Iowa abbeys offer caskets, caramels, hotel

When you hit the road for a fall colors tour this year, consider heading to the other side of the Mississippi River, for a slice of heaven as well as leaves of warm hues.

How do you define heaven? The drive, especially along the Great River Road, may be enough on its own. The route twists through six states; for details and attractions, see www.byways.org.

If “heaven” means God, or some other power that is bigger than you, there are additional reasons to take the trip. Here is a trio of places to retreat for an overnight stay, or just to absorb the beautiful natural settings and architecture for an hour. Souvenirs can be as indulgent as a box of freshly made chocolate caramels, as profound as an urn or casket to hold the remains of someone you love.

About 12 miles southwest of Dubuque, 2 miles north of U.S. 151 on county Hwy. 41, is New Melleray Abbey, a Trappist monastery of 35 men that has existed since 1849. The monks farm and handcraft many things from wood, including sleek but simple caskets made from the walnut, oak and pine trees in their own sustainable forest.

It was just before noon when I arrived, and one of the six daily worship services was ending (the first begins at 3:30 a.m.). The stone worship sanctuary is narrow, loft-like and full of natural light. About 40 arched windows loom above both the visitors and monks who gather here.

There is no stained glass, no religious statues. The altar is plain and made of wood. A nondescript wrought iron fence separates the travelers from the monastic residents. All scatter, wordlessly, when the 15-minute service ends. What is left is a comfortable silence, broken only by a rustling of the wind.

I am not Catholic, but this doesn’t matter. The building is magnificent. Access to grounds is limited, but no one tries to quiz or convert. Across the hall is a gift shop that contains jewelry, books, religious icons, pottery, jams, soaps and other products of Trappist communities. Even locally grown garlic is sold – four kinds, $1 to $1.50 per bulb.

Wooden birdhouses are shaped like churches with steep steeples. Shiny wooden crosses are ready to adorn walls. Plain doorstops cost $2. Caskets, and urns for cremains, are on display, too.

About 30 monks and lay people make, by hand, about 20 caskets per week; production will increase to 20 per day after an expansion is completed. The work began five years ago.

Overnight guests are welcome, but the 16 small bedrooms fill fast. Each has bathroom facilities. Décor is stark, there is no TV or radio, and silence is encouraged at all times. The suggested donation is $40 per night, which includes meals.

“The changes in our civilization are so rapid and drastic,” notes Brother James Kerndt, while filling in for the Rev. Thomas McMaster, the monastery’s guest master. “There is more interest in discovering your own path, your own spirituality.”

Casket cost is $875 to $1,975, plus shipping (up to $295). Urns are $245. For more: www.trappistcaskets.com, 888-433-6934. For more about the monastery: www.newmelleray.org, 563-588-2319.

Guests do not need to be Christian to stay at this monastery or Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey, a community of 21 Trappist nuns that is 14 miles from New Mellarey. But visitors need to be respectful of the Benedictine way of life that both communities follow.

“We’re not just a rest stop for someone who is traveling,” says Sister Kathleen O’Neill, prioress at the Mississippi Abbey. Guests stay in one of three houses on the grounds; each includes a food-stocked kitchen, from which the visitors make their own meals. It is homelike lodging, but there are no TVs or radios.

Retreat time is not structured by the nuns, although a guest can arrange to speak with one of them or attend the six daily worship services. The cost for an overnight stay is a freewill offering; “we don’t set a suggested donation.”

It is not coincidental that this Trappist chapel, too, looks like a stripped down version of the traditional Christian church. Big windows, clean architectural lines and a lack of clutter “create an environment where a person is put into the presence of God without distractions,” the prioress explains.

This is the start of “candy season” at the Mississippi Abbey, where about 70,000 pounds of caramel is produced annually in an environmentally thoughtful, geothermal facility. Chocolates and caramels are boxed and shipped throughout the country. They also are sold at a small gift shop at the abbey.

Although this is a cloistered community, which means most of the nuns do not interact with the public, five women were allowed to experience the Benedictine life for a reality TV series that will air on The Learning Channel in January (the first five parts of “The Monastery” series begin in October and are based on experiences of five men at a New Mexico monastery). These outsiders stayed at the monastery for 40 days.

Ninety percent of the abbey’s candy is made between now and December. For more: www.monasterycandy.com, 563-556-6330. For more about the Mississippi Abbey, which is just off of U.S. 52, south of Dubuque: www.mississippiabbey.org, 563-582-2595.

Follow the Great River Road (U.S. 52, in this case) for about 60 miles and you’ll be in Bettendorf, home of The Abbey Hotel, a longtime monastery for Carmelite Sisters that has become a four-diamond hotel.

The original building can be seen easily from the top of a bluff that overlooks the Mississippi River. The 1917 chapel remains, as does one sparsely furnished 8-foot “cell” that accommodated nuns until 1975.

“Once a young woman entered the monastery, she was never supposed to leave,” notes a hotel history. No one was permitted to see the nuns. They slept on a board with straw. They did not wear shoes. They sewed vestments and made altar breads (communion hosts).

Today, up to five cells make up one hotel room; each contains stylish furnishings and modern amenities. Rates, $99 to $129, include a hot breakfast. The chapel is a popular spot for weddings, but there are no other church services there.

Tim Heim, sales manager, says the property tends to attract high-end business executives during the week and families on weekends (there are movies and games to help entertain children).

For more: www.TheAbbyHotel.com, 800-438-7535.