"Left my home in Georgia, headed for the Frisco Bay ..." Thomas was not going all the way to the West Coast, but Otis Redding's new hit song, "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay," understandably struck a chord with him as he left the Peach State for the cornfields of Missouri in August 1967. After emotional goodbyes to family and friends, he climbed aboard the Nancy Hank, the train that ran between Savannah and Atlanta. From Atlanta, he took his first airplane flight to Kansas City.
The two-hour drive north from Kansas City to Immaculate Conception Seminary led Thomas over the gently undulating farmlands of northwest Missouri. In the mid-nineteenth century, European immigrants, mostly Irish and German, began to pour into the area and plant corn in its unusually fertile soil. Swiss priests were not far behind the immigrants. They journeyed from the Swiss Abbey of Engelberg to establish a Benedictine presence in the area and minister to the local Catholic diaspora. They founded a little town, Conception, and erected a monastery. In 1886, the monks established Conception Seminary College at the burgeoning site. Five years later, a consortium of farmers, contractors and monks finished construction of a gorgeous church of similar red-brick exterior. In 1941, Pope Pius XII designated the church a minor basilica.
Like all other Benedictines, the clergy cloistered at Conception Abbey followed the ancient Rule of St. Benedict, who called his followers to a life of ora et labora, "prayer and work."
Thomas's ride to tiny Conception that Sunday in August led him past man-height stalks of corn, occasional farmhouses, and finally to the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, which, like the rest of the abbey, was built on a low hill. It was as if Divine Hands had lifted up