Wyo. ranchers, monks clash over proposed monastery

MEETEETSE, Wyo. —Plans by a group of Roman Catholic hermit monks to erect an outsized monastery in northern Wyoming have pitted neighbor against neighbor and aroused debate with religious undertones.

At the center of the Wyoming controversy is a remote ranch where the Monks of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel want to build a 144,000-square-foot French Gothic-style monastery and coffee-roasting barn. The monastery will feature a church that seats 150, with one spire rising 150 feet.

The proposal triggered a clash between ranchers who live miles apart, trying to protect their quiet, rural open spaces, and the hermit monks who live a secluded, Spartan life of prayer and meditation and are looking for more room to meet their expanding order and maintain their privacy.

And it's forced the monks to temporarily abandon their seclusion as they seek permission to build.

"They're hermits and they don't interact very much with the public," said Michael LaBazzo, an attorney representing the monks. "They have recently, but not by choice."

The plan has cleared a planning and zoning board but still needs approval from Park County commissioners, who will discuss it on Oct. 5.

The monks now occupy a small monastery near the hamlet of Clark, about 40 miles east of Yellowstone National Park.

They belong to an order rooted in the 16th century that requires they sustain themselves through mostly manual labor. They dress in handmade full-length robes, sleep in small individual housing units called hermitages with no radio, no TV, no Internet. They raise and grow most of their own food, funding their operation by making and producing their own brand of coffee called Mystic Monk. They market mugs, bag clips, T-shirts, travel mugs and a CD of their Gregorian chants over the Internet and with mail-order catalogs.

Masses are celebrated in Latin. No women are allowed to join. The Rev. Daniel Mary created the Wyoming monastery in 2003.

And the order is growing. The original two members now number 18. They occupy about 40 acres nestled in the Beartooth Mountains.

To maintain their seclusion, the monks have their eyes on a 2,500-acre ranch about 50 miles away in a rugged area with creeks fed by looming mountains. The area has few roads, a few widely dispersed ranch homes, a few scattered oil and gas wells. The ranch is about 14 miles from the nearest public road, and the nearest town, 20 miles away, is Meeteetse, population about 350, that is most famous for the arrest of outlaw Butch Cassidy in 1894.

They plan to build a monastery mainly of stone with 30 separate hermitages for monks, a small dormitory for men in training to become monks, a commons area and a church spire rising the equivalent of 15 stories high.

Ranch owner Dave Grabbert, whose family has held the property since 1938, has agreed to sell to the religious order, and he describes the two monks he has met as personable, intelligent and "just decent guys."

"I don't care if they're Hindus, Buddhists or what they are, but being decent people, that's really a plus in this day and age," Grabbert said. "Not everyone is."