Family Tradition: My Ancestors Farmed a Monastery

Family tradition says that my 3rd great-grandparents, Patrick and Mary (Denahay) O’Connor farmed land which belonged to a monastery in Dubuque county, Iowa.

Actually, the story goes that Mary was pregnant with her first child when her parents sent her to work at the monastery.  She sent money back to Patrick so that he could come and join her.  He “somehow” lost the money and she had to send more.  He eventually joined her in Dubuque and then they farmed the monastery’s land.

Was she not  married to Patrick when she got pregnant?  When and where did they end up getting married?

I decided to do a bit more research to check and see if there even was a monastery in that area. Was there any truth to the legend?

I did some googling (I love the internet) and I found that yes, there is indeed a monastery there, actually an abbey.

It is called New Melleray Abbey and is located just south of the city of Dubuque.  Their website says the following: “New Melleray is a Cistercian (Trappist) monastery located in the rolling farmland south of Dubuque, Iowa. We support ourselves by farming and making wooden caskets.”

Gorgeous, isn’t it?

(Photo Credit

According to their website, the lands of the monastery were settled in about 1848.  Temporary buildings were erected.  The permanent buildings weren’t started until 1868.  So, my ancestors would not have seen the beautiful buildings above.

I also found a history of the monastery online at Google books.  It stated that:

“They pursue upon their estate the lives of great proprietors of land, and feel the same responsibilities for its proper improvement that is felt by lay owners of property.  The lay brothers, whose hours of manual labor are more in number than those of the choir brothers, are not numerous enough to adequately cultivate all the lands, and therefore many laborers are employed, and some of the land is leased.”  From “History of the Trappist Abbey of New Melleray in Dubuque County, Iowa” by William Rufus Perkins, published in 1892.

So, yes there was a monastery and yes they leased the land out and had laborers work on it.

In the 1860 census, I found the family of Patrick O’Connor living in Dubuque county, with a post office of  “New Melleray”

Mary’s oldest child was 3, so I’m assuming (as long as she didn’t have another older child who died) that she must have immigrated in about 1857 – and Patrick soon thereafter.

So far, it’s looking like the legend is true.  Now if only I could find their marriage record somewhere!!  Did they marry before the baby was born? An immigration record would be nice too.  Those common names are so hard though – there are a LOT of Patrick and Mary O’Connors in this world.

I am also taking into consideration the fact that the New Melleray Abbey has a “mother” monastery – the Mount Melleray Abbey in Ireland.  Does this have any significance?  Was Mary’s family from this area?  If not, then why did they choose New Melleray?

I just love how answers always lead to more questions….

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