Saint John’s Abbey Hosts First Ever English as a Second Language Institute for Monks from Around the World

By Nikki Raja of The Visitor, newspaper of the Diocese of Saint Cloud


Saint John’s Abbey hosted its first-ever English as a Second Language Institute for monks from around the world this summer.

Benedictine Brother Paul Richards, director of the Saint John’s Abbey Benedictine Volunteer Corps who became the ESL program’s director, described how the idea became reality.

“We have many monk-students from other countries that come to study at Saint John’s School of Theology,” he said. “Over the years they have expressed a need for better preparation in English for study here and [to offer] better service at their home monasteries.”


Sarah Pruett poses a question to the monks at Saint John’s ESL Institute. They are, from left, Br. Andrew (Van Tong) Ho, Br. Thomas (Van Dung) Thai, Br. Shuuta Maximilian Oka, Br. Emmanuel (Ba Le) Nguyen, Br. Luke Maria Esparza-Houl and Br. Philip Thomas. Benedictine Abbot-emeritus Christian Haidinger and Br. Adrich Suico are not visible. Photo by Bill Vossler for The Visitor

Saint John’s began building a database of about 400 Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries, Brother Paul said. Organizers developed a brochure in English, wrote an invitation letter and had it translated. They hoped to have at least five monks in the program. Eight accepted. Camp began June 6 and ends August 2, capped with a simple graduation breakfast August 3.

Scholar monks

“The monks participate in our full monastic day of prayer and Mass and meals at St. John’s,” Brother Paul said. “They already know the psalms and prayers in their own languages, and that further immerses them into our community and English.” In the mornings, they study three hours in the classroom. “At 3:45 p.m. each day, they meet with conversation partners for an hour of one-to-one conversation,” Brother Paul said. “Each part of their day offers many opportunities for listening to and speaking English. And they’ve enjoyed St. Joe’s Fourth of July [celebration], Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth and other outdoor activities of summer.”

The scholars range in age from 23 to 70 and represent five monastic communities. Each one has an individual research topic of interest to him. Benedictine Abbot-emeritus Christian Haidinger, of Altenburg, Austria, is focusing on ideas in Plato’s philosophy related to contemplation. He retired this spring as abbot and is currently the president of the Klösterreich, an association of Austrian abbeys. “I want to participate more fully in international conferences, including the Vienna International Christian-Islamic Summer University at Altenburg Abbey beginning August 3,” he said. Benedictine Brother Aldrich Suico said, “Much of the computer research I’m doing is in English. This class helps me pursue my interests in several areas, including youth ministry in the Philippines.”

“We have American monks and many English-speaking guests at our monastery,” said Benedictine Brother Shuuta Maximilian Oka of Japan, who is doing work comparing Zen meditation techniques to Christian practices. “I often need to communicate with them.”

Two Benedictines — Brothers Luke Maria Esparza-Houl and Philip Thomas — come from Christ in the Desert, New Mexico. Brother Luke Maria is interested in art and iconography, while Brother Philip is researching orphanages and children’s villages and gerontology.

Three monks are Cistercians of the Common Order from Phuoc Son Monastery, South Vietnam.

Cistercian Brother Andrew (Van Tong) Ho said, “I want to understand what happened to the ‘boat people’ who left Vietnam in the 1970s and 1980s and came to the U.S.” Brother Emmanuel (Ba Le) Nguyen is studying “lectio divina,” which combines prayer and Scriptures and Brother Thomas (Van Dung) Thai is reading Plato in preparation for graduate studies. Improving their English enables all three to continue studying philosophy and theology at the School of Theology in the fall.

One Wednesday morning, the class began with a scripted dialogue prepared by teacher Sarah Pruett. This allowed monks with less English to hone pronunciation skills while more advanced speakers spontaneously answered additional questions. Pruett, ESL coordinator at Saint John’s and the College of St. Benedict, organized course materials, adjusting the assignments and exercises as she learned more about their proficiency levels. To practice certain verb forms, discussion included topics with questions generated by the monks — Have you ever eaten whale meat? Have you ever met the president of your country? Have you ever given up in the face of challenges? Class members often joked with Pruett and each other. “They’ve enjoyed comparing their different monastic environments,” Pruett said, “asking about traditions in each other’s countries and having the opportunity to strengthen their computer skills while improving their English. We’ve discussed everything from weather emergencies, community life and immigration to interreligious dialogue, criminal justice systems, challenges for modern families and Pope Francis.”

Enriching the community

To strengthen their skills in listening comprehension, discussion, public speaking, note-taking, summarizing, organizing of essays, sentence structure, usage and vocabulary, the class used TED Talks, databases at CSB/SJU libraries, and material from Voice of America, the Undertold Stories Project, America magazine and National Catholic Reporter as well as other sources.

Using a PowerPoint presentation and speeches in English, they shared information on their monastic communities to a group at Saint John’s. “This has been a rich experience for both our scholar monks and us,” Brother Paul said. “The best thing about it is the life and energy that these men have brought to our community this summer.”