Art has a prayer at this abbey near Covington

As the sun set, a haunting, ancient melody drifted across the small wooded pond and settled among the dark oaks as a procession of black-robed monks performed evening vespers. The songs and chants are almost as old as recorded time, but time was irrelevant in the evening afterglow that burned along the silhouetted edges of the church and monastery. This is a place that would appear more at home in a small European village than in the woods north of Covington in St. Tammany Parish.
Located on 1,200 acres of forest, gardens and pasture land alongside the clear, sandy-bottomed Bogue Falaya River, St. Joseph Abbey, its Benedictine monks, chants and closed religious life seem almost anachronistic in a technology-driven modern world that is creeping ever closer to the abbey’s doors. Yet since 1902 it has been a haven, a spiritual refuge, a place of prayer and education, and now a source of creative and contemplative inspiration for painters, writers and other artists.
In the late 1990s, the monks, who have always stressed prayer and work in the rhythm of their daily lives, opened their grounds to the outside world with a new retreat center within the sound of the morning bells. This is not a retreat house in the traditional Catholic sense of prayer and fasting, but a place where corporate heads can meet to discuss trends and strategic planning, or simply find a serene place away from overactive phones, computers and PalmPilots. This all takes place in the abbey’s Christian Life Center at the end of a gravel lane a few steps from the church, the Bogue Falaya, the nearby abbey bakery, which perfumes the night air, and a small pond surrounded by azaleas.
Two years ago, the Benedictines, anxious to raise money for the abbey, expanded the retreat center concept with Abbey Art Works, a year-round series of five-day workshops that recruits accomplished artists to lead art classes on the abbey grounds. Students stay three to five days, depending on the workshop they attend. The program offers instruction in drawing, painting, printmaking, creative writing and basket weaving. Two of the best-known artists teaching in the program are Alan Flattmann and Elemore Morgan Jr. Both are nationally acclaimed and have reputations for being excellent teachers. Occasionally, a class might be held off-site, such as the time an instructor wanted to do a life-drawing class with a female nude. “Naked ladies are not good at the abbey,” laughs Adrienne Laborde, the abbey’s director of special projects, who oversees the program. They moved the session to the St. Tammany Art Association in nearby Covington.
“So far, the program is working well,” says Laborde. To date, more than 200 people, mostly women along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas and one from Michigan, have attended the workshops, which she advertises in Catholic newspapers throughout the nation. If attendance continues and if fund-raising efforts are successful, the abbey plans to expand with the conversion of an early 20th-century chicken coop and a barn into art studios. The barn could be completed as soon as next year, but the chicken coop conversion is scheduled for 2006. Once completed, several workshops can run simultaneously, Laborde says.
One possibility, she adds, is to run a painting and creative writing workshop at the same time. At the end of the day, the painters could critique the writers’ work and the writers could critique the paintings. She has tried that a couple of times informally, and it has worked well. “I think it is fun to put creative people under the same roof at the same time,” she says. “It makes for wonderful dinners, and the conversation sizzles.”
The abbey is an idyllic setting for artists. The magnificent murals painted by the Belgian-born Benedictine monk Dom Gregory de Wit grace the church walls; novelist Walker Percy, the existentialist novelist who searched lifelong for his place in the cosmos, is buried at the end of the gravel lane only a few steps from the retreat center.
To the artists attending the workshops, St. Joe – as locals call it – provides a personal and metaphysical retreat that helps them explore their art. “The spiritual overtones at the abbey were, for me, critical for my success,” says Elizabeth Phelan, a beginner painter from Beaumont, Texas, who now has attended three workshops at St. Joseph. “The workshop style of the abbey is a self-contained progressive event that allows one to step out of daily life and slip into a temporary world without time. The beautiful, inspirational setting of the retreat house – with all its hospitality, combined with the excellent direction of experienced artists who are also superb teachers – allowed me, as a beginner, to develop through painting what I experienced through my visual sense.”
Phelan, like many other artists who find a spiritual awakening at the abbey, looks upon her experiences there as important moments in her artistic development. “It was a gift from God in timing and content,” she says. “I simply stepped through a door God opened, seemingly out of the blue, and became aware of the incredible beauty and delight that is in every moment in painting. I know it sounds ridiculous and simplistic, but I feel as if I never knew color and light existed before these workshops.”
Zahidi Neale, an artist from Magnolia, Texas, just north of Houston, checked in for a few days, not to attend an organized workshop but simply to spend time drawing alone on the grounds. “The environment at the abbey is as ideal as any place I have ever been for producing art,” she says. “There is a permeating calm about the place itself. I took hundreds of photos for reference for future work. The grounds are eye candy, covered with majestic oaks. There is no pressure to do anything. Making art is a form of meditation and honoring the creator within, so the spiritual atmosphere is very conducive to quietly drawing or painting.”
Neale goes on to comment on the abbey grounds and retreat center facilities. “It’s not luxurious. It’s a religious retreat, not the Four Seasons. But I love it there. And I’m not even a Christian! My meditations were excellent. [You have] all the religious monk chanting you want … and Mass and all that Catholic stuff … better than any CD I ever had.”
Dawn Koetting of Thibodaux and her mother, Ruby Gregory, have attended three workshops at the abbey. Like Neale and Phelan, Koetting also found solitude-induced inspiration in the workshops. “Time stress just disappears,” she says. “The area is so beautiful, and morning or evening walks are so enjoyable. The quiet is very conducive to producing not only art but to taking a deep breath and recharging the old inner batteries. Cell phones don’t always work very well out there, so it really is a unique way to get away from it all and just enjoy your passion in as stress-free environment as one can imagine.”
Marcia Holmes, a former certified public accountant and now a professional artist residing in Mandeville, says the workshop she took with artist Alan Flattmann was a way for her to get in-depth technique training from an outstanding artist. Holmes, however, commuted to the workshops each morning from her Mandeville home. The next time she signs up for a workshop, she plans to stay overnight at the retreat center “to hear the monks chant” and to participate in the evening discussions.
Kristie Gagliano, a young graphic designer from nearby Madisonville who works with Laborde and Abbey Art Works, stayed over four nights to take a workshop in painting Eastern Orthodox icons. The workshop was a gift to her from her grandmother. “Otherwise, I would not have not have spent an entire week dedicated to painting,” she says. “But part of the beauty of taking a class here is that it releases you to do nothing but paint.”
Marguerite Foley, a retired New Orleans schoolteacher who now lives across the road from the abbey, says she enjoyed the watercolor workshop she attended. She found the daily critiques of her work and discussions with other artists helpful in improving her own technique. “The atmosphere is perfect,” she says.
While other artists search for the right words to describe their experiences at the abbey workshops, Foley jumps in to sum up everything about the place – “This is holy ground!”
For more information about Abbey Art Works, contact Adrienne Laborde at (985) 867-2221 or email her at