The Gentleman Architect and the Monks

by Br. Philip Anderson, appearing in Volume 40

Benedictine monks in choir at Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma. Credit: Melissa Lukenbaugh

It all began when the small band of black monks stepped off the plane from France in September of 1999, and arrived after midnight at the hilly area in the backwoods of Cherokee County Oklahoma named Clear Creek. As we contemplated the rustic accommodations, made up mostly of a big log cabin and an adjoining horse barn, the challenge struck us with all possible force: how would we ever manage to erect a true Benedictine abbey here? How could we build a fitting place where monks could thrive in continuity with our traditions of some fifteen centuries?

Much was wanting even to begin the process, not only in terms of the financial resources to accomplish our ambitious goal, but, even more urgently, a plan, a design, a vision—and the right man to make it happen. Although monks are rarely up-to-date with respect to current trends of thought outside the cloister, we did know that we must find someone capable of understanding our particular architectural needs, someone with a sensitivity to buildings that would reflect our own aspirations and that would last a long time.

Benedictine monks on the grounds of Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma. Credit: Clear Creek Abbey

Already a few younger architects, brilliant and capable men, were aware of our coming to America and eager to seize what looked like a golden opportunity. We felt we needed for our project someone solidly established. We had really only heard one name, that of the professor of the University of Notre Dame chosen to build the seminary of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter in Denton, Nebraska: Thomas Gordon Smith.

The connection to the University of Notre Dame also seemed promising for many reasons, including the fact that any number of the wealthier Catholics in our part of the country are proud alumni of Notre Dame.

Calling Thomas Gordon Smith

The first mention I can find in our chronicle of a visit of Thomas Gordon Smith to the newly established monastery of Clear Creek comes on February 17, 2000. The passage is in French, as the first chronicler was himself French and not yet versed in the tongue of Shakespeare.

It reads: “Departure of the architect, Mr. Thomas Gordon Smith, after two days of consultations with Father Abbot, Father Prior, and Father Subprior. The architect and his project for a future monastery left us with a favorable impression. He will travel to Fontgombault (France) next month.” Though it was not noted in the chronicle, from the beginning and as long as we knew him, Mr. Thomas Gordon Smith rarely failed to display his signature bowtie.

From the first meeting, our relationship with Thomas flourished into a good understanding, and soon we moved to the signing of a contract. With respect to the vision our new architect brought to the table, it would be hard to do better than to quote here Thomas’ response to a question put to him during an interview by Linus Meldrum in 2015: “Being asked to design a church or a monastery is the architect’s greatest possible honor.” In the design for Annunciation Abbey of Clear Creek, he designed the complex to serve “a rigorous way of life and prayer.”

He described himself as working “within a Romanesque tradition that is spiritually expressive and conforms to the principles of architecture which develop the qualities of wholeness. These architectural principles include careful considerations of proportion, of the relationships of parts to the whole, and of responses to the particular situation of the site, the needs of the monks, and the available materials and skills of the builders.”

If, he continued, “the monastery achieves the criteria of strength, function, and beauty, the building makes visible, in some invisible way, the work the monks undertake to benefit all of us. They are praying on our behalf, day and night, with their strength, determination, and joy in the action of the sacred liturgy.”

Thomas’s work was neither pastiche, nor late-modern box-like structures of steel and glass. It was “something beautiful for God,” to borrow an expression from Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

A Harmonious Relationship

As most architects will readily admit, no doubt, the relationship between owner and architect does not necessarily follow the path of least resistance. In our case, however, work followed a harmonious track from the outset. Between Thomas, Dom Antoine Forgeot (the founding abbot from France), and myself (at that time the prior, or local superior, of the community) there developed an understanding that rarely waned.

One remarkable feature of this happy collaboration was the influence of yet another of our monks, Father François de Feydeau, a Frenchman, who stepped into the scene with a unique understanding of the Romanesque architectural style. Like many French families, Father de Feydeau’s was accustomed to taking little road trips through the French countryside on vacations. Instead of stopping at a Civil War site or a theme park as Americans might do, his family visited ancient churches, many of them Romanesque. Furthermore, Father’s rigorous training at the French Naval Academy included a good amount of mathematics and some engineering.

Sketch by Father François de Feydeau during a meeting with Thomas Gordon Smith. Credit: Clear Creek Abbey

He showed himself quick to understand many of the technical points that Thomas and his team brought forth, as plans evolved for a church and residential buildings. I think it is fair to state that Thomas Gordon Smith and Father François de Feydeau grew to respect and appreciate one another in a rather unique way. The word “friendship” would not be amiss.

We monks said we intended to build a monastery to last a thousand years. The beginning of the project augured well for this long-term endeavor. I do not mean to imply that the building of Clear Creek Abbey has been without challenges and setbacks. Here as elsewhere there were the daily press of faxes (first) and emails (nowadays) containing the almost endless stream of requests for information and the thousand and one conundrums that seem to emerge from the very bricks and mortar.

In these difficulties Thomas never relinquished his exterior calm or departed from what one might expect of a gentleman. I never saw him lose his temper or treat people roughly, even in the most trying situations. He treated everyone courteously. Thomas would call me nearly every day during construction. This solicitude was, perhaps, just his way of respecting his clients, or it may have been a dimension of his noble character.

Not right away, but somewhat into the working relationship, we began to realize that Thomas was not just a practical man, but a scholar. It was not without awe that we received a copy of Vitruvius on Architecture, his learned edition of the Ten Books of the Roman architect Vitruvius. Even today the volume represents something of a literary wonder.

As for the artistic tastes of Thomas and of his wife Marika, it suffices to walk into the living room of their house in South Bend, where the ceiling is covered in real frescoes painted by Thomas, in order to perceive the sense of classical beauty blended with a decided non-conformism that reigns there. Marika relates how one of their neighbors, some years ago, alluding in a local newspaper interview to the classical design of the Smith’s house, stated with unpretentious candor, “Listen, the guy’s into columns.”

Thomas and Clear Creek

The fascinating history of the renewal of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture under Thomas’ influence has been told elsewhere. Todd Hartch’s recent book A Time to Build Anew puts that story into a broader context. I would like to quote a passage that underlines the connection between the architectural talents of Thomas and the monks of Clear Creek.

“Clear Creek also shows the hidden depths of divine providence,” Hartch writes. Thomas “treasured this project and found that working with the monks deepened his faith.… Thomas Gordon Smith pursued his vocation to design beautiful buildings and to teach others to do the same; his children grew up to appreciate the true, the good, and the beautiful. The father’s design would one day be adorned by the son’s sculpture and then relayed to this writer by another son dedicated to the truth.”

If there is an art of living, there is also, as famous men have taught us (and infamous ones by contrast), a right art of dying. It must have been around 2015 or a little later that Thomas and I worked on completing the basic design of all the buildings that would be needed at Clear Creek. These were not construction documents or even highly developed designs, but precise layouts of the buildings and all the rooms inside, nevertheless. We still follow those basic designs today, refining them as necessary, while we continue to build.

At this point a kind of wholeness had come to the architectural project, and this was a satisfying achievement. It was then just a matter of filling out the plans and erecting these edifices in brick and stone, as finances would permit.

Construction is ongoing on the monastery complex of Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey. Credit: Melissa Lukenbaugh

The Unexpected

Then something quite unexpected happened. All of a sudden (or so it seemed)  Thomas decided to retire. The mystery of this decision did not remain without explanation. Our gentleman architect, like so many of our day, was beginning to lose his short-term memory, not just in the way that ever-plagues the elderly, but in that dramatic way that presages a serious illness.

It had been my hope to have Thomas present the day we would have the formal dedication of our abbey church, and I had never thought we might lose this man before then. Suddenly a certain stark reality made its entry. As the adage suggests, “Man proposes, and God disposes.”

Thomas and Marika Smith during construction of the abbey church. Credit: William Heyer Architect

But here is where the art of living and the art of dying come together. Thomas did not, as far as we could ever discern, bow to an irrational fear of the last things, but continued to live in faith and prepare the end of his life with great thoughtfulness for others and even a kind of cheerfulness. Having put things in order in the world around him, he was free to put that final order in his soul that is the proper of the wise.

How many men, by the way, have had the privilege of being the architects of their own mausoleum? Thomas had, in fact, completed an impressive monument on the campus of Notre Dame (with his own vault on top, looking toward the basilica), in which he was to be buried. So, with the loving and intelligent help of his wife, he said his goodbyes, including to the monks on a last road trip, and waited for God’s hour.

Only his family can recount the drama of Thomas being separated from his loved ones during the pandemic lockdown of 2020, but I was pleased to hear that he remained quite lucid about what was going on around him until the end, making the sign of the cross with his Dominican son during the last rites.

History in the Making

The rest is now past history, or, perhaps, history still in the making, as Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey continues to flourish and grow, both in the building of a community with human stones, and in the material completion of our abbey church and the other buildings.

A fine group of young architects, formed by Thomas over many years at Notre Dame, now carry on the work and the vision—each in his or her own way. One of those former students, William Heyer, currently pursues the building of Clear Creek Abbey as designed by Thomas Gordon Smith, adding his own insights as the project develops. (And Thomas’ son Andrew carved much of the abbey’s sculpture.)

The grand portal of the abbey church was completed in 2020 with sculpture by George Carpenter and Andrew Wilson Smith. Credit: New Liturgical Movement

Finally, a last word must come in guise of conclusion, and this last word belongs to Thomas. A monk could not have said it any better: “Our baptism connects us on a continuum forward and backward in time that reminds us that we are part of a whole,” he told Linus Meldrum.

“From a practical point of view, I am working to help the monks carry out a project that will take far longer than my lifetime to complete. On the other hand, it is an immense joy to be working on a group of structures, both exalted and quotidian, that will outlast me by centuries. When we visit a monumental temple in Sardis or wander in awe through Saint Peter’s in Rome, we recognize the never-ending human effort to honor God through shared gifts.”