‘Humbled and honored’: An interview with the new abbot of St. Bede Abbey

Abbot Michael Calhoun, OSB, who was elected on July 13 to lead the Benedictine community at St. Bede Abbey in Peru, stands in front of the monastery’s door. His abbatial blessing is planned for Saturday, Sept. 3, and will be conferred by Auxiliary Bishop Robert J. Lombardo, CFR, of Chicago. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

PERU — After being known as Father Michael for 20 years, it may take some time for Abbot Michael Calhoun, OSB, to get used to his new title and responsibilities. But that is what the monastic community at St. Bede Abbey elected him to do on July 13.

His abbatial blessing will be conferred by Auxiliary Bishop Robert J. Lombardo, CFR, of Chicago on Saturday, Sept. 3, in St. Bede Abbey Church. Abbot Michael said that in addition to being the feast day of St. Gregory the Great, an important saint for Benedictines, Sept. 3 is the anniversary date of the abbatial blessing of Abbot Roger Corpus, OSB, in 1990.

With Abbot Emeritus Philip Davey’s hand on his shoulder and his hand on the Book of the Gospels, newly elected Abbot Michael Calhoun makes a profession of faith on July 13 in the new chapel for the monastic community at St. Bede Abbey in Peru. (Provided photo)

Abbot Michael succeeds Abbot Philip Davey, OSB, who guided the Benedictine community at St. Bede since 2011, and had been acting as interim abbot since his 75th birthday on April 3.

“I feel humbled and honored to serve the St. Bede community as its abbot. I pray for God’s grace to strengthen me and ask for the entire St. Bede community to remember me in their prayers,” Abbot Michael said when his election was announced.

Leadership is nothing new for Abbot Michael, who has served as prior at the monastery since 2009. Whatever trepidation he might have felt about the role he could potentially play for the next 23 years was eased by the words of confidence voiced by his predecessor.

“Abbot Michael is very much a man of faith, who grew in holiness through St. Benedict,” Abbot Emeritus Philip said. “He is very devoted to prayer, and for many years has generously served the monks in a variety of jobs. I could not have accomplished the work I did as abbot without the daily support of the good prior.”

EMOTIONAL MOMENT

A Benedictine abbot is elected by the members of the monastic community. A six-month period of prayerful reflection began the process of discernment at St. Bede Abbey. Nomination of candidates took place by secret ballot followed by a discussion of each candidate.

Overseeing the abbatial election on July 13 was Abbot President Jonathan Licari, OSB, of the American Cassinese Congregation of Benedictine Monasteries.

“Our community is small,” Abbot Michael said. “With a small community there are only a few options and I could tell I was one of the options.”

Unlike American politics, where candidates campaign for office, the election of an abbot is more about discernment by the monastic community. That includes considering what to do if selected. At one point, Abbot Michael didn’t think he could accept it if he was chosen.

But as the discernment continued, he thought, “If I see the community coalescing around me, I’ll say ‘yes.’ And I saw that happen.”

Nevertheless, it was an emotional moment, he told The Catholic Post.

GREW UP IN UTICA

Priesthood — let alone serving as abbot someday — wasn’t on Abbot Michael’s radar as a boy.

The son of Michael and Linda Calhoun, he was born on Dec. 7, 1970, and given the name Matthew. He grew up in Utica and attended the Baptist church down the street with his brother and sister.

“At some point during my eighth grade year — I think it was 1984-1985 — my parents decided they wanted to start going to the Catholic church,” he recalled. “We started taking instruction at Resurrection Parish in LaSalle with Msgr. (James) Swaner, now of happy memory, and Msgr. (Thomas) Mack.”

“I pray for God’s grace to strengthen me and ask for the entire St. Bede community to remember me in their prayers.” Abbot Michael Calhoun, OSB

Abbot Michael was baptized, confirmed and received his First Communion shortly before entering St. Bede Academy. After witnessing the community life of the Benedictines and attending Emmaus Days, a vocations awareness program sponsored by the Diocese of Peoria, he approached Abbot Marion Balsavich about joining the Benedictines at the end of his senior year.

He was sent to Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, earning a bachelor’s degree in religious education with a minor in philosophy. He came into the community as a postulant on Aug. 15, 1993, and started his novitiate on Dec. 8, 1993. A year later, he made a simple profession (temporary vows).

Final vows would come on Dec. 8, 1999.

Abbot Michael holds a master’s of divinity and a master’s degree in Scripture from St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. He attended St. John’s University in Collegeville from 2006 to 2008 and received a master’s degree in monastic studies.

He was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, on June 1, 2002, at St. Bede Abbey Church.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

Abbot Michael started teaching religion in 1995 and has done that ever since, with the exception of the two years he spent doing graduate work. Whether he will be able to continue remains to be determined.

In the meantime, several changes have taken place for the monastic community at St. Bede.

“A priority for all of us is devising an arrangement of governance in the monastery that reflects our numbers,” he said, noting that the community now has 11 members, with one living in a nursing home.

One of the things that brings joy to Abbot Michael Calhoun, OSB, is gardening. His skill can be seen in this Mary garden, which he planted on the grounds of St. Bede Abbey and Academy. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

Rather than having an abbot, a prior and a sub-prior, along with a senior council, Abbot Michael said they will have an abbot and prior, with the entire community taking responsibility for making decisions with regard to their life together. A new prior to succeed Abbot Michael has not been named yet.

And after months of planning, nine of the Benedictines moved from the abbey into the residence formerly occupied by the female boarding students. A chapel was completed in July and that’s where the abbatial election took place.

The monks pray the Divine Office, Morning Prayer, Mid-day Prayer, Evening Prayer and Compline in the chapel and go to the abbey church for Mass.

“We are also modifying our relationship with St. Bede Academy — something that reflects our numbers, our monastic numbers” he added. “Our corporate structures have not been revised in a good many years. We need to think about that and what that might look like.”

Until now, four of the monks have been involved at St. Bede Academy in a direct way: Abbot Philip as vice president of mission advancement; Father Ronald Margherio, chaplain; Father Dominic Garramone, religion department chair and drama director; and Abbot Michael.

He said the Benedictines intend to maintain St. Bede Academy as an independent school.

In his spare time, Abbot Michael likes to read, especially American history and historical narratives, and watches police procedurals, such as “Law and Order” and “NCIS.”

Evidence of his love for gardening can be seen in the Mary garden on the monastery grounds, which he planted.

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