Coordinates: 40°14′32″N 94°41′01″W / 40.242323°N 94.68363°W / 40.242323; -94.68363
Conception Abbey is a monastery of the Swiss-American Congregation of the Benedictine Confederation. The monastery, founded by the Swiss Engelberg Abbey in 1873 in northwest Missouri's Nodaway County, was raised to a conventual priory in 1876 and elevated to an abbey in 1881. At present the community numbers sixty-five monks who celebrate the Eucharist and Liturgy of the Hours daily and who staff and administer Conception Seminary College, the Printery House, and the Abbey Guest Center. Monks also serve as parish priests and hospital chaplains in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-Saint Joseph and other dioceses. There is also a large postal facility attached to The Printery House, operated by secular employees, which includes package shipping and delivery facilities.
Conception Abbey is located in Conception, Missouri just outside Conception Junction, Missouri.
Conception Abbey was established 8 December 1873 by Benedictine monks of the Swiss abbey of Engelberg as a place of refuge should their monastery be suppressed by the Swiss government. They also came in response to the appeal of the Rev. James Power to minister to the spiritual needs of a colony of Irish and German settlers he had established in northwest Missouri in 1858, prior to the Civil War. Benedictine Sisters from Maria Richenbach, a convent located not far from Engelberg, arrived in Missouri in 1873 soon after the monks, hoping ultimately to found a convent where special devotion to the Eucharist could be fostered.
The founders of Conception Abbey were Fathers Frowin Conrad, O.S.B. (1833-1923), and Meinrad Widmer (1844-1901), of Lucerne, Switzerland. Frowin Conrad, named Placid at birth, was born in Auw, Canton Argau, Switzerland, on 2 November 1833, the eldest of twelve children, eleven boys and one girl. Of the eleven boys, five became priests, four of these Benedictine monks. Educated by the Jesuits as a youth, he entered the abbey school of Einsiedeln to study theology and then entered monastic life at Engelberg.
Fr. Frowin made his profession in 1853 and was ordained a priest in 1856. In the next seventeen years, he served as prefect and professor in Engelberg’s school, held many of the major offices in the monastery (including the important post of novice-master), pastor of the monastery’s parish, and chaplain to the nearby convent of Maria Richenbach. These appointments witness the fact that he enjoyed the complete confidence of the abbot of Engelberg, Anselm Villiger.
Having been directed to found a monastery of his order in the United States in 1873, Fr. Frowin founded the Benedictine monastery of New Engleberg at Conception, which was erected into an abbey in 1881. In 1885 Fr. Frowin was chosen as the abbey's first abbot.
Meinrad Widmer was baptized as Joseph Widmer on March 1, 1844 at Hohenrain, Canton Luzern, Switzerland. During his boyhood he attended the Catholic school of his hometown, was confirmed in 1855, and later worked on the family farm. The Mother General of the Sisters of Mercy at Ingenbohl, Canton Schwyz, employed him to work on the extensive farm of their convent. When he was twenty-eight, he left Ingenbohl for Grafenort in Unterwalden to work on the estate belonging to the Abbey of Engelberg. There he met Fr. Frowin Conrad and soon afterwards decided to become part of the new Benedictine foundation. At his religious profession he took the name Meinrad, perhaps in honor of the monastery of Saint Meinrad in Indiana, whose abbot and prior were so helpful in the early days of the Engelberg foundation.
Joining Fr. Frowin and Fr. Meinrad was Fr. Adelhelm Odermatt, O.S.B. He was born Karl Odermatt on 10 December 1844 at Ennetmoos nears Stans, Nidwalden. He entered Engelberg as a novice on 29 September 1865. He became a professor in Engelberg's school and assistant pastor of the Engelberg parish at the time Frowin Conrad was pastor of the parish. Fr. Adelhelm was assigned to Maryville as pastor of the parish there.
Fr. Adelhelm and Fr. Frowin, prior of the new foundation, seem to have disagreed about the nature of the new foundation in Missouri: Fr. Frowin was influenced by the customs of the Beuronese foundations and Saint Meinrad Abbey in Indiana while Fr. Adelhelm hoped to reproduce in the United States Engelberg's observance and spirit. Fr. Adelhelm and another Engelberg monk, left Conception on 1 June 1881 seeking a location for a new monastery. They established Mount Angel Abbey in 1882.
In 1880, according to the U.S. Federal Census enumerated in June, the monks numbered twenty-four in their household (eight priests, six clerics, two novices, and six laybrothers) and the sisters another twenty-four in a separate household. At this date the community numbered In the Album Benedictum published for 1880 it was noted that the monks served the following parishes: one priest served the cathedral in St. Joseph, Missouri, one priest served Saint Columba Parish in Conception, Missouri (with its missions at Albany, Saint Patrick's, Dolorosa in Gentry County and Guilford and Whitesfield in Worth County), and two priests served Saint Mary Parish in Maryville and its stations in Nodaway County at Barnard, Bolkow, Hopkins, Pickering, and Rosendale. The Album Benedictum noted for 1880 that the library contained 3000 volumes.
The school was founded on July 2, 1886 and was called the College of New Engelberg with classes offered on the high school and junior college level. By 1915 the college enrolled 118 students.
In 1942 under the guidance of Abbot Stephen Schappler changed its name and restricted enrollment to candidates for the priesthood and offered a 12-year program starting with a preparatory high school, a junior college, a senior college and a school of theology. In 1956 the Benedictine High School was moved to Omaha. The seminary’s enrollment peaked at 549 students in 1965 but went into decline following the Second Vatican Council.
Clarence Thomas studied to become a priest at the seminary in 1968. After being named to the Supreme Court he was to tell interviewers that he left the seminary after hearing a student's comment rejoicing at the assassination of Martin Luther King.
In 1972 the theology school closed and it focused on being a liberal arts school. A pre-theology curriculum was added in 1982. The college now says it has educated 75 percent of the priests in the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese.
In the 1930s the Abbey added the Printery House which prints 5 million greeting cards a year.
The Abbey Church of Conception was designed by Adrian Wewer, a Franciscan. The cornerstone was laid on May 20, 1883, and it was dedicated on May 10, 1891. Two years later, a tornado hit it in 1893. As the church was rebuilt the Beuron murals were added. On May 10, 1941 Pope Pius XII declared it a minor basilica.
A two decade $9 million restoration was completed in 1999.
Over the decades Conception Abbey attempted a number of foundations: St. Michael Priory in Cottonwood, Idaho; St. Benedict Abbey in Benet Lake, Wisconsin (1945); Mount Michael Abbey in Elkhorn, Nebraska (1956); St. Pius X Monastery in Pevely, Missouri (1951); and Skt. Knud's Kloster, a priory in Copenhagen, Denmark. St. Benedict Abbey and Mt. Michael Abbey are the two foundations functioning today.
At about 8:40 am, on the morning of June 10, 2002, a 71-year-old man identified as Lloyd Robert Jeffress of Kearney, Missouri went through the basilica into the monastery, killing Brother Damian Larson, 62, and Father Philip Schuster, 84, and wounding Father Kenneth Reichert, 68, and Father Norbert Schappler, 75. Jeffress carried into the basilica two boxes—one containing a MAC-90 rifle (a Chinese-made replica of the AK-47) and a stripped down .22 caliber rifle. Having made the circuit of the monastery hallways, Mr. Jeffress returned to the basilica where he shot and killed himself. Fr Philip and Bro Damian were buried in the abbey cemetery following the Mass of Christian Burial celebrated on June 14, at which 1200 relatives and friends of the abbey were present. No motive has ever been determined for the shooting.
A 2008 documentary was produced by St. Louis filmmaker Jay Kanzler. The film, which was shown at the 2008 St. Louis International Film Festival, discussed the way of life in the monastery, and the 2002 shooting.