July 3rd, 2017 at 6:00 AM

Coming To Peace

Conception Abbey Retains Quietude Even After 2002 Murders

Conception Abbey is a Benedictine monastery located about 100 miles north of Kansas City. The 19th century facility also hosts retreats. (Chase Castor | Flatland)
Conception Abbey is a Benedictine monastery located about 100 miles north of Kansas City. The 19th century facility also hosts retreats. (Chase Castor | Flatland)

One June morning, in 2002, the bells at a Benedictine abbey in northwest Missouri tolled dozens of times

The 83 rings was not random, coming a day after a murderous rampage inside Conception Abbey. The number represented the combined number of years two slain monks had lived at the abbey, which is located about 100 miles north of Kansas City.

The gunman, Lloyd Robert Jeffress, 71, of Kearney, Missouri, wounded two other monks and ended by killing himself in the basilica with a single gunshot to the head. Authorities at the time speculated that Jeffress’ anger might have stemmed from his 1959 divorce and annulment two decades later.

Flatland photographer Chase Castor visited the abbey on the 15th anniversary of the shootings, finding that the incident was still too raw for the monks to discuss. Nevertheless, he found a contemplative community that remains committed to its foundations of peace, prayer and work.


 

In Conception, Missouri, it isn’t odd to see a tractor on the road or a hay rake stowed in the median. Yet what distinguishes this small farm community from many other like it is the presence of Conception Abbey, which is tucked in the middle of rolling hills dotted with giant wind turbines. The abbey is a compound of brick buildings fitted with beautiful murals and stained glass windows. It is a space of serenity, nature, spirituality — and even a soccer field.

Building of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception or Abbey Church was started in 1881 and completed in 1891. It's gone through many renovations over the years.

Evening light shines through the basilica's stained glass as people gather for Vespers. Prayers at the church draw people on retreat at the abbey along with seminarians.

The basilica is lined with beautiful murals painted by the monks.

Pax, or peace, is one of the pillars of The Benedictine Way. The stained glass window hangs above the entrance to the basilica.

The basilica's organ, named Opus 24, contains metal and wooden pipes. Seven of the wooden pipes were repurposed from an organ that resided in the Assembly Hall Tabernacle in Salt Lake City.

The halls of the abbey.

A workshop in the lower levels of one of the abbey's buildings. The workshop holds tools for work that needs to be done around the abbey and provides an area for the monks to work on their hobbies.

Starter plants in the workshop are grown for one of the many food gardens surrounding the abbey.

The abbey is surrounded by rolling farmland. This makes for a fitting environment for a place with the Latin motto of "ora et labor" (pray and work).

The abbey’s neighbors include sheep on adjoining property. At one point the abbey raised its own livestock, work they dream of restarting.

The back view of the abbey where the seminary students soccer team practices.

New apples in the abbey's orchard.

The abbey is home to 66 monks, who have dedicated their lives to prayer and work following the Rule of Saint Benedict. They are peaceful, humble, and hospitable. Residents range from elderly monks, who have spent a majority of their years living this way, to young men starting their monastic life. Yet they are one community, coming together to pray six times a day, filling the basilica with psalms and ancient prayers sung in reverberating unison.

Brother Jacob Kubajak rings the bells before Lauds (morning prayer).

The monks file into the basilica for prayer.

Father Paul Sheller has many roles at the abbey, including assisting the abbot and prior in leadership.

Arturo Alberto Hernandez kneels at prayer. He came to Conception Abbey two years ago for the seminary school.

You can often find Father Albert chatting and laughing with guests in the dining room. His nickname, "The Late Father Albert," reflects his laid back approach to punctuality.

A monk under the abbey’s hospice care exits the basilica with the aid of a wheelchair.

A monk walks to the cloister after prayer.

Brother Blaise Bonderer receives the Eucharist from Father Etienne Huard.

Monks singing prayers and psalms. Many of the monks travel or work elsewhere during the summer.

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