature in the process is endlessly enriching. Some years ago, Fr. Isaac and I were able to build our own wood-fired downdraft kiln. To process the wood, hear, see, smell and feed the fire for several hours is a true focus of physical and psychic energy. Using the ash from the fire for the glazes is re-cycling of a higher order. For me, when the ancient single, separate, elements of earth, air, fire, and water coalesce and solidify into a unified, tangible substance, a pot; it becomes a small revelation of the transcendent embedded in the here and now…  


Brother Terence McGrath 

I was born and raised in Queens, New York and entered the Congregation  of Holy Cross in the mid-50s. Taught in the Brothers' high schools for 20 years after receiving degrees from St. Edwards University in Texas and Fairfield   University in Connecticut. Following an attraction to the monastic life felt since the mid-60s, I entered St. Joseph's Abbey in 1983.  With the encouragement of a colleague, I began painting landscapes in the mid-60s and eventually sold most of my work.  As i entered the monastery, I was drawn more and more to sacred images and an evolution from painting landscapes to writing icons occurred.