Remembering the Novitiate

The Alexian Brothers Novitiate compound, located in a secluded area east of Gresham, stirs up a variety of emotions for many long-time residents.

The estate on the edge of the Red River stepped into the annals of history when the Menominee Warrior Society invaded the property 15 minutes into the new year in 1975, took several hostages and demanded the Alexian Brothers give the the property, originally owned by American Indians, to the Menominee.

The month-long standoff ended when the Catholic society sold the deed to the Menominee. The warriors evacuated the monastery and were arrested. The tribe relinquished ownership of the estate within a few months, however, due to a lack of funds, and in October 1975 fire gutted the former three-story mansion.

Author J. Patrick Rick of Texas writes about the standoff in his new book, "The Abbey and Me: Renegades, Rednecks, Real Estate and Religion," but it is just one part of the property's rich history that he shares.

Rick's love for the Novitiate extends back to 1966, when he was fresh out of high school and considering a life of serving God.

Rick spent six months at the Novitiate as a postulate, a probationary beginner in the tenets of the Catholic faith. At the end of the six months, postulates must decide whether to remain at the monastery for further training in running health facilities, a primary mission of the Alexian Brothers.

"Even though this was secluded, and even though we were out wearing black, there were some people who were not Catholic who would drive by, and this would be a mysterious place, in their minds," Rick said.

By Lee Pulaski
Author recounts history of Gresham monastery in book
<p>Despite the breathtaking view of the Red River from his attic cell and the solitude of the remote monastery, Rick decided remaining in the brotherhood was not his path in life. Thirty years later, he found himself back in Wisconsin on business and decided to drive from Milwaukee to Gresham to see how his home had held up over the years.</p><p>It hadn't.</p><p>When Rick arrived at the entryway to the Novitiate, he said, he was stunned to see the decrepit condition of the monastery and mansion where he and many other men had slept during their training.</p><p>He was also stunned that a young man in Shawano, whom Rick had approached seeking directions to the Novitiate, apparently had never heard of the place.</p><p>With so little written about the monastery beyond the 1975 standoff, Rick felt he needed to document the rich history of the property.</p><p>"The place was never the same after 1975," Rick said. "It became useless, and more useless as time went on."</p><p>He started out doing a 15-minute documentary film, "The Novitiate," in the hopes of eventually making a full-length film. He wound up writing the book instead, a mission that took him more than a decade to complete.</p><p>During his research, he learned more about the early days of the building. Construction on the mansion began in 1938 when Jennie Peters, the widow of a Chicago lawyer, sought a new home for her ailing daughter. Even though Peters' daughter did not live long enough to set foot in the mansion, Peters lived there for many years before giving the mansion to the Alexian Brothers.</p><p>The Alexian Brothers renovated the mansion and the first Novice class arrived in 1951. An addition was built to complete the monastery, which was dedicated in 1955. That addition was demolished in 2004, and only the original mansion, renamed Peters Hall by the monks, remains today.</p><p>Part of the challenge for Rick in writing the book was finding people to interview. He said many people were reticent to talk about that dark period in local history, when racial tensions were high, vigilantes were active and the commander of the National Guard contingent was uncertain his men could hold back angry local citizens.</p><p>However, Rick faced a more personal challenge in completing the book when he suffered a stroke in 2005. He eventually recovered, but could no longer type. If it had not been for talk-to-type technology, "The Abbey and Me" would not have been completed, Rick said.</p><p>"I have been pushing very hard over the last five years to finish the book," Rick said. "This is not a good choice of words, but it was very much a do-or-die thing -- why work so hard for five years and then put it to bed? I could not live with that."</p><p>Rick started out gathering stories about the Novitiate, Peters Hall and all the building's other identities. Now that the book is complete, it is important to him that others hear the story, especially since some of the people he has interviewed in a decade's time have passed on.</p><p>"It's almost like time was running out," Rick said. "That was another one of those incentives; people are dying who cannot ever recount this place being built."</p>
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