Photojournalist Frank Bianco captures monks’ ‘Eloquent Silence’ for book, Foxdale Village display

Frank Biano documented the Trappist monks at Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in New Haven, Ky., in the exhibit “Eloquent Silence.”
Frank Biano documented the Trappist monks at Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in New Haven, Ky., in the exhibit “Eloquent Silence.” Photo provided

Fresh out of high school, Frank Bianco spent the first few years of the 1950s at Maryknoll Missionary Seminary. One morning, he awoke to find his friend and classmate, Mike Thompson, missing. No one knew for sure where Thompson went, but a rumor pervaded: “He’s gone to the Trappists.”

More than three decades later, Bianco — who opted for a career in journalism rather than the priesthood — found himself headed toward a Trappist monastery, too, albeit via a much different road. In 1986, Bianco lost his 18-year-old son in a car accident, and subsequently, his faith in God.

Sitting in the second-floor gallery at Foxdale Village Retirement Community, where he and Marie, his wife of 56 years, now reside, Bianco struggled to talk about his son’s death and the dark rage that followed.

“It still gets me today,” he said, his voice hovering just above a whisper.

It had been less than a year since their son died when Marie, then a food writer for Newsday, got an assignment at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in New Haven, Ky., famous for its fruitcakes. The couple often traveled together on assignments; Bianco freelanced for the likes of The New York Times and Sports Illustrated, and he decided to tag along on the Gethsemani trip to put together a travel piece.

Though Bianco hardly identified as a practicing Catholic at the time, the couple attended mass at the abbey. It was there, while sitting in the upstairs balcony, gazing down at the chanting monks, where Bianco found his faith — and his son.

“When the monks came out chanting, I was just filled with memories of my son,” Bianco said. “It was eye-opening. Still is.”

Men have been drawn to the monastic life for millennia. In the poignance of that moment, Bianco knew he, too, needed the tranquil discipline of the cloister. Of course, this wasn’t something laypeople could do. In fact, no layperson had ever done it. But Bianco found a surprise connection within the monastery. The abbott at Gethsemani turned out to be none other than his old Maryknoll friend and classmate Mike Thompson.

With Thompson’s support, Bianco gained access to Trappist monasteries in the U.S. and France and spent six months living among the monks. It was a difficult journey; a time of healing and forgiveness. During that time, the monks allowed Bianco to freely photograph and interview them, with permission to publish his work. The result was “Voices of Silence,” published in 1992 by Paragon House. “Voices of Silence” was nominated as National Catholic Book of the Year and garnered Bianco a nod as finalist for the American Society of Journalists and Authors’ Author of the Year. The work was lauded for its strikingly human (and often surprising) portrayal of daily life in the cloister.

“There are characters in the monastery just like there are out here,” Bianco said with a grin. “There are pains in the ass in the monastery just like there are out here.”

“Eloquent Silence,” a collection of photos from the book, is on exhibit at Foxdale Village through the end of the month. Bianco’s work offers viewers a glimpse into the traditionally secluded lives of Trappists, revealing men who seem at once anomalous and familiar. The monks are depicted at prayer — lowering a beloved abbott into his grave, at work — wearing starched white uniforms for making jam, and at play — enjoying beer, burgers and volleyball at a twice-a-year picnic.

Summertime shenanigans aside, it’s evident that a monk’s life isn’t for everyone. And yet, anyone can be inspired by this powerful devotion to a life of faith and discipline.

“Pour your heart into what you do the way they pour their hearts into what they do,” Bianco said. “What it yields to you will be the same thing it yields to them.”