A Colonial plantation, an early 20th century winter home for the wealthy and now home to about two dozen Trappist monks. Mepkin Abbey pays homage to all its previous lives and welcomes guests to join the monks for a day or longer as they silently, prayerfully discover God.
On the grounds of the abbey is a wood carving depicting Native Americans before colonists arrived. The Tower of the Seven Spirits celebrates them as well as plantation owners and the African slaves who worked the land, publisher and writer Henry and Clare Booth Luce who spent winters here during the early 20th century, and the monks, who were deeded the land by the Luces.
"The majority of people who come to visit leave with that sense of being connected to God," says Father Joe Tedesco, a priest who joined the brothers 15 years ago and now serves as the abbey cook. "They are looking for that silence and solitude that we need in our life. We have a lot to offer to slow down and quiet down even if just for the day."
The brothers of the abbey have one purpose, Father Joe says, and that is to silently, prayerfully seek God.
"We don't minister," he says. "But we let people enter our experience. We were asked by the church to open ourselves up and have space available. Many people come back over and over."
In fact, Father Joe was stopping over at the abbey after a visit with family on Hilton Head Island when he heard the call to join the brothers. He had been at Mepkin earlier in his spiritual journey before he became a priest. After 30 years serving as a priest, he was planning to retire to a quiet life in the South Carolina countryside. And, he did just that, but a little differently than he had initially planned.
"I am an obedient monk," he says of his joining the order. His timing was perfect as the elderly monk who was cooking for the abbey needed help, and Father Joe had worked as a cook before becoming a priest. Slowly, he began helping in the kitchen, then took over when the older brother could no longer do the tasks.
"I like serving the soup," Father Joe says. "We live a pretty simple life and eat a pretty simple, plant-based vegetarian diet. It started out as a discipline, but now we learn it is very healthy as well."
Retreatants who spend the night at the abbey on one of the three-night or four-night stays are invited to eat with the monks. "Sharing a meal is a prayerful, fraternal experience," Father Joe says. "There is a deep spirituality to sharing a meal at the monks' table."
To help pay for the abbey's upkeep and operation, the monks cultivate and sell mushrooms, many of which go to local restaurants as a delicacy. They have a gift shop staffed by community volunteers and docents, who also give day tours of the property. The three- and four-night retreats are limited to 12 rooms and book well in advance.
"Most of our days are in silence, but even in silence, the sense of community is there," he says.