Benedictine monks first arrived in what is today the state of Oklahoma in October 1875. Fr. Isidore Robot, O.S.B., and Br. Dominic Lambert, O.S.B., monks of the French monastery of Notre Dame de la Pierre-qui-Vire, entered the Indian Territory at the suggestion of the Bishop of Little Rock, Arkansas. Spending their first few months in Atoka, the pioneer monks eventually settled with the Citizen Band Pottawatomi Indians. In 1876, they established Sacred Heart Abbey, near what is present-day Konawa, Oklahoma. Along with communal monastic observance, the pioneer monks also established a school for the children of Native Americans and white settlers of the region. The monastery at Sacred Heart was known for its strict observance, its generous hospitality, its model farm, and its beautiful formal gardens.
Our founder, Rev. Isidore Robot, O.S.B. was named Abbot honoris causa and the first Prefect Apostolic of the Indian Territory. In many ways, he can be considered the founder of the Catholic Church in what is today Oklahoma. He is buried in the cemetery at Sacred Heart Mission near Konawa.
In addition to their monastery and schools, the Benedictines of Sacred Heart Abbey established over 40 parishes and missions throughout the Oklahoma and Indian Territories, including several present-day parishes in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa. In fact, Rome chose the first two Vicars Apostolic for Oklahoma from among this group of missionary Benedictines. In this way, one can say that the Church in Oklahoma is built upon the foundation laid by Benedictine monks.
In 1901, disaster struck when a devastating fire destroyed practically all of Sacred Heart Mission on a cold January night. The monks were dispersed until a new monastery and school could be constructed. Determined to succeed, the monks built a second monastery and school complex at Sacred Heart. Its foundations are still visible at the mission site to this day.
These historic photographs record the appearance of the second monastery and school at Sacred Heart.
Although they were determined to rebuild at Sacred Heart, the monks decided to accept an invitation to establish a school in the territorial city of Shawnee, some 30 miles north of the original mission. The new school was incorporated as the Catholic University of Oklahoma, but was known as "St. Gregory's High School and College" from its earliest years. In fact, the cornerstone bears the name of St. Gregory the Great.
Pictured below is a rare photo of the monumental administration building under construction at Shawnee and a aerial photo of the campus of St. Gregory's dating from around 1927.
The foundation at Shawnee began to thrive, while the newly reconstructed monastery and school at Sacred Heart began to decline as the railroad and the economy shifted toward the northern end of Pottawatomie County. And so, although a new monastery complex was constructed at Sacred Heart, the activity of the community became increasingly centered at Shawnee. For this reason, the monastic community was transferred to Shawnee in 1929 and the name changed to St. Gregory's Abbey. Along with the change in name, the monastic community broke its ties with its French roots, and joined the American Cassinese Congregation of monasteries. The monastery buildings at Sacred Heart were abandoned in the late 1940's and were razed in the mid 1950's. The original mission site, however, has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and hundreds of visitors come to the site each year to view the structures and foundations that remain, to visit the cemeteries of the Benedictine monks and the Mercy sisters, who operated a school for girls at the mission, and to enjoy the beautiful scenery.
The picture at rightshows the appearance of the grounds of St. Gregory's around the year 1950.
Since their move to Shawnee, the Benedictines of St. Gregory's Abbey have continued to serve the Church in Oklahoma and beyond through their witness to contemplative life and daily prayer, their mission of Catholic education at St. Gregory's University, and pastoral duties at parishes near the monastery. There are currently 26 members of St. Gregory's Abbey, most of whom reside at the monastery. In addition to their duties at the Abbey and University, several of the monks assist with weekend masses at parishes around Oklahoma.