Podcasting the day-to-day life of a Benedictine monk

4 mins read
Brothers Joel (left) and Kolbe (right) host the podcast “Echoes from the Bell Tower.” Courtesy photo

It all started with the bells.

The first episode of the “Echoes from the Bell Tower,” a podcast created by St. Meinrad Archabbey, even begins with the clanging bells from the two bell towers that stand watch over the abbey and its seminary and school of theology.

That first episode, posted March 31, 2016, introduced the two Benedictine monks who would go on to host the series, Brother Joel Blaize (then Novice Jonathan) and Brother Kolbe Wolniakowski (then Novice Tony). Only neither of them knew that they were even being considered for the job.

“They talked to everybody,” Brother Kolbe said. “And they talked to Brother Joel and me together.”

It wasn’t until they were done that they were told that the interview — about the southern Indiana monastery’s tradition of assigning novices to ring the iconic bells — was also a job interview of sorts. The two were already friends and played off each other well.

“At the first meeting, our podcast team created a list of monks we thought might make good hosts, and we decided our first episode would be on the bells,” Krista Hall wrote in an email. Hall is associate director of communications for the archabbey and the podcast producer.

“So I contacted each of our potential hosts to interview them about the bells … as sort of an audition,” Hall wrote. “I interviewed Brother Joel and Brother Kolbe together and I knew right away after that interview that they would be great hosts. They didn’t know that interview was actually an audition to be our podcast hosts.”

Using technology

Hall, a self-described “podcast junkie,” had the idea for a podcast about the abbey at least a year before the first episode was produced, she said, and she still works with a team to come up with ideas for the episodes and then helps bring them to fruition.

As of March 12, there have been 23 episodes that draw back the curtain on monastic life. There is a “Frequently Asked Questions” episode — one of Brother Kolbe’s favorites — that covers everything from “What is this place?” to “What is a monk?”

Recent episodes include conversations monks have had with their families about their vocations and an explanation of how “Peanut Brother,” the peanut butter made in the kitchen and sold in the monastery gift shop, came about.

Archabbot Kurt Stasiak, whose election was covered in the podcast with an episode explaining how the monks elect a new archabbot and with an interview a few weeks after he assumed the office, said he thinks the podcast offers a new way to spread the word about the abbey and its work.

“We’re living in the 21st century, and I think young people are more likely to watch a video or listen to a podcast than they would be to page through a brochure,” Archabbot Stasiak said. “We have a younger generation of monks who are very conversant, very fluent with this kind of technology.”

Dispelling myths

Brother Kolbe, who is studying to be a priest, earned a degree in business administration and worked in the office that handles insurance complaints for the state of Michigan before discerning a call to religious life.

One of the things he enjoyed about that job was being able to explain to people how their insurance worked — or at least how it was supposed to work. Now he enjoys giving listeners a glimpse of how life in a monastery works. He even opened up about his discernment process by interviewing his family about his decision to enter St. Meinrad. That episode makes it clear that the Wolniakowski family remains close-knit, even with his entrance into the monastery and one of his sisters entering a women’s religious community.

Listen to the Podcast
Find “Echoes from the Bell Tower” on iTunes, Stitcher or SoundCloud, or visit its web page at saintmeinrad.edu.

“We just want to share all we do at St. Meinrad’s,” Brother Kolbe said. “Sometimes you get the sense that, to other people, it’s a little bit unusual, but to us it’s normal.”

“I think a lot of the idea is to dispel some of the Hollywood notion of what monastery life is, like that Monty Python scene where they’re walking around hitting themselves with boards,” Brother Joel said. “We’re telling them what a monastery really is: We’re a group of men dedicating our lives to God and to the service of his Church. We want to make this place somewhere where we value and preserve truth and beauty for the greater glory of God and for the people who come here, the students and the visitors and the oblates.”

Brother Joel writes and produces the music for the podcast, works in the music office, is dean of the Benedictine oblates and does several other jobs at the monastery.

The podcast helps some myths about monastic life that come from pop culture, he said, referencing a classic “Saturday Night Live” skit that humorously gives the false impression that monks are only allowed to talk one time a year. That’s definitely not the case at St. Meinrad, although some of the topics of conversation — mostly revolving around everyday life — sounded familiar, Brother Joel said.

St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology was first established in 1857. Courtesy photo

Humanizing the brothers

Brother Joel first came to St. Meinrad in 2013 as a seminarian studying for the diocesan priesthood. He entered the monastery in 2014. Before he entered seminary, he earned a degree in English and then worked as an engineering technician and machinist.

“The podcast gives us an opportunity to humanize the monks a little bit,” Brother Joel said.

Among his favorite episodes is the one about the brothers’ hobbies. Brothers are encouraged to take up hobbies, or, as one of the brothers says on the podcast, disciplines. Some raise chickens, one collects stamps, one collected model trains. Several cook, bake bread or brew beer.

“We do very little haphazardly,” Brother Joel said. “We’re very intentional about we do.”

He said people seemed to enjoy the episode about chant and the one titled “Keep Death Daily Before Your Eyes,” a phrase from the Rule of St. Benedict.

Archabbot Stasiak said he most enjoyed the “Peanut Brother” episode, because making the product is such ideal monastic work.

It doesn’t take a lot of skill or study, so any of the monks can help, and groups of 10 or 15 of them will gather in the kitchen for a couple of hours at a time to work together and enjoy each other’s company. The episode brings that out, the archabbot said.

“You get a sense of how these men live” from the podcast, Archabbot Stasiak said. “It’s a happy life.”

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.