Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Finding Subiaco

I think if you asked most relatively experienced Arkansas-dwellers about Subiaco, they would probably know what's out there. Jenna and I haven't lived in the state long enough to know things like that, though, so when we ran across it, we almost had to scrape our eyeballs off the floor of the car.

Here's how it happened.

As any reader of mine should know by now, the Jones thing to do when driving cross-state is to check the road map and take the smaller highways, the cinnamon-red ones, or, if we're feeling more adventurous, the spidery black ones. Some of them (like Highway 7) are lined with these little purple dots that represent "Scenic Byways," otherwise known as "the scenic route." Others are not lined with anything except one-horse towns, one-light towns, and cow towns. Subiaco rests on one of these.

The town itself is about fifty miles east of Fort Smith and about thirty miles south of the Interstate (O vast enemy of mine). It isn't really fair to refer to Subiaco as a "town," per se, and in fact the thing that distinguishes it actually predates the post office, and therefore the identity, of the town. But I guess I better quit beating around the bush.

While winding through the valleys of nowhere east of Fort Smith, we passed through Subiaco, looked to our left, and saw something like a fortress standing atop a hill. The fortress-thing was titanic, made all the more massive by its location on the hilltop, and was replete with battlements, towers, and medieval ambiance. "Can we turn around and go check it out?" Jenna said, after we finished freaking out.

"Yes. Definitely," I replied.

Subiaco abbey was begun as a little priory in 1877 by some German immigrants. Because really, if you're a Catholic German immigrant in 19th century Arkansas, what else are you going to do for mass except just build a church yourself? The little settlement started out as St. Benedict's Priory, and remained so until about 1910, when the town received its own post office and became Subiaco. By then, the abbey had moved to the top of the hill and had opened a school for boys.

There've been some ups and downs since then, and the end result is that Subiaco Abbey and Academy is a prestigious school (8th grade through 12th). Something like 90% of the kids that go through there graduate college.

The abbey itself is, of course, a gorgeous cathedral (and I've heard it's gorgeous inside as well; we didn't venture within). It's the kind of thing you would expect to see while driving through the middle of nowhere in England or Scotland, maybe, but not Arkansas. Of course those European abbeys would probably have four to five hundred years on this one, but hey, you know. It's America.

The academy even has its own sports teams (not sure who the mascots are). My guess is a lot of the boys here get so, shall we say, lonely, that they forget what kind of rare and awesome environment they get to go to school in. For all I know it's soul-crushingly strict, too. But I just know it's one of the most startlingly beautiful built environments I've ever encountered in Arkansas. I mean, sure, we've got some really pretty churches, even in towns like Tuckerman. But it's the fact that for miles is nothing but rolling hills and little colonies of cattle. No plaster bank-palaces or grinning neon fast-food joints.

And that's another thing. The monks of Subiaco own much of the surrounding farmland, so the abbey is self-sufficient. They even make their own habanero pepper sauce (it's called Monk Sauce. I'm serious).

The whole thing just knocked both of us way off guard. We explored the complex while giggling like fools, taking a moment every now and then to pause and exclaim, "I can't believe this is here!" Sometimes it's hard to love Arkansas, but this was one of those times where it really wasn't.

Here are a few more pictures from the complex.

The cathedral viewed from below

Inside the complex

The cafeteria, complete with giant chimney

It's finds like this that make small-highway exploration so worth it. And the road goes on...



Alex said...

The lifelong Arkansan in me is ashamed that I have never heard of this. Fantastic.

Jenna said...

Subiaco's mascot is the Trojan.
They also sell Monk Sauce and Brittle on their website!