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

In Southern California the activities of the monks expanded to three parishes. In Montebello, the Simon brothers, who owned the local brickyard became large benefactors and assisted in building a parish church called Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. They also donated the land in order to build the monastery building and grounds for fruit trees and gardens. These buildings acted as the monastery headquarters in California until 1958. The area was heavily populated with Mexican workers who became the primary parishioners of this new church. In La Puente, an old Methodist Church was converted to a Catholic parish in 1905 and given the name of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. Initially, a Basque priest from Montebello would arrive there to say mass on weekends but later Fr. Hippolyte Topet took up residency at the church. In 1920 the parish was transferred to the Los Angeles diocesan clergy. In 1910, Fr Ardans established the Our Lady of Lourdes parish in the Belvedere area of East Los Angeles. For years, that parish and the school that he established were the largest in the diocese. Fr. Ardans remained its parish pastor until 1930.

In addition to the original three priests who came to California, the following Benedictines were also present from 1905 to 1920: Frs Aloysius Hitta, Ildephonse Elissalde, Vincent Montibalet, Clement Dupont. Brothers included Edouard Laco, Eusebius Aldanondo, Fidele Chilloque, Sebastian Eisburu along with a number of clerics. Vincent Monibalet was in charge of the California community from 1915-1920. Although the Benedictines were able to attract a number of monks and brothers, it was never large enough to be more than an extension of Sacred Heart Abbey in Oklahoma. Slowly, the community declined as the monks and brothers aged and died with some returning to France. By the late 1920’s only Frs. Topet and Ardans remained in the Los Angeles area. Fr. Topet lived there until his death in 1938 and after a period of time in Oklahoma, Fr Ardans returned to Southern California in 1938 to live until he died in 1953.

Fr. Charles Espelette

Fr. Charles Espelette.

Fr Espelette, a native of Aldude, was the last of the Basques to arrive in Oklahoma in 1903. He was ordained in 1910 and while visiting the Basque country in 1914 he was summoned as a soldier in the French army. He served as a medic and returned to Oklahoma in 1919 “with war cross, three citations, papers, still carries fragment of bullet in arm” (Gariador 1919). He was one of the most active and respected monks having been a professor in Oklahoma for a number of years and coming permanently to Southern California in 1933 after which he took up the role of the itinerant Basque missionary from Fr. Topet. He took up residence in the old monastery in 1940 until his death in 1958. Fr. Espelette, also founded the Southern California Eskualdun Club in 1946 from the monastery in Montebello and he taught and organized the young Basques in dancing their traditional dances for many years.

The decline of the community of Basques in Montebello would actually provide a windfall for its parent monastery of Sacred Heart Abbey and more importantly its successor, St Gregory’s Abbey. As oil became a major industry in Southern California the property owned by the monks in Montebello held substantial oil reserves. Over the years, various oil companies pumped for oil and provided much needed funds for the Abbey activities in Oklahoma. Additionally, as development occurred, pieces of the property were sold off including the last parcel after Fr. Espelette died. The large sums of money gained from these California properties enhanced greatly the eventual construction of St. Gregory’s Abbey and University which is discussed later.

Fr. Benoit Gariador

Fr. Benoit Gariador.

As previously mentioned Fr. Gariador was summoned back to Oklahoma to take over the administrative duties of Sacred Heart Abbey as Prior-Administrator in 1909. This was a difficult move for him, as he preferred to remain in California but the Abbey as a whole was undergoing significant issues. Lack of manpower was a constant concern as the local parishes sought the scarce priests as well. There was pressure from the Congregation of Primitive Observance to maintain a dedicated Benedictine routine but again manpower prevented the self-sufficiency of the Oklahoma monastery not to mention the one in Montebello. Additionally, for years there was an underlying division in the community between the American born clergy and those from Europe dominated by the Basque contingent. The tensions broke loose when instead of an Abbatial election in 1909, Fr Leo was appointed Prior-Administrator after the Official Visit of his older brother, Fr. Benoit Gariador. The actual appointment was by the Abbot General in Rome but the fact that Fr. Benoit had just returned to Rome with his recommendation incensed the American monks as an act of nepotism. All the above issues would mire the administration of Fr. Gariador until a new leader was named in 1922.

It is important to note specifically the diaries of Father Leo Gariador. The archives of St. Gregory’s Abbey contains many volumes of small black books in which he would make entries from just days prior to his ordination in 1887 until his last entry in June 1938. He initially writes in French but by 1890 he has learned and switched to English. Occasionally he prays in Latin and uses Basque when referring to family and countrymen. His entries included reports on business transactions, visitations, weather, crops and special prayers such as after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. In April 1912, he notes that his “brother sailed from New York on La Provence saw and avoided icebergs... (however) the Titanic struck iceberg, exploded and sunk” ironically after the two ships crossed paths in the Atlantic (Gariador 1912). His diaries were a significant source for Fr. Murphy in writing Tenacious Monks as it covers so many aspects of life for the monks. Fr. Leo would remain at Sacred Heart even after most of the principal activities were transferred to St Gregory’s Abbey and would die there in 1940. His brother, Fr. Benoit was Prior of Buckfast Abbey from 1885 – 1899, then established a monastery in Jerusalem in the Holy Land and was elected as Abbot General of the entire Congregation of Primitive Observance in 1920. He had a variety of writings on Catholic Theological history published. He died in 1936 and is buried in Jerusalem.

Fr. Blaise Haritchabalet

Fr. Blaise Haritchabalet.

During Fr. Leo’s administration though, the Abbey embarked on its most long lasting legacies. Sacred Heart Abbey was always dedicated to education having established a school from the outset; however, the community always aspired to create a university. In 1910, Fr Gariador concluded a long series of negotiations to establish the Catholic University of Oklahoma in Shawnee. His diaries during those years document his activities and his prayers to succeed in building the Catholic University. By 1922, the name was changed to St. Gregory’s College and it’s still in existence today as St. Gregory’s University. In addition to the University, they also established a monastery there by the name of St. Gregory’s Abbey. Most of the activities of Sacred Heart Abbey were transferred there in 1929 and at the same time the community also separated from its European roots by joining with the American Cassinese Congregation. Fr. Blaise Haritchabalet was President of the University until 1924. He taught Latin, philosophy and Holy Scripture and he held the position of Master of Novices until his death in 1949. Br. Theodore Ayzaguer, who also remained in Oklahoma, was noted to have become a skilled artisan and hand carved a number of beautiful altars.

It was not just the monks and brothers who were affected by the anti-clerical measures in France, but many nun were exiles as well. As mentioned above Fr. Duperou brought back four nuns in 1889 who undertook the work of cooking and sewing as well as teaching in the school. In 1890 four more came from the Basque country, Srs. Pholmene Gorostiz, Veronique Etcheverry, Dorothee Ramirez and Florentine Ramirez. In 1895, three nuns arrived from Bearn region of France and in 1903 the final caravan arrived including Gertrude Berho, Marthe Arhancet, Marie Necibar, Julie Arcondeguy and Marguerite Ithusarry. Some of the nuns had siblings among them in the community. Sr. Philomena Gorostiz who arrived in 1890 continued to make the habits of the monks until near her death in 1952. Eventually some of the nuns were transferred to a convent in Louisiana but many remained at Sacred Heart for the remainder of their lives.

Like the monastery in Montebello, the Basque contingent at Sacred Heart Abbey also declined over the years as the monks and brothers aged. Of the three monasteries run by the Oklahoma Benedictines, only St. Gregory’s Abbey survives today. A handful of monks and brothers continued the monastic life at Sacred Heart Abbey and are buried in the little cemetery on the property. Among those are Frs. Leo Gariador, Clement Dupont, Placide Harismendy, Blaise Haritchabalet, Guillaume Ospital; Brs Henri Aldanondo, Theodore Ayzaguer and Casimir Etchechury. The last Basque monk to die and be buried at Sacred Heart was Eloi Justou in 1966 and the last of the nuns, Benedicta Lansamin died in 1965. The buildings were razed in the 1950’s however the site is listed on the National List of Historic Places where people can still visit the grounds and the cemetery.

Seated: Vincent Huber (St. Bede´s Illinois), Abbot Earnest Helmstetter (St. Mary´s, New Jersey), Abbot Bernard Murphy.

Seated: Vincent Huber (St. Bede´s Illinois), Abbot Earnest Helmstetter (St. Mary´s, New Jersey), Abbot Bernard Murphy.
Standing: John Laracy, Leo Gariador, William Ospital, Joseph Muelhaupt, Theodore Acyaguer, Ildephonse Ellisalde, Paul Baldwin, Celestine Smith, Florentino Ramirez, Patrick McNamee, Casimir Etchechury, Elias Fink, Andrew Pouy.

Except where cited otherwise, this story of the Basque Benedictines of Sacred Heart is a summary of the Basque activities found in the book, Tenacious Monks by Father Murphy. This 465-page history of the Sacred Heart Mission provides great detail of the activities of the entire monastic community including the Basques. There is so much more information regarding the Basques in this book as well as in the diaries of Fr. Leo Gariador from which Fr. Murphy quoted extensively. Other references to correspondence and documents by Fr. Murphy indicate that there are additional research materials in other Abbeys and parochial archives that might provide further insight to the activities of the Basque Benedictines as well as the general Basque community.

The activities of this community were intertwined with maintaining the Basque culture and spiritual needs of the various Basque families living here much like the Basque missionaries sent by the Bishop of Bayonne today. Although, forced into exile in America because of the Anti-clerical laws of the French government, they endured the hardships of living in the Oklahoma Territory among the Indian populations that were trying to mainstream into American culture. They answered the call to send Basque clergy among the many Basque immigrants in the American West. They displayed the typical Basque character of surviving as a distinct cultural group within a larger non-Basque environment. The Basque Benedictines of Sacred Heart Abbey is a story that is completely unknown by the current generation of Basque families, hopefully, this brief summary of their activities allows their memory to be shared again and to appreciate the tremendous efforts of this holy community.

A special word of thanks and gratitude to St. Gregory’s Abbey for retaining the records of these Benedictines and especially to Fr. Patrick McCool and Br. Benet Exton for providing the author with a copy of Tenacious Monks, copies of the diaries of Fr. Leo Gariador and many more documents relating to these wonderful Benedictines.

Also thanks to my father, Jean Baptiste Gariador who planted the seeds of this story in me as a child by telling stories of the Basque country and his family including his two great uncles in this story. This has led my on a lifelong search to discover more information about them and now to share this story with others.


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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