Mepkin Abbey is home to a community of Roman Catholic monks who live, pray, and work on the lands of the historic Mepkin Plantation, Clermont Plantation, and Washington Plantation, all along on the Cooper River in Moncks Corner.
The abbey rests on 3,000 acres. The land was originally granted to the sons of Sir John Colleton, a Lord’s Proprietor and cousin of fellow Lord’s Proprietor George Monck (for whom Monck’s Corner is named), in 1681. By the eighteenth century, it became the rice plantation of Henry Laurens, president of the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War, succeeding John Hancock. In 1916 the tract was purchased by J.W. Johnson, Esquire, along with Washington and Clermont plantations.
In 1936 the property was purchased by publishing magnate Henry Luce of Time, Life, and Sports Illustrated magazines. Under their ownership, Luce and his wife, Clare Booth Luce, added several outbuildings and formal gardens, giving the grounds and buildings the modern, manicured look they bear today.
Mrs. Luce was well known in her own right. She served as our nation’s first female ambassador. A prominent conservative, she also served in the US House of Representatives, and in addition, she was the author of numerous plays and two books. Though they primarily lived in Washington DC, Mr. and Mrs. Luce are both buried at Mepkin Abbey, alongside her mother and daughter. The remains of Henry and John Laurens rest here as well. Henry Laurens feared being buried alive so at his request he was cremated at Mepkin. This was the first formally-documented cremation in the country. (The photo below shows the Laurens Family cemetery. The Luce Family cemetery can be seen further down this page, along with a photo of an African-American cemetery.)
Mrs. Luce converted to Roman Catholicism in 1946. Three years later, she donated Mepkin to the monks of Gethsemani Abbey of Kentucky, who belong to the Order of Cistercians but are better known as Trappists monks. The monastery has operated here since the 1960s.
The monks live a life centered around prayer and quiet meditation. They also work to support themselves and the abbey primarily by cultivating and selling mushrooms to local stores and restaurants. The mushroom farm replaced an egg farm that was phased out in 2007 after a controversy regarding the monks’ treatment of chickens was institgated by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Though the monks denied any mistreatment, they agreed to cease egg production, stating the highly-publicized controversy was disruptive to their monastic lifestyle.
The monks’ work is not solely centered around mushroom cultivation, however. They are responsible for maintaining the abbey, including landscaping, cleaning, and putting books away in their vast library. Hospitality is also a large part of life at Mepkin Abbey. Many visitors of all faiths come here to seek guidance or simply to take time for private reflection.
Christian art adorns the gardens of Mepkin Abbey, and the above image shows a wood carving created by David Drake, nephew of the late Brother Laurence. The carvings are made of fallen live oak trees (Quercus virginiana) which were toppled during Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
The monastary’s church, pictured below, is a modern design based on 12th-century architecture. The Cistercian Reform Church employs austerity and simplicity in its buildings, hoping to allow the focus to remain on God rather than ornate distractions.
Here, the church was built with three elements in mind: natural light, which enters the room through several highly-placed windows; natural materials, such as red oak furniture, yellow pine found in the roofing, and quarry-tiled floors; and balanced proportions which mimic the 9′ 6″ grid of many medieval buildings.
The bell tower to the left of the church, pictured below, rings seven times a day to call the monks to prayer. The monks honor the spirits of those who lived before them on this property to ensure they have not died in vain. In their eyes, the bell does not only call them to prayer but also “the native American Indians who used this land as a hunting place. They call the Laurens family and the early patriots who lived and loved on this land. They call the African Americans who lived and worked and died on this land; who built these rice fields, not only with their physical labor, but also their minds which engineered their design. They call the Luce family, who used this land as a place to bring and entertain friends. And they will call these our beloved dead resting in this wall. May all those who are or who will be inurned here continue to speak to us and guide us.”
The abbey also hosts a festival of creches, or nativity scenes, each Christmas season. Artful creches from all over are on display for visitors to appreciate. People can even vote for their favorites! There is a gift shop at the abbey that sells a variety of items, from books on monastic traditions to their famous compost.
African-American Cemetery at Mepkin Abbey
Around 50 years ago, the monks at Mepkin Abbey were clearing land and discovered a few head stones and evidence of several unmarked graves. Upon further discovery, it was determined that this was the burial ground for both enslaved and later freed black laborers of Clermont Plantation. Historic Taveau Church, a former Clermont Plantation church that became an African-American church, rests near this site.
The monks cleaned up the cemetery and opened it to the public during a ceremony on September 4, 2006. They also commissioned a painting from local artist Jonathan Green to honor the slaves of Clermont Plantation. The finished work, a 72″ x 60″ painting called Seeking, was unveiled during the opening ceremony and now hangs in Mepkin Abbey. A 2007 documentary by filmmaker Charles Allan Smith, also called Seeking, follows Green as he creates the film’s namesake painting.
The gate pictured above was designed by Joseph “Ronnie” Pringle, cousin of noted blacksmith Philip Simmons, whose ironwork graces many downtown Charleston structures. Pringle, born in 1943, apprenticed with Simmons from the age of 13 and eventually took over his shop with the help of cousin Carlton Simmons. The gate is titled A Sacred Place.
The headstone above marks the burial site of Mariah Richerson, a woman who was born just outside of legal slavery who died in 1919. It is adorned with a string of seashells. The burial sites of slaves were largely unmarked – at least in any permanent way – as owners were unlikely to provide formal stones for their enslaved workers. That said, family and friends paid respects with items such as seashells, pottery shards, plants, and wooden planks. The photo shows another example of a trinket used to honor a grave.
The cemetery is accessed through a cotton field after driving down a dirt road. Signs helps to guide visitors to the sacred site.
Historical Pictures of Mepkin Abbey
This picture shows Mepkin as it looked while owned by the Clare and Henry Luce. The photo was taken in 1938.
More Pictures of Mepkin Abbey
Reflections on Mepkin Abbey
Photographer Tom Haines of North Charleston sends us his memories of capturing his image above: “My second visit to the Abbey. First time I discovered this little gem of a cemetery. Interesting grave markers which portray early residents. No one else on the grounds! Very hot day as I recall….”