We recently stopped by St Paul’s Abbey (Newton Abbey) in Newton to pick up a Christmas tree for the Weird NJ office, and were reminded of beauty of the vacant old building, which is so familiar to travelers along Route 206 in Sussex County. Here now is a rare glimpse behind the ivy-bound exterior of the forlorn old monastery.

St. Paul’s is a Benedictine simple priory of the Congregation of Missionary Benedictines of Saint Ottilien originally established in 1924. The effects that World War I had on the Missionary Benedictines’ missions in Asia and Africa contributed to the founding of houses outside of Germany. Monasteries in a variety of areas would ensure that the Ottilien Congregation had a greater chance of continuing its work in spite of political and economic crises.

Despite initial setbacks, which included opposition from the local Sussex County Ku Klux Klan, the monastery quickly grew. By 1932, a minor seminary with 15 students was operating. While some monks raised funds for the Congregation’s missions, others looked after a garden, a 180-hectare farm, and a number of workshops. Agriculture was always an important part of the monastery’s activities. They operate a Christmas tree farm on the property, which remains a vital part of the monks’ livelihood to this day.

In 1940, the priory included one local priest, 13 local clerics, and six novices. In 1947 St. Paul’s Newton was elevated to an abbey, and placed under the patronage of Paul the Apostle. At that time, the community included 21 priests (12 of them Americans), three American clerics, and 14 brothers (all expatriate Germans). The community expanded so quickly that the seminary students were forced into temporary housing, as the monks occupied the seminary facilities. In 1961, construction began on a new monastery across Route 206 that would suffice to house approximately fifty monks.

A gallery of photos by Rusty Tagliareni / Antiquity Echoes

But the population began to dwindle, and of the 48 monks living there in 1960, only 17 remained by 1990. This decline resulted in the closure of the seminary, as well as a decrease in the number of monks assigned to the mission. Closure of the monastery seemed inevitable, but the community was assisted by monks of Waegwan Abbey, South Korea. In December 2001, a number of these monks arrived in Newton. The monastery was officially handed over on January 25, 2002, and was elevated to the status of a simple priory, known as Newton II, in 2004.

By 2011 the community of Newton II included fourteen monks, including six priests and one oblate. Of these fourteen, nine are Korean, four are American, and one is Tanzanian. Because of the decrease in vocations, the work of the community is currently not as widespread as it was in times past. The ornate, vine-strangled structure of the original abbey building has been unused for decades now, sitting cold and empty on the overgrown wintery landscape. But each holiday season the abbey’s Christmas tree business springs to life and thrives once more.

Photo by Rusty Tagliareni / Antiquity Echoes

The preceding article is an excerpt from issue #39 of  Weird NJ magazine, “Your Travel Guide to New Jersey’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets,” which is available on newsstands throughout the state and on the web at www.WeirdNJ.com.  All contents ©Weird NJ and may not be reproduced by any means without permission.

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