Meditations in black & white

As Gordon Parks made images of the monks at St. Benedict’s Abbey, they made an impression on him


by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

ATCHISON — The passing of more than half a century has not diminished the power of the images Gordon Parks captured of the simple life of the monks at St. Benedict’s Abbey here.

For 53 years, however, this remarkable collection of 32 black-and-white photographs went unseen by the public.

On Feb. 10 that all changed.

Parks’ collection was the opening exhibit in the brand new art gallery at St. Benedict’s Abbey, made possible by the community’s Journey Forward capital campaign.

The new gallery, located in the abbey church crypt, will display the collection of
Parks’ photos for the next three months.

Parks — famed photographer, filmmaker, artist, composer and author — took the photographs during a stay at the abbey in 1955, while on assignment for LIFE magazine. When LIFE’s editors chose other photos to feature in the magazine, Parks chose his personal favorites as his gift to the monks.

Father Blaine Schultz was a 22-year-old monk when Parks visited. He’s even in one of the pictures, although he can barely be seen.

“He took a shot of the dining room as the monks were leaving,” said Father Blaine, now 74. “I’m in the right-hand side of the picture.”

Only nine were on display outside the monastic dining room. Most of the time the photos were stored in the abbot’s office.

“The Smithsonian printed some of his pictures,” said Father Blaine. “One was of the monks on the east lawn. The caption said the monks were taking time for silent prayer. Parks adopted that practice in his own life, and took time to meditate and pray.”

Parks, a native of Fort Scott, died at age 93 in 2006 and is buried in his hometown. He got his start in photography with a $7 camera; he died the pre-eminent African-American photographer of his time.

Abbot Barnabas Senecal was a freshman at St. Benedict College when Parks made his historic abbey photo essay, although he doesn’t remember the Parks visit.

He was on hand, though, for the Feb. 10 private opening of the exhibit. Among the 50 guests were Parks’ nephew, Napoleon Charles Parks, and his wife, Ella, from Lawrence.

“This is the first use of this space,” said Abbot Barnabas. “When we did the additions to the front of the church and put in the handicapped elevator to bring people to the crypt, [we believed] the art gallery would be another reason for people to come to our place. We thought [the opening] was a success, because we had people who had never been to the church.”

The new $80,000 art gallery is part of a $4 million capital improvements campaign. One part, which has been completed, included handicapped access to and within the church and guest house. The second part will be repair and replacement of the 886 abbey windows. The third part will be replacement of the slate roof on the 1929 portion of the abbey. So far the abbey has raised $2.5 million in cash and pledges, and Abbot Barnabas hopes another $1.5 million can be raised this year.

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