HOW BLUE CAN YOU GET - The Story of Brother Leonard Gibbs

Leonard Lea Frazer

Phoenix was a real party town back in '69. Leo made damn sure that his contribution, on this his last night in that sweat-soaked nightclub, would not go unnoticed. Working full-time for seven months at the Cactus Den was enough to turn even the most devout Catholic like himself into a party-animal.

The patrons at "The Den" that night found the true meaning of "spiked drinks." The singles became doubles and the doubles became unbearable. Leo provided the extra kick. It was his farewell gift to the crowd. He was puffing on a cigarette and nursing his fourth Marguerite when an inebriated customer approached the bar, "Bar-keep! Is that you Leo? Everything is getting blurry," says the drunk. The bartender looked up from his drink and brushed his shoulder length hair away from the front of his face. Then, he pulled at the long goatee beard that projected from his chin. The patron continued with, "I hear you're gonna join up with God. You gonna be a priest?" "Naw," says Leo, "It's just another malicious rumour. But you're right about the joining up part, I'm going to become a monk, I'll be moving out into the desert for two years, staying at the seminary and after my training period, I’ll know for sure if I really want to join the order. Then, I'll take my vows; then, I'll be a monk." After that explanation Leo watched his newfound friend stagger across the dance floor to a corner table and vomit into a glass ashtray. Leo knew his life would be different tomorrow.

Brother Leonard - Courtesy of Trench Photos
Brother Leonard - Courtesy of Trench Photos
Bro. Leonard tending the barbeque.
Bro. Leonard tending the barbeque.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The events, however, did not turn out exactly as he had planned. Sure, he finished his two years in the desert. He studied long and hard in that dusty Arizona cell and just after his 35th birthday he was ready to take his vows. One afternoon he was in the chapel kneeling in prayer. Leo was praying but probably thinking, "What the hell am I going to do with my life?" Suddenly he realized what he had to do. Now, he prayed out loud, "I love the church and I want to serve the church. But, I can’t really serve anything locked up in a monastery. I want to be a monk but I have to be a free monk!" After that little chat with God Leo did become a monk. He established his own order and had it sanctioned by the Catholic Church. He was the first person to become one of "The Monks of St. Jude," and how appropriate. St. Jude is the patron saint for lost souls. Now, Leo would set out to build a hermitage and find expectance in the world.

Brother Leo and his friend Kenny, who wanted to join the new order, moved from the USA to British Columbia in the spring of 1972 and settled, for a few months, near Blue River. They lived in a one-room log building just north of that interior town. Leo was the "Monk" and Kenny was the "Monk-in-training". The location they found was ideal for a hermitage, however, they soon heard of a better place further north, outside of Valemount. Before long the two friends re-established themselves west of Valemount on the old dilapidated Teepee Meadows Ranch. Some of the original buildings were still standing when the Monk moved in. The only permanent resident on the ranch at that time was a young logger named Tony, who was away "in the bush" most of the time.

With the help of some of Tony's friends, a small log chapel and residence was built. Leo and Tony became good friends, mostly because they both drank too much and liked to party. They did, however, have their differences. Arguments would most often center around religious subjects and as the Monk did have knowledge of religious studies, the arts and other worldly topics, Tony was never rea1ly ab1e to compete in the arguments at an equal level. Tony always joked that he too, had been close to God. As a child he had been an altar boy in his hometown of Cleveland. Leo had a good sense of humour and was rarely offended by religious jests. He was fond of people in general and took part fervently in the celebration of life.

Almost at the same time that a group of "long haired hippies" arrived at the ranch, Kenny met a local girl and fell in love. The Monk had no objections to Kenny's new-found interest in life but it did, however, put a damper on his eligibility to become a monk. Instead of the poverty and celibacy vows, Kenny soon found himself taking the vows of marriage.

Teepee Meadows Ranch in the winter time.
Teepee Meadows Ranch in the winter time.
The old Teepee Meadows log ranch house in 2015.
The old Teepee Meadows log ranch house in 2015.

  

 

 

 

 

 

With his only real disciple and helper out of the picture Leo soon fell into negotiations with the so-called "hippies" who were from Vancouver and Calgary. The group of twelve, mostly couples, had arrived at Teepee Meadows with all the components necessary to build a huge geodesic dome. Brother Leo laid down the law right from the start. He wanted, at least, some kind of conformity at the ranch. There would be NO dome and that was final.

Each couple began working on renovating old buildings on the property and soon they were settled in "nice and cozy,” just like the Monk. In his log chapel, which was situated at the edge of a ridge overlooking the meadows, Leo set aside designated times during each day for his own persona1 prayers and studies. Inside the chapel he built a little altar and in one corner there was a statue of “Saint Jude.” The room had a mysterious aura and was illuminated by candlelight. Next to the chapel Leo built his simple bed chambers; these were his private quarters. He had constructed bunk beds in the room but after Kenny moved out the top bunk was used as a storage shelf. The bed itself looked very uncomfortable with its burlap-covered wooden log for a pillow, and a solitary blanket.

Leo always wore his homemade blue robes even while doing chores or weeding in the garden. He had a special set of robes that he wore when he attended Sunday church services at the local “Good Shepherd Roman Catholic Church” in Valemount. After services were held he would sometimes extend an open invitation to members of the congregation to visit him at his hermitage. He would tell them, "I'm open for business." Unfortunately most of the village folk preferred to stay on their side of the highway. Perhaps the presence of the foreign group of young people was a deterrent. Brother Leo did have some very intellectual conversations with this young group of residents. They came from a variety of backgrounds and had interests that included philosophy, live music and ballet. The monk told them stories and they told him their own stories. There was a certain harmony that co-existed at the ranch and the only thing that affected that accord came drifting in from "the other side of the Highway."

The group of young newcomers that lived at Teepee Meadows.
The group of young newcomers that lived at Teepee Meadows.
Patty Dooley in her monk robes.
Patty Dooley in her monk robes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many small towns have harsh methods of dealing with newcomers to their communities. Valemount was no exception. It’s hard to understand the mentality of small town folk. The community had, for example, cried the blues for many years that they had no resident doctor. After only six months of taking up residence in their village the long awaited doctor was ''run out of town." This is how they treated professional people in their town. And, the town's folk seemed to always have their way. These are the kinds of people that Brother Leo hoped would visit his hermitage. For them, dealing with a Bartender Monk from Arizona would be a challenging but certainly not impossible task.

Then, the rumours started. Brother Leo was far too busy in his garden, one day, to notice two local teenage girls wander onto the property and enter the main ranch building. Inside they saw and heard something that puzzled them. A few members of the communal group were in the large living room meditating. The two youngsters had never heard of “T.M.” (Transcendental Meditation) or Yoga and had obviously never heard a “mantra” being chanted before. A description of what they saw was processed through the local rumour-mill and ground up so coarse that Teepee Meadows Ranch was miraculously transformed into a haven for blood thirsty heathen-cu1tists who practiced witchcraft and sacrificial chicken-killings. Also, all of the above took place while the Monk was in his garden. When approached about the “problem" by a local villager the Monk replied, "That's your problem, not my problem!" Leo preferred to address the situation in a philosophical way.

He later said, "If the towns people are so concerned about our way of life at the ranch, they should get their arrogant butts out here and see for themselves what kind of community we have! Why should I care about the rumour-element in this valley? Next week there will be a new rumour to replace this one." He was right. Any given rumour in Valemount would last two or three weeks at the most and then there would be a car accident, or a teen suicide to replace it. The "rumour element" would forget about the "chicken-killers" and attend to more important business. Was it time to run a local schoolteacher out of town or would it be the Pharmacist this time? (Thank goodness, this all happened before the days of Social Media.) Brother Leo did have an interesting way of educating some of the more curious and braver souls that ventured out in his direction.

Every October the Monk hosted a “Harvest Festival” where he invited the entire Village of Valemount to partake in food, dance and togetherness. There was always a bathtub of ice water overflowing with bottles of homemade and store-bought beer. The event was potluck and an entire table was reserved for desserts. This table was always full. By the time the first Harvest Festival was underway, Brother Leo found himself under a local scrutiny-spotlight. He was, however, in his glory. He loved being around people. Many villagers who came to the giant outdoor function were able, for the first time, to see for themselves the dramatic changes that had taken place at the ranch. Instead of chicken-killers living in run down shacks, they saw the group of young people who had helped rebuild the old ranch buildings and plant one of the biggest productive gardens in the valley. Some of the visitors met the so-called "leader of the pack" for the first time. The Monk had now established his hermitage, just the way he liked it; quiet and peaceful, most of the time, and a party palace when he chose. Everyone wished him well. I suppose they thought the Monk himself would soon fade away, like all the local gossip and rumours had.

Then, the news hit the streets! Brother Leo had found a new disciple. There was someone else who would now also put on blue robes and take vows of poverty and celibacy. Strangely enough, the new recruit turned out to be a female. A girl monk? Patty joined the order for only a short time. However, the "girl-monk episode" is definitely another story.

Conclusion: Brother Leonard Gibbs continued living at the Ranch for a few years, and then moved to where Kenny and his family had a homestead just south of Valemount and later across from the Railway station in Valemount in the old original log post-office-store building. Then, he moved away to Ontario where he got a job as a Rural Mail-carrier. He again established a “hermitage” there. (During this time he was featured in a television documentary about a Monk that delivered mail.) Later he came back to Valemount and, after having a stroke, took up residence at the Golden Years Lodge, where he lived until his death in 1991 at the age of 58.

The grave of Brother Leonard.
The grave of Brother Leonard.