Visitors feel a sense of peace the minute their cars turn into the entrance of Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery located on the Cooper River near Moncks Corner.
Sunlight filters through live oak trees arching over the driveway that leads to the monastery’s well-known gardens, the second most visited tourist site in Berkeley County. Its land is rich with Lowcountry history, but more than anything, some visitors pick up on the spiritual force that radiates from the site.
“The grounds are sacred,” said Father Joseph A. Tedesco. “Sacred grounds that just envelope you in a way.”
Tedesco was recently chosen by his fellow monks to serve as the fifth leader of the monastery.
“People say, ‘I come here just because I need to drive in and feel the peace,’” Tedesco said. “That peacefulness envelops us as monks, we’re part of it, it’s almost like osmosis almost after a while when you live here.”
Father Elias Deitz, Abbot of Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky and Mepkin’s motherhouse, confirmed the choice of making Tedesco the next superior. Tedesco succeeds Father Stan Gumula who led the Mepkin community for the past 12 years.
Tedesco entered the community in 2008, he made his solemn profession as a monk in 2014. Since then he has worked on the monastery’s mushroom farm, cooked flavorful vegetarian meals for his brothers and managed the Abbey Store and Reception Center.
Their community, currently made up of 17 men, was designed to be small, yet hospitable. Mepkin Abbey is part of the Roman Catholic Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, commonly known as Trappists. They follow the Rule of St. Benedict, devoting their lives to prayer, physical work, spiritual reading and welcoming visitors. Some people visit for a day to soak up the natural beauty, others stay overnight in the monastery’s retreat center.
The monks gather at 3:20 a.m. daily for the first of seven prayer services of the day.
“Our main job is worshiping God and praying for the world,” Tedesco said. “It’s a beautiful life.”
In between prayers the monks make a living by growing fresh mushrooms. They sell 1,200 pounds a week to Lowcountry restaurants. Some grocery stores, including Whole Foods, also buy the mushrooms in bulk.
In his early life Tedesco was a priest in New Jersey for 28 years.
“Then I got called to this life and I’m grateful for that call,” Tedesco said. “Of course the challenge with everybody is to know their call and to follow it.”
He was drawn to Mepkin, instead of other monasteries, because he said the place was “the right fit.” He said he’s found “ultimate happiness and fulfillment” in his life at Mepkin.
Tedesco admits life as a monk is not always easy. There are many limitations. Ancient monastic rules mean a life of seclusion and chastity. Monks are not to be distracted by materialism, consumption or modern trends.
“But you get used to everything,” Tedesco said. “Not going out, not traveling, that’s all over, it’s done.”
Trappist monks are expected to remain in their monasteries until death and then be buried on site.
“We take a vow of stability which means that you’re attached to the place,” Tedesco said. “It’s a vow of freedom to me because it means that there’s nothing else that you have to deal with. “Just let me be here fully and let it just change me. This sacred place does that.”
The monastery was founded in 1949 when Henry and Clare Boothe Luce gave the 3,000 acres to the Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky so that some of the 300 monks there could relocate to Mepkin. The Luce family had used the property for their vacation get away. Before that the land was a plantation owned by Henry Laurens, who owned slaves that also lived on the grounds.
Long before the land was a monastery, a vacation home or a rice plantation, Native Americans thrived on the land.
“Mepkin” is a Native American word meaning “serene.”
“There’s so much history here,” Tedesco said.
A bell tower was constructed in the center of the monastery to represent the “seven spirits of Mepkin.”
Native Americans, Henry Laurens family, slaves who worked on the Laurence plantation, the Luce family, the earliest monks buried on the grounds, friends of the monks also buried on the property and current day monks.
“That history is powerfully part of us,” Tedesco said. “Every time we ring that bell, every time we start the prayer it’s gathering together that whole reality again from that tower of the seven spirits. I think it’s pretty profound.”
Throughout the abbey there are signs posted reminding visitors to remain quiet. Silence is practiced by all of the monks.
Tedesco said if they have something to discuss, monks will schedule a meeting. Otherwise, there is little conversation.
Quietness makes space for contemplation and connection to the natural beauty at Mepkin.
Day visitors often picnic in the garden. The retreat center is gaining in popularity after the abbey created monastic affiliate programs allowing for visitors to stay in the center for a month or even a year.
“It’s a nice opportunity for men and women of all faith traditions to come and get a little taste of monastic life,” Tedesco said.
The programs are part of a strategy to help outsiders learn more about the thousand year old trappist traditions.
As the modern world moves forward, fewer people are drawn into a lifelong commitment to monasticism. While the monks don’t go out of their way to publicize, they must continue finding ways to connect with outsiders and despite their aging population, the monks must continue to earn a living.
Tedesco is part of a committee focused on future growth and development of the abbey. He said he hopes the abbey will continue for centuries to come but he understands it may not exist as it does today.
“It’s going to be different, nothing can remain the same,” Tedesco said.
Now that he’s the superior, Tedesco is responsible for moving the monastery forward. While his responsibilities are greater than before, he said the new role is exciting.
“I’m energized by the whole thing because I have an opportunity to use my gifts and to be here for the brothers in a different way,” Tedesco said.