Cistercian Monastic Life

The Benedictine Heritage

Christian monasticism is the search for God through the creation of time and space in which the inner life may flourish. For the monks, the spiritual world becomes the primary reality in living.

Monastic life is one expression of Christ’s abiding presence in his Church. It is a response to a particular call from the Holy Spirit to imitate and continue the intense union with God lived by Jesus.

The Gospel is the basis of all Christian monasticism and its supreme law. Monks seek above all to put on Christ, to be so formed by God’s grace that they are progressively possessed by Christ’s ardent love for the Father and his compassion for human beings.

The contemplative life is a gift from God. To develop, however, it needs to learn from the experience of others. The art of living in mindfulness of God is passed on from one generation to the next. It is for this reason that the monks have always greatly cherished the wisdom we receive from our forebears. It is the fruit of the experience and expertise of so many holy men and women who dedicated their lives to seeking God.


Primitive monasticism had its origins in the life of the early Church. Among the scattered urban groups of ascetics many sought the greater quiet of the desert and the guidance of the saints who lived there. From the third century, in Egypt and elsewhere, thousands attached themselves to such outstanding spiritual guides as Pachomius and Antony to learn to find their hearts and experience for themselves the gift of salvation. As the years passed a great fund of spiritual wisdom developed. This was eventually written down and circulated for the guidance of future monks. This experiential literature took its place alongside the Bible, the liturgical texts, the inspirational treatises of the great doctors, to form a basic library of spiritual instruction in the centuries that followed.

St Benedict

By the fifth century monastic rules began to appear which described a program of life based on this wealth of teaching and experience. In the West the paramount rule was compiled by Benedict, abbot of Subiaco and Monte Cassino, called the Patriarch of Western Monks.

The rule of St Benedict is a modest document that, in its pragmatic Roman way, makes provision for the establishment of a “school of the Lord’s service” in which a monk can learn to grow in goodness through the living of an evangelical life. What makes Benedict’s work distinctive is its respect for the com

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

plexity of the human condition and its moderation and reasonableness in the demands it makes. The result is a monastery with a wholesome atmosphere in which the monks grow both humanly and spiritually, and a community which has something to offer to the Church and to the world.

St Benedict established each monastery as a local church, governed by a dual authority – a rule and an abbot. One supports and complements the other. The rule is a channel of tradition, the office of abbot embodies the possibility of adaptation to special local circumstances. The result is an institution which has an in-built flexibility that enables it to maintain its historical identity while responding to different local conditions.

It was this adaptability which enabled Benedictine monasticism to survive the breakdown of western civilisation that followed the decline of the Roman Empire. During the Dark Ages the monasteries became the custodians of culture and Christianity in an otherwise disordered world. They were also springboards for an emerging future.

As Europe changed and became more unified in the early Middle Ages, a more systematic attempt to update the monastic way of life was needed. In the 11th century many initiatives were taken to recover the essential dynamism of the Benedictine charism and to re-express it in contemporary terms. Among those that proved successful was the Cistercian reform of 1098, initiated by St Robert of Molesme, St Alberic and St Stephen Harding.

The Cistercians

The “New Monastery” was founded at Cîteaux, near Dijon the capital of Burgundy. The Cistercian program was an expression of a desire for a simple and more radical lifestyle, an attempt to give priority to the search for God in a manner that made sense to the twelfth century. This involved a return to a humble and authentic way of life, with more space for prayer, more bite to the practice of poverty and less direct involvement in temporal affairs.

Where Cîteaux differed from many similar enterprises was in the quality of the men it attracted. St Bernard of Clairvaux is well known, but there were others including Aelred of Rievaulx, Guerric of Igny and William of St Thierry. These men chronicled the experience of the many thousands who flocked to Cistercian monasteries throughout Europe. The Cistercian Fathers, as they are called, left behind them a substantial body of spiritual writing which continues to animate many, both inside and outside the cloister.

It is difficult for us in the twentieth century to conceive the immense vitality of these monasteries or to understand the impact that St Bernard had on the Church and the world of his time. Such monastic communities played an important role in the reform and renewal of the Church, not only by their prayers but also by their enthusiasm, their wisdom and the obvious integrity of their lives.

A Second Reform

In the centuries that followed the fervour of the monasteries lessened as the Church itself entered a period of regression. Because of plagues, social upheaval, and religious controversy – as well as human weakness – monasteries emptied. The result was compromise and decline.

Among the many movements of the monastic reform was one associated with the name of Armand de Rance, abbot of the monastery of La Trappe. Reacting against the prevailing laxity of the 17th century, he became the leader of a movement of “Strict Observance” which by the 19th century, had spread all over the world. In 1892 the Trappists and others formed themselves into a new Cistercian Order now known as the “Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance” (O.C.S.O.)

Today the Order has more than 150 monasteries with about 3,000 monks and 2,000 nuns. These are located in 38 countries and in every continent. The best known Cistercian of this century is the American author, Thomas Merton, whose books have helped many seekers of contemplation.

Wooden cross along a walking track.

History of Kopua

At the invitation of Archbishop McKeefry, Kopua Monastery was founded on June 9, 1954, on a property donated to the Church by Tom and Rosalie Prescott. The founding community of six monks, led by Fr. Basil Hayes, came from the monastery of Mt. Melleray, Ireland. Other groups arrived from Ireland in 1955, 1958 and 1959. Fr. John Kelly and Fr. Conleth O’Byrne completed the Irish contingent arriving in 1967 and 1969, respectively.

The pioneers lived in the shearers’ quarters on the property and set about erecting a monastery from prefabricated materials to provide accommodation for a larger community. These buildings, intended to be temporary, still serve their purpose today.

In 1959 the General Chapter of the Order raised Kopua to the status of an abbey. Fr. Joseph Murphy was elected abbot on April 9th, 1960 and continued in office until 1986. During these years the Catholic Church was stirring, catching up with modernity, and the Decrees of the Second Vatican Council began to make an impact. Renewal was required of the community. Monks were offered the opportunity for higher studies in Rome, Latin gradually gave way to English in the Liturgy and the emphasis placed on fraternal life in community led to significant changes in lifestyle.

Tom Prescott died in 1967. Five years later Rosalie urged the community to initiate a Farm Cadet Institute so as to put into partial effect the hope they both shared for the establishment of an agricultural college. The Institute closed in 1980. Rosalie continued to live with her son, John, on the property until her death on July 17th, 2003, four days short of her 104th birthday.

Following the retirement of Fr. Joseph from the abbatial office, Fr. Basil Hayes was elected abbot in 1986. His resilience, tenacity and charm, which had been used to advantage in the difficult early years of the foundation, were once again in evidence. He had the pleasure of hosting the Asian and South Pacific Regional Meeting of the abbots and the delegates from their communities in February 1989. Fr. Basil died from a heart attack four months later.

The community had more than its fair share of trials and tribulations during these years. Abbot Basil was the tenth monk to be buried in the cemetery. Most of the deaths were premature and the causes were many, ranging from a tractor accident (Fr. Robert Kiely in 1967) to various forms of cancer and heart problems. A steady stream of candidates entered the community only to depart with time and this affected morale. The loss of some of the pioneers, incardinated into various dioceses to take up parish ministry, was a disappointment. The community was uncertain and diffident about how best to integrate the candidates arriving from the South Pacific Region. The demands of a changing Church within an accelerating and changing world put strain on leadership and resulted in stresses and strains within the community.

Fr. John Kelly was appointed superior of the community following the death of Fr. Basil and elected abbot in 1992.

Since its foundation the community had received generous assistance from many people. In the 1990s Paddy and Millie Bradford took up residence for seven years and managed the farm; Christine Ash commenced assisting in the Guest House in 1994 while Tim Farrell arrived in 1996 and helped on the farm for six years. Mr Brian Walsh came to the Monastery to help out on the farm for a year in 1985. He has stayed ever since and will soon celebrate the silver jubilee of his time at Kopua.

A core group within the community persevered to carry on the tradition. These are represented today by the following: Fr. Niko Verkley, emigrated from the Netherlands and entered the community in 1966 after working as a lay missionary in Tonga. Br. Alphonsus, a Brother of the Christian Schools, transferred to the community in 1969, eventually embarking on the eremitical life. Br. Bruce Cleaver, a native of Auckland, entered in 1980 and was soon joined in 1981 by Br. Kalolo Tonga from Auckland.

Throughout its history the community supported itself, maintained its charitable commitments and subsidised the Guest House with mixed farming: dairying, beef, sheep, pigs and potatoes. Other small-scale enterprises were: cropping, the grafting of root stock for orchardists, carrots for the Rabbit Board, strawberry plants and orchids. By the end of the millennium dairying and bull beef were the focus of activity.

The community elected Br. Brian Keogh, a monk of Tarrawarra Abbey, Australia, as their abbot in 1998. The community, convinced that the founding vision should be completed, set up an Advisory Board of laymen to assist with the restructuring of finances and the development of the farm now managed by lay workers. Then Hugh Tennent, architect, and Catherine Alington, landscape architect, were engaged to design a permanent monastery to be built in three stages. Stage I, work on the Hospitality Complex which was our most pressing need, got underway in 2007. The new Guesthouse was blessed and opened in June 2008.

We have a Vision for the future and we pray to God that we will continue to achieve more of it in the years ahead.


1098 – The founding of the abbey of Cîteaux in Burgundy, France, by a group of Benedictine monks from the monastery of Molesme. The beginning of what was to become the Cistercian Order. Robert, Alberic and Stephen are honoured as the Founders.

1142 – Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, at the request of Bishop Malachy of Armagh, sends a group of monks to found the first Cistercian monastery in Ireland at Mellifont.

1539 – The beginning of the end of Cistercian life in Ireland with the Dissolution of the monasteries and the suppression of Catholicism.

1829 – Catholic Emancipation, which removes all the important restrictions placed upon Catholics in public life.

1831 – Sixty-four Irish monks, refugees evicted from the monastery of Melleray in France, take up temporary residence at Rathmore, Co. Kerry, Ireland.

1832 – The founding of Mount Melleray Abbey in Co. Waterford, Ireland.

1948 – In a letter dated March 16, Fr Guinane, parish priest, of Dannevirke informed Archbishop McKeefry that:

Mr. Tom Prescott of Kopua, Takapau Parish called recently. He is anxious to leave his farm, 500 acres freehold with some other acreage leasehold to the Church. He wonders whether an arrangement could be made whereby after his death, his wife’s interest could be sustained and in the event of her death his adopted son, John, could have a home.

1954 – Monks from Mount Melleray establish Our Lady of Southern Star Abbey at Kopua, New Zealand.

1967 – Tom Prescott dies.

2000 – The community commences a program of discernment about its future. Eventually a Vision for the Future is articulated.

2003 – Rosalie Prescott dies and John Prescott joins the community.

2004 – The community celebrated the Golden Jubilee of its foundation.

2008 – The new Guest House was opened in June.

Cistercian Way of Life

St Benedict urges all monks to Prefer nothing to Christ and that summarises Cistercian monastic life rather well.

Our lives are guided by the Rule and the leadership of our abbot and our monastery is understood to be a School of the Lord’s Service where Christ is formed in our hearts through prayer, our abbot’s teaching and our fraternal way of life. Through God’s word we are trained in a discipline of heart and action, to be responsive to the Holy Spirit and so attain purity of heart and a continual mindfulness of God’s presence. We strive to live a life which holds a number of elements in tension: life in community and a life of solitude; prayer both communal and personal; reverence for the Scriptures, and a simple, even austere lifestyle supported by the work of our own hands. Care of pilgrims and concern for the poor is a priority for us.

The Cistercian Grace can be expressed this way: We seek God within a community that endeavours to be a School of Charity – a place where we learn to embrace our God, our community and all pilgrims and, as well, to cherish the place and the environment in which we live. Love is the fuel that impels them forward.

We are called to be single-minded in our search for God, attentive to the presence of God within ourselves, our community and those whom we meet.

Celibacy is part of this search. So are regular times for prayer and meditation. We live according to a daily rhythm by which we hope to grow in mindfulness of God’s presence. Seven times a day we gather to pray. The day begins at 4.00am. In the night hours, we wait for the dawn, as a symbol of the coming of the Light of Christ into the world. Throughout the day, following the rising and the setting of the sun, we continue to chant the praises of God. At 8.00pm our day concludes with night prayer. Early rising means early retiring! By entering into this rhythm we develop a deep attentiveness of spirit, learning to listen at a profound level, and consequently experience and perceive God, others, ourselves and all creation in a new way. Cistercian lifestyle becomes a real adventure of the spirit, and it assumes the quality of an interior journey of the heart.

All of us are assigned responsibilities, according to our capacities, that help sustain our life. Newcomers are given more time for study and reflection so that they can be integrated into the life in an intelligent manner.

Manual work provides a balance to the more reflective side of our life. It is also a way in which we share in the lot of everybody else who must work in order to eat!

Because a monastic community is a stable one many people find it attractive – Christian or otherwise. Hospitality is an essential value for us. We welcome people to share our journey for a time in the search for inner peace and meaning. At Kopua, we have a guest house and a hermitage. These facilities provide space where visitors can reflect on their lives and on any direction they might need to take. Guests of the monastery are welcome to join us in our prayer if they so wish.

Because our lifestyle is different from that which is normally encountered in society, our presence can provide a challenge to those who meet us.

By providing this challenge, not so much by our words but through our way of life, we demonstrate that we are people who essentially live for others. Our concern is not so much “to do” things for others, but “to be” for others – a living reminder that, at the core of our being, we are Questions seeking an Answer. Through our hospitality, we share with others something of our way towards finding that Answer.

All this may sound very elevated and it is! But there are two attributes that we strive to cultivate – a healthy sense of our own fragility and an equally healthy sense of humour. Both are at the service of each other and both provide an antidote to the danger of taking ourselves too seriously.

The elder was asked, “How is it that some say, ‘We see visions of angels’?” The elder replied, “Happy are those who always see their sins.” (Desert Fathers)