A major treasure is tucked away in the pastoral countryside of Missouri—and we do mean pastoral, in more ways than one. It’s a minor basilica that you can tour, and it contains exceptional artwork—no need to travel to Europe to see a beautiful cathedral. A printer has unique Thanksgiving and Christmas greeting cards that you can also buy online, and in this season of gratitude and reflection, you can arrange for a quiet self-guided retreat or a retreat guided by staff.

We ran this story on Conception Abbey in northwest Missouri way back in 1999, shortly after its restoration and renovation, but the history and the information about the unique Beuronese-style paintings haven’t changed. The abbey has always intrigued us, as it’s a jewel on the plains of north Missouri, far from the madding crowd. You can tour it to see the paintings and the seven domes or arrange a retreat there. If you’re looking for special greeting cards for Thanksgiving or Christmas, see the ones from their printery here. One other update: When we first visited, there were 78 monks; today, there are 55. Visit it while it’s still thriving.

Here’s the original story:

By Renee Kratzer

For more than a century, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception has stood as a symbol of the Catholic faith. During a recent restoration project [the late 1990s], however, workers discovered that the structure is lucky to have stood at all.

“When we started the restoration, we found it wasn’t built on a foundation and was literally standing by the grace of God,” says Tim Stransky, the director of development.

The basilica is the spiritual center of Conception Abbey, a Benedictine mon­astery located about 90 miles north of Kansas City. The twin towers topping the basilica have been a local landmark for more than 100 years. (O.S.B.), who served as a liaison between the monks and the restoration workers.

“It’s so much lighter and cleaner,” he says. “To wrap it up in words is hard. It’s just breathtaking.” The renewal went beyond cosmetic changes to include a change in the floor plan. Originally, the altar was located between the congregation and the monks, so it separated the two groups. Now, the altar has been moved to the back of the church, so there is no barrier between the abbey’s monks and the people who come to worship with them.

Photo courtesy of Conception Abbey

Restoring the Romanesque-style structure became a priority when it started showing signs of age such as a deteriorating pine wood floor and damaged plaster walls. A massive fund-raising drive that began 10 years ago raised $8 million for the renovations.

For almost four years, the basilica under­went extensive changes, starting with pour­ing a foundation. The original wooden floor was torn up and replaced with a concrete floor that was covered with bricks. But visi­tors who enter the restored nave probably won’t notice the floor because they’ll be craning their necks to see the 28 angels painted on the seven domes looming 50 feet overhead.

Another striking feature is a collection of murals painted on the nave’s side walls. These murals depict scenes in the lives of Mary and St. Benedict. Over time, the murals had become muted with layers of smoke from burning candles and incense. A New York firm was hired to clean and restore them to their original condition.

The crews completed the restoration work in March. When the changes were unveiled at a special service this past spring, those in atten­dance were amazed to see the dramatic difference in the basilica’s appearance, says Brother Blaise Bonderer, Order of Saint Benedict (O.S.B.), who served as a liaison between the monks and the restoration workers.

Since the March [1999] reopening of the basili­ca, more than 3,000 visitors have toured the church. Visitors who want to stay longer can schedule a retreat at the Abbey Center for Prayer and Ministry located on the monastery’s grounds. Rooms and meals are offered for group or individual retreats. Depending on the type of retreat scheduled, suggested donations range from $35 to $65.

The basilica is located in the Kansas City­ St. Joseph Diocese. The monastery has been a part of the northwest area since its found­ing in the late 1880s, but its beginnings can be traced to the Irish potato famine.

During the famine, some Irish immi­grants fled their homeland in hopes of a bet­ter life in America. A group of these immi­grants first settled in Reading, Penn., where many of the men worked for the coal mines and the railroad. But the economic depres­sion that hit the area and the dirty, danger­ous working conditions prompted the group to search for land in the Midwest in 1856. They first looked for land in Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas, but they weren’t happy with what they found.

“Finally, they decided to investigate reports that there might still be land avail­able in the Missouri Territory made available by the Platte Purchase,” says librarian Brother Thomas Sullivan, O.S.B. “In St. Joseph, they discovered there were large tracts of land still available in Nodaway County.”

The colonists obtained a title to land in the present-day town of Conception in 1857. The Civil War caused some colonists to move to another region to avoid fighting, but those who stayed didn’t appear to have problems dealing with guerrillas, Brother Thomas says.

After the war, German immigrants settled in the area, changing the Irish Catholic colony to an Irish-German Catholic colony. By 1873, there were 65 German families and only 35 Irish families. The colony’s priest, Father James Power, needed help because most of the Germans understood little or no English. He made a request to Bishop John Hogan in St. Joseph that a priest fluent in German be sent to help him, but the bishop had even bigger plans.

“Bishop Hogan realized that Father Power was getting old and that he would not be able to continue the mission work that was begun,” Brother Thomas says. “Bishop Hogan thought that a monastic community would be a center from which missions could be cared for and which might serve as a suitable location for a diocesan seminary.”

Photo courtesy of Conception Abbey

Bishop Hogan invited the abbot of Engelberg Abbey, a Swiss Benedictine monastery, to come to America. The abbot declined and sent Father Frowin Conrad and Father Adelhelm Odermatt in his place.

They arrived at the colony in 1873. By this time, Bishop Hogan had already given the St. Joseph land to another monastery, so Father Power offered the Engelberg monks the land at Conception. Father Conrad agreed with the offer and founded the monastery that same year.

Father Conrad became the monastery’s first abbot in 1881. The church was dedi­cated in 1891 as the spiritual center of Conception Abbey. Two years later, a torna­do damaged the structure. Besides repairing the tornado damage, Abbot Conrad also had workers make the church’s twin towers taller and had some of the monks paint murals on the interior walls.

Under his direction, the monks climbed wooden scaffolds and worked by candle­light to decorate the walls with murals showing scenes from the life of Mary and St. Benedict. Abbot Conrad favored Beuronese-style art, which is noted for its simplicity, its use of basic colors, and its lim­ited use of perspective. The style takes its name from the German monastery of Beuron.

From 1893 to 1897, the monks worked on murals. They are copies of scenes from the Life of Mary cycle painted inside Emaus Abbey’s church in Prague. This church was bombed in 1945, destroying the originals. Conception’s murals are the most complete set of Emaus replicas. Conception Abbey’s church is also among the few remaining in the United States to have Beuronese art intact.

In 1940, Pope Pius XII named the church a minor basilica because of its role in helping the Roman Catholic faith grow in north­west Missouri. The title of basilica means “royal house.” The church is one of only 45 minor basilicas in the United States [about 90 today] and the first minor basil­ica in Missouri. In 1961, St. Louis’ Old Cathedral also was named a minor basilica.

Through the years, Con­ception Abbey has grown to include a seminary college that prepares students for priest­hood, a printery house that publishes Christian greeting cards and gifts, and a library that houses 110,000 volumes. Included in the library’s collection are books that were published during the 50 years fol­lowing the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. The monastery also has its own website, and the campus is fully equipped with computers.

Despite all of these changes, the monks still follow the Rule of St. Benedict, which was written in the sixth century. It calls for a simple life of prayer and work.

Today, the 78 monks [Today, there are 55 monks] who belong to the monastery range from 24 to 86 years old. Almost half live at the monastery and follow a schedule that includes five prayer sessions and a daily Mass. About 25 of the monks teach in the seminary. The monastery also sends some members to complete missions or to study at a college or university.

Preserving history is important to the monks, and some even objected to the recent renovations because they feared the changes would not be for the best. Brother Blaise, however, says most of those who had expressed doubts beforehand now agree that the changes were worthwhile.

“It was a bittersweet transition,” he says. “I have been here for 40 years and grew up with it the old way. But it was very rewarding when it was done. Even the most hard-core traditionalists are really taken with it now.”

The restoration work also left Brother Blaise impressed with the monks who built the original structure without the conve­nience of modern tools. “Just seeing some­thing so beautiful 100 miles from nowhere is a tribute to our ancestors.”

The renovations will help the basilica last another century. Brother Thomas says the extensive project is a reflection of the monks’ commitment to a life of prayer and is “a statement to the world around us that we’re here to stay and willing to invest our­selves in this place called Conception.”

Conception Abbey is located in the town of Conception on Route VV in northwest Missouri. For more information or to arrange a tour, visit the website.

Photo courtesy of Conception Abbey