A Benedictine Natural - Br. Anthony Vorwerk

Br. Anthony Vorwerk (Br. Tony as he was known by many) went to his eternal reward January, 17, 2019, fortified by the Sacraments and the Apostolic pardon. The following article originally appeared in the Sprint 2014 issue of Kansas Monks magazine celebrating Br. Tony’s 60th anniversary of joining the monastery.

“Farm Fresh…Home-Grown…All Natural.”

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These famous phrases usually describe foods, but one might use the same descriptions for Br. Anthony, a lover of the outdoors and a testament to the fruits of work and stability found in the Benedictine way of life. 

Born in Dodgeville, Iowa on January 25, 1931, Leo Anthony Vorwerk, was the last of nine children. Of his seven sisters, two became nuns, “so I guess we were a pretty religious family,” he comments, laughing. Two of his sisters are alive today and Br. Anthony is 83 years old.  

Talking about his favorite childhood pastimes, he says, “We had American League Baseball for kids. Played every day, as pitcher or shortstop. I played basketball and sandlot football too.”

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Leo Vorwerk entered St. Benedict’s Abbey in 1951 and professed vows on December 27, 1953, taking the name Anthony after St. Anthony of Padua, “because that’s my middle name and he helps me find stuff all the time.” When asked about his discernment, he reflects, “In high school, I thought about the monastic life and we had Benedictine monks in our parish that I looked up to but it was a diocesan priest, the chaplain at my high school, who convinced me to visit the Abbey. After that, I kind of drifted into it, with a good deal of prayer of course.” 

On December 27, 2013, Br. Anthony celebrated six decades as a Benedictine monk.  As one who lives simple and simply loves, he has been a blessing of friendship, good humor and prayer to his confreres as well as a symbol of the vow of stability, being rooted with his brothers at St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, Kansas. He chuckles, saying, “It’s hard sometimes but we have a good group of people.”  

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Overseeing the Abbey grounds was Br. Anthony’s primary job during his time as an active monk.  He was the end-all be-all Groundskeeper for about 20 years, managing the planting, harvesting and everything in between. The garden covers about three acres and its most successful crops are tomatoes, corn, and potatoes. “It takes a lot to feed the monks, you know.” 

Tomatoes are his favorite plant, “because they’re easy to grow and you can do a lot with ‘em.” The monks plant about 300 tomato plants each year. They pick nearly 600 pounds of tomatoes in one day, he explains: “Tomatoes get ripe around the fourth of July and keep producing until the frost comes. Besides eating them fresh, the Abbey kitchen makes salsa and cans them. We also send tomatoes to Mount St. Scholastica and to the Mexican sisters in Leavenworth, who used to cook for us. They make and sell salsa with our tomatoes.” 

Reminiscing, he continues, “In the old days, we had cattle and pigs. We used to butcher for the college kids and grill steaks.” Among his other jobs, Br. Anthony recalls, “In my younger days, I drove bulldozers and graters. We have many Caterpillars from when we ran the school, which we used to make drainage ditches in the bottoms, haul all the dirt around the church, and even make the baseball fields.” 

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One of his favorite pictures is of his confrere, Eric Dietchman, and himself working the Abbey’s old wine press (at right). Br. Anthony laughs as he regales stories of the monk’s winemaking efforts: “The wine press was so big that I could hardly reach the handle! We also had a smaller press, which the students really liked. I just hope there weren’t too many worms in it.”

Having retired, Br. Anthony’s current hobbies include making jewelry boxes, canes, and birdhouses (seen working in the Abbey’s shop at lower right).  He describes them with a gleam in his eye, “They are mostly made of walnut, cedar, and oak. God really does a good job on the green in some of these trees.” He loves his time building in the basement workshop. In fact, he admits, “We’re supposed to keep silent at night in the Abbey but I have a hard time with that so sometimes I go down to the workshop instead.” He continues, “I started counting how many trees I planted one day, from evergreens to a walnut grove, and I got up to 300 when I quit.”

Br. Anthony’s love for God’s creation is evident by the illuminated expression he gets when he talks about it. The words of St. Therese of Lisieux help express his attitude toward creation: 

I understood that every flower created by Him is beautiful, that the brilliance of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not lessen the perfume of the violet or the sweet simplicity of the daisy. […] if all the lowly flowers wished to be roses, nature would lose its springtide beauty, and the fields would no longer be enameled with lovely hues. And so it is in the world of souls, Our Lord’s living garden. (10)

Reflecting on his time as a retired monk, Br. Anthony highlights how his prayer life has changed: 

“Right now, I’m taking prayer more seriously, which means I’m getting old. Seeing Abbot Owen suffer made me wonder why we suffer, but that is because of original sin. The last year has been tough because I can’t do things quite like I used to. I don’t know what being a just God means, that God is stern perhaps, but I think it’s something else. God is love, anyway. He suffered but used it to redeem us. We can do that too, let our suffering help cleanse our souls for Heaven… that way Purgatory will have less work to do. 

Br. Anthony recognizes the need for a growth of religious vocations. The Church needs to plant vocations in the hearts of more members of the faithful to prevent a global hardening of the heart just as people need to plant more trees to prevent global warming. Br. Anthony gives helpful pointers to plant the seed: “We have periods of visiting the monastery, which gives you an idea of what religious life is like. People have a hard time making a commitment to the monastic life these days. I suppose it’s the same with marriage ‘cause there are a lot of divorces. Advice I have for those struggling to commit is: Pray a lot! Prayer gets answered some way or the other.”

“Through my prayers, I’m working on giving up my self-will,” he says. “The vow of stability helps with this. My favorite part of monastic life is what that stability gives us, the Benedictine family. We have good, loving brothers who care for one another. If I want a can of pop or something, someone will get it for me.” He adds in good humor, “We’re just one big family, getting old and dying off.”

Br. Anthony thinks it is funny to hear what others think of monks and invites others to become better acquainted with them. He says, “We used to be less involved with students and the community. Now that’s changed and we have daily Masses for the students. They have a good attendance. Sometimes they make me feel worried that I don’t measure up to their standards. I’m really inspired by them.” Br. Anthony has a coffee club each morning, during which he and other monks meet with retired men from town. “Sometimes I’ll invite friends to dinner,” he laughs and continues, “It gives people an insight to the monks’ lives, that we are human, not something way up in the air.”

When it comes down to the core of the Benedictine mission, it is simply an implementation of the Church’s mission as a whole, to strive for holiness each day. Br. Anthony identifies three aids in pursuing holiness:  the Divine Office, daily Mass, and the mission of prayer and work. He also advises people to read about the lives of the Saints, explaining, “They went through some of the same things that we are going through.” The uniquely Benedictine vow of stability provides immeasurable assistance to one’s continuous growth in holiness. Br. Anthony affirms, “You can see how the Holy Spirit is growing holiness in you over time just as He is growing tree after tree from tiny seeds.”