By Erika Webb
In Christianity the directive to "love thy neighbor" is not murky. Yet it is often ignored. Two Glenwood monks have learned all too well, since 2004, just how carelessly the religious rule can be cast aside.
When Father Seamus of Jesus and Brother Nicholas of The Immaculate Heart discovered "through prayer" that it was time to relocate from Peaks Island, Me. -- outside Portland -- they visited friends in Florida and decided to look for property to begin anew.
They drove around with Realtor Terry Bailey who told them she thought she knew the perfect place for them to open the Mother of the Good Shepherd Monastery.
Father Seamus said she also told them: "I'm not even Catholic, but you guys are a riot."
And they are.
The rambling house, on 11 acres in a quiet country setting on Mercers Fernery Road, indeed seemed perfect for this contemplative order to serve God and mankind through prayer.
But it wasn't long before the trouble started.
"The police were here two or three times when we came here," Father Seamus said. "Then we were cited because our fence, which was permitted and built in 1991, was too tall."
It was now-retired attorney Allen Watts who helped the monks resolve the too-high fence issue.
At the time they owned a donkey and the property is zoned rural residential, allowing for a taller fence, provided livestock -- for personal use -- is contained within. Their dwelling also was determined to be set back from the road far enough that the nearly six feet tall -- on all sides -- fence was not considered a code violation.
"There are some very, very nice people here, but there are some particular ones, too," Father Seamus said. "Some are cranky over everything we do. We can't seem to do anything right."
He said there were complaints against them for having a place of worship and for ringing the bells at various times throughout the day. But it was determined, Father Seamus said, that their practices were "all in keeping with the law."
"Traditionally, in a regular parish, the bells are rung at six, 12 and six. Monasteries ring the bells every time they're in chapel," Father Seamus explained. "We do pray like seven times a day, but we don't ring them every time."
The monks are allowed to ring the bells anytime, day or night, but they try to get along. Father Seamus said they now ring the bells before mass and for the Angelus -- a short practice of devotion in honor of the Incarnation -- repeated three times each day, morning, noon, and evening, and at the end of the day, around 8:30 p.m.
"We thought we were being respectful by doing it at eight and not at six (in the morning)," he said.
Jeff and Diane Herring are separated from the monastery only by a piece of property with a fernery on it.
"The monks do not bother me. I love their bells. I wasn't too keen on their cemetery idea but that got shot down anyway," Ms. Herring said. "Once they brought my dogs home. I was coming home from work and they were coming down the road. Three monks in a golf cart, robes billowing, with a lab and a pug trying to keep up. What a sight."
That pug and the lab belonged to the Herrings, but two pugs, a lab and a German shepherd happily share their lives, and perpetually wagging tails -- except for the pugs which have tail deficits -- with Father Seamus and Brother Nicholas.
The German shepherd is Father Seamus's guide dog. The priest lost his sight at an early age.
The lab, Lionel, is a retired guide dog.
"He's very bossy. He tells us when to pray," Father Seamus said, laughing.
Father Seamus laughs a lot. He and Brother Nicholas steadily crack jokes. They are Saturday Night Live funny, but manage to maintain complete reverence in the process.
The "cemetery idea" came about because several friends of the monastery expressed strong desires to be laid to rest there upon their deaths.
Aires Gomes was one. He and his wife, Maria, owned two Dunkin Donuts in DeLand. When Mr. Gomes died, Ms. Gomes and the monks wanted to carry out his wishes. But neighbors and the county said no.
"He loved the monks," Ms. Gomes said. "He just loved them, like his own family. Brother Nicholas was the brother he never had and he just loved Father."
Ms. Gomes said people have been "cruel" to the monks.
"These are people of prayer and they've had so much hardship," she said. "It was really bad. I can't even describe it to you."
Father Seamus and Brother Nicholas said they just wanted a small burial site on the property, for themselves and some of their associates.
"You know it's going to be quiet. They're not going to bother you, but people said there would be more traffic with people bringing flowers," Brother Nicholas said. "What were we going to do?"
Then, there's the matter of the paint color on the house, which is barely visible from the road. It's pink and people didn't like that, either.
"We thought it was going to be a nice-looking peach," Father Seamus said, laughing. Then he called up the John Cougar Mellencamp song with the words, "little pink houses for you and me."
A large warehouse sits behind their living quarters and chapel. The plan was to convert it into a library with a workroom. The building was there when the monks moved in, but it was in serious disrepair. The walls leaked and the roof was rotted.
Money was raised to improve the building and a local contractor, who is no longer in business, and his brother -- sons of one of the monastery's former associates -- were hired to do the $43,000 renovation job.
Father Seamus and Brother Nicholas noticed very little work was being done, yet, they said, the contractor repeatedly came to them asking for more money to be used for the project.
"There was $50,000 in the building fund. They kept coming in, asking for $5,000 and $10,000, but nothing was getting done," Father Seamus said.
Then a representative from 84 Lumber, also no longer in business in DeLand, contacted the monks. They wanted to be paid for lumber that had been ordered, ostensibly on the monk's behalf.
"We told them the bill had been paid," Brother Nicholas said. "But they said it hadn't."
The work on the building was never completed. The money was never repaid.
"People wanted us to press charges. We're still trying to get (the work) done," Father Seamus said. "But those people lost everything they had. I am not their judge, and they've suffered, too."
A poor economy, a small congregation, albeit of earnest devotees, and the purveyance of prayer do not a large bank account make. So the monks continue to practice forgiveness and continue to accept the will of God.
"What our life is, what we want people to know, we're here praying for them," Father Seamus said. "We get letters, calls and e-mails from all over the world. A man from Turkey called because he needed prayers. This morning a man and his wife e-mailed because they lost their son and they needed prayers."
Relying completely on "Divine Providence," these Augustinian Monks of the Primitive Observance support themselves with prayer enrollment cards, a small gift shop, donations and fundraisers.
They have a small herd of goats to keep the fields from becoming over grown, a few chickens for eggs, some geese and pet ducks.
The monks of this order, according to their literature, "consecrate their monastic vocation to the care and protection of the Mother of God. They constantly invoke her powerful intercession for all those entrusted to their prayers, all who have asked for their intercession and for all priests."
"I was in parish life. Brother Nicholas was in health care," Father Seamus said. "You realize you don't have control, but there is power in prayer. "We've seen people's lives change, all kinds of healings -- spiritual, mental, physical. We know what we do every day is affecting people."
Brother Nicholas worked with AIDS and cancer patients before joining the New England monastery. He answered an ad Father Seamus placed in the newspaper.
"If I only knew," Brother Nicholas said, shaking his head and smirking. "It is a lot of work -- praying, manual labor and getting the word out."
"I was looking for peace," he added. "Something was missing in my life and I guess I found it."
The monks want people to understand they're just normal people.
"We go grocery shopping," Father Seamus said.
He called what's happened with some of the neighbors over the past nine years, "abusive, really."
"But so many wonderful people come. They're so grateful we're here," Father Seamus said. "The negative stuff gets out in the news and the positive doesn't."
Ms. Bailey said her life changed when the monks saw her ad in the paper and called her to show them property. She's still not Catholic, but she does attend mass at the monastery from time to time. She said if she ever had a sick child, her first phone call would be to the monastery.
"I love them dearly," she said. "I have truly seen miracles when Father prayed for people that were sick. I had a friend in the hospital and he wasn't expected to live. I called Father and he went and anointed my friend with oil. Father prayed for him and that man walked out of the hospital five days later."