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7-year journey: Benedictine monk ready to call St. Vincent spiritual home for good

Stephen Huba
| Sunday, May 14, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
Brother Matt Hershey, 31, a Benedictine monk, lets the grains of unmilled wheat fall through his fingers inside the St. Vincent Gristmill in Unity Township, on Tuesday, May 2, 2017. As St. Vincent's miller, Hershey mills between 800 and 1,200 pounds of wheat each month.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Brother Matt Hershey, 31, a Benedictine monk, lets the grains of unmilled wheat fall through his fingers inside the St. Vincent Gristmill in Unity Township, on Tuesday, May 2, 2017. As St. Vincent's miller, Hershey mills between 800 and 1,200 pounds of wheat each month.
Brother Matt Hershey, 31, a Benedictine monk, poses for a portrait inside the St. Vincent Gristmill in Unity Township, on Tuesday, May 2, 2017. As St. Vincent's miller, Hershey mills between 800 and 1,200 pounds of wheat each month.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Brother Matt Hershey, 31, a Benedictine monk, poses for a portrait inside the St. Vincent Gristmill in Unity Township, on Tuesday, May 2, 2017. As St. Vincent's miller, Hershey mills between 800 and 1,200 pounds of wheat each month.

Brother Matt Hershey is mature enough in his Catholic faith to know that rock 'n' roll won't save his soul.

But it was a rock band that first brought him to St. Vincent College, starting him on a seven-year journey toward becoming a Benedictine monk.

Hershey, then a student at Franciscan University of Steubenville, came to St. Vincent in 2006 to see the band Wilco in concert. Now he's ready to call St. Vincent his spiritual home for good.

“God can use anything, right?” he said. “Why can't he use rock music to lead me to the religious life?”

Senior members of St. Vincent Archabbey in Unity will vote Wednesday to accept Hershey and two other junior brothers as full members of the community. He will make his solemn profession July 11.

“I'm very happy about it,” he said. “I think God pretty much put me where I'm supposed to be. I feel like this is home.”

Hershey, 31, grew up attending Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church in State College, the son of Catholic parents who had met at Penn State in the 1970s. His Protestant father converted to Catholicism after receiving spiritual direction from a Penn State chaplain who was a Benedictine monk.

“My dad was struck by the monk's approach to the search for God — that he should become Catholic because that will bring him closer to Christ,” he said.

As a cradle Catholic, Hershey said he was only vaguely familiar with the Benedictines and other religious orders. He started to “connect the dots” with the help of the Rev. Fred Byrne, a Benedictine priest he knew from State College and, later, St. Vincent.

Hershey graduated from Franciscan in 2008 and started working as a special education teacher in his hometown. But he felt the pull of St. Vincent and, three years after the Wilco concert, returned for a four-day personal retreat.

“I wasn't looking to discern a vocation or anything like that,” he said. “This place has a certain spiritual atmosphere and peace. As a visitor coming on retreats, I felt that from Day 1.”

Hershey said he was attracted to Benedictine spirituality, particularly the focus on prayer, manual labor, environmental stewardship and life in community.

In the winter of 2009-2010, Hershey went on a “Footsteps of St. Benedict” pilgrimage in Norcia, Italy, hometown of the sixth-century St. Benedict. A “Come and See” vocation weekend at St. Vincent furthered him along the path to monasticism.

“It slowly was like, maybe that's what the Lord wants,” he said. “I was encouraged by Father Fred to keep pursuing the Lord, to keep making time for prayer.” Hershey began a more intense period of soul searching in 2011, after his older brother suffered life-threatening injuries in a skiing accident. (He later recovered.) Hershey quit his job of three years and went on a cross-country road trip, returning with greater clarity and greater resolve to enter the religious life.

“I was radically open to God's will,” he said.

Hershey began a year of spiritual formation and instruction as a novice in 2013. While not under any vows, he made a commitment to live on the St. Vincent grounds for a year, to stay “immersed” in prayer and to avoid all electronic media and contact with the outside world.

“You learn by just living it, by letting the community mold you and shape you,” he said.

After three years of living under temporary vows, he now is ready to take the full Benedictine vows of obedience, conversion of life (including poverty and chastity) and stability. Having reached that milestone, Hershey will leave his part-time job as miller of the historic St. Vincent Gristmill and take a full-time teaching position at Benedictine Military School in Savannah, Ga.

As miller for the last two years, Hershey has been responsible for carrying on a Latrobe tradition dating back to 1854. He spends three to five hours a week operating, maintaining and cleaning the milling equipment. He uses locally grown wheat, corn, rye and buckwheat and turns it into flour, corn meal, livestock feed and other products for sale in the gristmill store on Beatty County Road.

“It's a pretty neat way of tapping into the traditions of St. Vincent,” he said, noting that the technology of cleaning, grinding and bagging grain has not changed much over the years.

After a 1963 fire caused extensive damage to the campus, the St. Vincent brothers stopped producing bread on-site. Today, archabbey bread is baked by Friendship Farms in Mt. Pleasant Township. Lone Maple Farms in Salem Township provides most of the unprocessed grain.

Hershey is training his replacement.

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, shuba@tribweb.com or via Twitter @shuba_trib.

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