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The Forgotten Basque Benedictines of Sacred Heart Abbey, Oklahoma (I / II)

Basques living in the United States today are well aware that Basque missionaries have been sent over the years by the Diocese of Bayonne, France to minister to their various spiritual needs. The role of these priests since 1961 has been instrumental in the continuation of the Basque culture here in America. The Bishop of Bayonne began sending missionaries here following the death of Fr. Charles Espelette in 1958, a Benedictine monk who ministered to the American Basques from an old monastery in Montebello, California. But how many people today are aware that Fr. Espelette was a Benedictine monk sent to Montebello from Sacred Heart Abbey in the middle of Oklahoma Indian country and that he was one of the last members of a monastic community of about 50 Basque monks, brothers, clerics and nuns who were associated with Sacred Heart Abbey from 1881 to 1966. The Oklahoma community established the monastery in Southern California in 1905 specifically to minister to the needs of the Basque population living in the western states. This is the story of how this community of Basque Benedictines arrived in Oklahoma, how they expanded their activities to California and the various contributions they made both to the religious and educational communities they served as well as to the Basque families residing in America. This story is intended to resurrect the history of these forgotten servants and to revive the memory of their involvement in the Basque culture of America.

Fr. Espelette in front of Montebello Monastery

Fr. Espelette in front of Montebello Monastery.

There have been references to these Benedictines by Basque historians but they have been sketchy and misinterpreted. In 1894, a Basque newspaper, California’ko Eskual Herria, published in Los Angeles, wrote a series of articles regarding “a group of Basque priests who had founded a mission in Oklahoma Territory” (Douglass 1975). The following year the same newspaper published an article by a French priest that “chastised the California colony for not having taken steps to secure a Basque chaplain” (Douglass 1975). In 1910, Pierre Llande, in L’emigration basque makes reference that Bishop Conaty of Los Angeles requested missionaries be sent by the Bishop of Bayonne and later were successful in building a monastery in Montebello (Llande 1910). Llande does not mention the role of Sacred Heart Abbey in his book. The only reference in Adrian Gachiteguy’s, Les Basques dans L’Ouest Americain, regarding these missionaries was that “Fr. Gariador, resident of Los Angeles” was summoned to assist the Basques of Buffalo Wyoming celebrate the Feast of the Assumption in 1918 (Gachiteguy 1955). In 1918, Fr Gariador was a resident of Oklahoma and there is no mention of Sacred Heart. Douglass and Bilbao in Amerikanuak do mention the group but only devote a couple of paragraphs to them either because their story did not merit more or they were unaware of the significant involvement of this group in the greater Basque community. Most recently in 1998, Nancy Zubiri in A Travel Guide to Basque America mentions that both Fr. Espelette and Fr. Gariador served at the Mt Carmel Church in Montebello but she does not mention the wider Basque Benedictine community.

Almost concurrently with the publication of Amerikanuak, Father Joseph F. Murphy published in 1974, Tenacious Monks - The Oklahoma Benedictines, 1875-1975: Indian Missionaries, Catholic Founders, Educators and Agriculturists. This detailed 100 year history of Sacred Heart Abbey tells the story of this monastic community including the Basque contingent. Although, Amerikanuak remains the principal work on Basque history in America, it appears that Douglass and Bilbao as well as the other authors have been unaware of the details of this truly remarkable story of the Basque Benedictine community at Sacred Heart.

The story of Sacred Heart Abbey begins in 1875 when two Frenchmen, Father Isidore Robot and Brother Dominic Lambert established the Oklahoma monastery as part of a European Benedictine community called the Congregation of Primitive Observance. This organization controlled a number of monasteries throughout Europe and desired to bring their missionary activities to the Indian populations in the American states. For a number of years the Abbot General of the Congregation sent representatives to America to search for a suitable site to establish a Benedictine monastery. In 1875, they decided to build their monastery dedicated to ancient Rules of Benedict near Konawa in the Oklahoma territory that was populated by the Citizens Band of Potawatomi Indians. Protestant congregations were pretty strong in these areas and this was the first venture in the area for the Catholic Church. The Abbey was established with the cooperation of the Prefecture of the Indian Territory and the Bishop of Little Rock, Arkansas who were in charge of the regular Catholic parishes of this area. However, a major obstacle to establishing the monastery was the difficulty in attracting religious personnel to this desolate territory.

Meanwhile in France, after the fall of Napoleon III in 1871, anticlerical policies and laws were passed by the secular government that caused religious organizations to be at risk for many years. Many communities were forced to close and monks residing there were sent in exile to other countries to escape the suppression. Two specific monasteries that suffered loses of personnel during the anticlerical repressions were St. Pierre-qui-Vire in the Yonne Department and Belloc Abbey in the French Basque country. Both monasteries attracted a number of young Basque clerics who desired to pursue life in a monastic setting. Exiled Basques initially escaped to monasteries in England, Ireland and Scotland but there was not enough room or resources for them and eventually they headed to Oklahoma. The anti-clerical movement in France, therefore, was responsible for providing the needed manpower for Fr. Robot’s mission in America.

The first Basque to arrive in Oklahoma was Fr. Gabriel Arreguy who arrived in 1881 as part of a small caravan of five but he returned to France the following year. It is possible that his return to Belloc encouraged other Basques from Belloc to head for Oklahoma.

Fr. Thomas Duperou.

The first Basque to spend significant time in Oklahoma was Fr. Thomas Duperou a native of Ciboure, France. He initially trained and professed his vows at St. Pierre-qui-Vire. From there he teamed up with another Basque in 1875, Fr. Augustine Bastres to establish a new dependency in Urt, France called Our Lady of Belloc. Fr. Bastres remained in Belloc as its first Abbot while Fr. Duperou traveled around the various European monasteries in search of a place for the young Basque exiles. Eventually, he found an ancient monastic site in Buckfast, England and established it as a new monastery in 1882, acting as superior of that monastery until 1884. He made such an impression on his superiors that the Abbot General of the Congregation then requested that Duperou go to Oklahoma to take charge as it was extremely difficult to implement the monastic rituals in this territory. It is apparent that this move to Oklahoma also provided the link to many more Basques moving there. He is given great credit in guiding Sacred Heart during its early years. He was elected the first actual Abbot of the monastery in 1896 a year before his death.

In 1888, four more Basques arrived at Sacred Heart due to the recruiting efforts of Fr. Duperou. These included Fr. Leo Gariador, two clerics, Hippolyte Topet and Guillaume Ospital and a lay brother Francois Touron. The two clerics were ordained the following year by the Bishop of Kansas. Also in 1889, Fr Duperou went back to France and brought back fourteen missionaries. The Basques included Order candidates Placide Harismendy and Gratian Ardans, Brothers Martin Larran, Theodore Ayzaguer, Justin Belza and Casamir Etchechury as well as four Benedictine nuns, Srs Gabrielle Ospital, Eurosie Ospital, Josephine Irigoyen and Anselme Haran. In 1893. Father Bastres made a visit to Sacred Heart with a caravan of nine. These included Fr. Blaise Haritchabalet, clerics Clement Dupont, Ildephonse Ellisalde and two lay-brothers, Florentio Ramirez and Thomas Zurutusa. Additional seminarians arrived prior to 1896, including Aloysius Hitta and Vincent Montalibet. The official roster for Sacred Heart in 1896 listed 17 priests and a significant portion of them were from the Basque country (Murphy 1974).

By the turn of the century the Benedictines of Sacred Heart Abbey had constructed a number of structures including the monastery, living quarters, nunnery and a school. The Benedictines taught the children of the region through Sacred Heart Boys School and the girls went to St Mary’s Academy. The clergy from Sacred Heart also lent some of their priests to assist in various parishes throughout the region. They farmed the land and raised their own crops and orchards for food. They had become a completely self sustained monastic community.

Fr. Leo Gariador

Fr. Leo Gariador.

During the 1890’s a number of exploratory expeditions were taken from Oklahoma by the Basque missionaries to visit the various settlements of Basques in the American West. Records indicate that Frs Leo Gariador, Gratian Ardans and Hippolyte Topet undertook these missionary trips. In 1905, Frs Gariador and Ardans, who were first cousins from Aldude, France arrived in Southern California with the intent of establishing a permanent Benedictine monastery there. Initially, they took up residence in the Tehachapi area but later discovered that Montebello would prove to be a better site. They were invited by Bishop Thomas Conaty in his letter written to Fr. Gariador on March 22, 1906 to “establish the Order at Montebello, California, with the express condition that it will be their duty – first, to look after the spiritual needs of the Basques throughout the diocese... secondly, to have quasi-parochial rights over Montebello, Newmark, Rowland and Puente...” (Murphy 1974) Fr. Gariador immediately purchased 40 acres in Montebello on behalf of the community and they began constructing the original chapel and living quarters.

Since the Bishop had given the monks responsibility for both missionary works among the Basques as well as local parish activities, Fr Ardans remained in Southern California to look after the local parishes while Fr. Gariador assumed the role of itinerant missionary. According to the diaries of Fr Gariador during the period of 1905-1909, he traveled extensively among the Basques of Southern California as well as traveling to Northern California, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Wyoming. Various entries to his diaries make mention of the families he visited as well as the numbers of Basques who attended mass and/or confession. He gives credit to those who had been generous such as the Bastanchury’s of Fullerton and the Goytino’s of Lancaster among many others. In 1909, Fr Gariador was named Prior-Administrator of Sacred Heart Abbey and was summoned back to Oklahoma to assume his new duties.


Douglass, William A. and Jon Bilbao (1975) Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World, Reno Nevada: University of Nevada Press.

Gachiteguy, Adrian (1955) Les Basques dans L’Ouest Americain, Bordeaux.

Diaries of Father Leo Gariador, OSB, 1888-1936.

Llande, Pierre (1910) L’emigration basque, Paris.

Murphy, Joseph F. (1974) Tenacious Monks - The Oklahoma Benedictines, 1875-1975: Indian Missionaries, Catholic Founders, Educators and Agriculturists, Shawnee Oklahoma: Benedictine Color Press, St. Gregory’s Abbey.

Otoizlari (1987), Urt, France: Editions Ezkila, Notre Dame de Belloc, No. 124 April/June 1987.

Zubiri, Nancy (1998) A Travel Guide to Basque America: Families, Feasts & Festivals, Reno, Nevada: University of Nevada Press.

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