Contemplating Merton

When the Frazier History Museum first opened its doors, it was as the Frazier Historical Arms Museum. The Frazier will never forget its proud heritage as such an institution – a displayer of truly spectacular and singular arms exhibits – but in recent years, the museum has decided to broaden its focus. A strengthening of the local history aspect of the Frazier’s mission has now become a priority. “We want to tell stories that matter to the local community,” says Penny Peavler, president and CEO of the Frazier.

Thomas Merton was a writer, poet, social activist and Trappist monk at The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani near Bardstown for 27 years, and on January 31, 2016, what would have been his 101st birthday, the Frazier decided to open a new exhibit honoring him in partnership with Bellarmine University. His writing contemplated the nature of compassion and also commented on the issues of fair treatment, open housing, tolerance and the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s. He is considered to be the most widely read modern spiritual writer in the world, and to commemorate Merton’s famous epiphany on compassion that occurred on Fourth and Walnut Streets in Louisville, Mayor Greg Fischer signed a resolution in 2011 committing to a multi-year Compassionate Louisville campaign – making Louisville an international compassionate city, the largest city in America with that distinction.

Photo courtesy of Frazier History Museum/Ralph Eugene Meatyard

Photo courtesy of Frazier History Museum/Ralph Eugene Meatyard

At the opening, speakers read their favorite Merton passages, and guests got to look at clothing and items of Merton’s that, until recently, have been hidden away since his death in 1968, making a substantial part of the exhibit a collection of artifacts – including photographs taken by Merton himself, photographs of the spiritual leader taken by Kentucky photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, photographs taken by Courier-Journal photographers during the Civil Rights Movement in Louisville, personal clothing, correspondence between Merton and Coretta Scott King as well as voice recordings of Merton speaking about Martin Luther King Jr.’s death – that have never before been displayed to the public.

The story regarding how Merton’s clothing was discovered is particularly noteworthy. Helen Marie used to be a nun, and during her time in a convent in Brooklyn, she because enraptured by Merton and his writings. She was so moved that she decided to visit Gethsemani without informing the monastery. After arriving in a snowstorm and meeting Merton, Helen decided to move to the Sisters of Loretto at Nerinx, Ky., just down the road from Gethsemani permanently, and Merton became her spiritual mentor.

While under Merton’s mentorship, Helen Marie also spent time with Brother Irenaeus, and the two fell in love. This resulted in a serious conflict for Helen Marie as she wished to keep studying under Merton, but she could not ignore the new feelings she was developing. She sought Merton’s counsel, and he advised that she had learned all she could from a monastic life, that she must, “Grow in new areas. Grow beyond that.”

Merton died shortly before Helen and Irenaeus’ departures from their respective spiritual communities, and despite orders from his abbot, Irenaeus – serving as the monastery’s tailor at the time – could not bring himself to throw away the clothing of the man who taught him and Helen so much. The two kept numerous artifacts and clothing items hidden in the home they built together, and after Irenaeus’ death in 2009, Helen finally decided that dedicating the clothing to the exhibit would be her small contribution back to the man who changed her life.

And that’s just one example of how Merton changed not only someone’s life but also the world. During Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. in September 2015, he praised the late Thomas Merton as one of four great Americans, calling him, “a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.” Peavler paraphrases one of her favorite never-before-published writings in the exhibit and says, “‘People are shining like the sun and don’t realize it.’ That was so moving to me. Who sits around and thinks about people all day anymore? Our society doesn’t work that way anymore. It doesn’t allow it. He did.” Go to the exhibit, and take the time to contemplate today.

The exhibit will be open through May 29. General admission: adults, $12; military, $10; seniors, $10; children/students (5-17 and college with I.D.) $8; children (4 and under) free; teachers (professional K-12 teachers in Kentucky and Indiana), free. VT

The Frazier is open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday, noon-5 p.m. For more information, call 502.753.5663 or visit