9 monks at Irving monastery test positive for COVID-19, abbot says

Nine monks at Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas have tested positive for COVID-19 and two remain hospitalized, though both are expected to recover, the abbot of the monastery said Friday.

One of the hospitalized monks is in his 70s, the other in his 80s. A third monk was hospitalized but is recovering at the abbey, the Rev. Peter Verhalen said. An employee of the abbey also was hospitalized with COVID-19 but is recovering at home.

Of the 19 monks living in the Irving monastery, seven are sick and quarantined in their rooms, where they worship in solitude and eat meals left outside their doors by their healthy brothers.

The illness has upended life for the men in the centuries-old religious order, whose vows require them to eat, live, pray and even be buried together. Separated by circumstance, they say Mass one at a time and have taken to celebrating one another’s special occasions via Zoom video conferences.

“It’s been hard. It’s a time of terrible confusion for everybody,” Verhalen said. Still, he said, the abbey has been blessed by “an outpouring of love” from students, parents and alumni of the all-male Cistercian Preparatory School, where many of the monks teach.

The Cistercian Abbey was founded in Dallas in the mid-1950s by monks who had been driven out of Hungary by the Communists. Cistercian Prep, which serves boys in grades 5-12, opened in 1962. Today, monks at the abbey range in age from 25 to 92.

On March 11, with coronavirus a growing threat in Texas, Cistercian closed the school and started teaching its 350 students online, which Verhalen said has proved to be a challenge for some of the less technically savvy monks. Soon after, a monk showed symptoms of what may have been COVID-19, but the abbey was not able to get him tested, Verhalen said. He wasn’t sick enough to be hospitalized, so he quarantined in his room for two weeks.

Later in March, the Rev. James Lehrberger, who teaches philosophy at the University of Dallas, and the Rev. Robert Maguire, a UD literature professor, both in their 70s, were hospitalized with the illness. Lehrberger has returned to the abbey.

An 88-year-old monk has since been hospitalized, Verhalen said. And over Easter weekend, an employee of the monastery fell ill and went to the hospital.

“That really gave us pause and increased the concern greatly,” Verhalen said. He did not identify the employee, who is recovering at home, or the other monks who are ill.

Until Easter weekend, monks had been praying and eating communally as usual, though at a social distance. But now they mostly stay in their rooms, wearing face masks when they step out to get food or pray in the sanctuary, chapel or onsite crypt where previous generations of monks are entombed.

On Wednesday, the monastery arranged to have all of the monks in the community tested. Six tested positive and the rest, including Verhalen, negative.

Now, each of the sick monks in the abbey has a healthy brother assigned to him — “one negative monk to one positive monk,” Verhalen said. The healthy monks wear masks and gloves to deliver food to a table outside the sick monks’ doors.

“It’s a frightening situation. It’s so full of uncertainty, lack of knowledge,” Verhalen said. “And it’s so unpredictable.”

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