World's Largest Pig Hairball: Mount Angel Abbey Museum
St. Benedict, Oregon
Mount Angel Abbey is a monastery for Benedictine monks. It's been around since 1882 -- not very long compared to the medieval Roman Catholic sites of Europe, but long enough for the monks, who have time on their hands, to collect a lot of worldly items.
The fruits that they've gathered are displayed in the Abbey's free museum, whose entrance sign diffidently describes it as a "rather eccentric collection of artifacts." Everyone is welcome, and the monks -- perhaps courting a small sin of pride -- encourage visitors to bring their cameras.
Much more is on exhibit than the expected Catholic iconography and old liturgical vestments. The museum's star exhibit, for example, is the world's largest pig hairball, an NFL football-size wad on a glass shelf, and a nightmarish sight for anyone who's ever stuck a finger down a clogged drain. Arrayed before it are four smaller pig hairballs; we guessed that they're average size hairballs to provide a comparison. One of the balls has been cut in half to show "a sort of rubbery substance that forms around the hair, thus forming the ball," according to an accompanying sign. It's sort of like a geode, but instead of beautiful crystals in the sliced halves you get tufts of pig hair sticking upward like a bad haircut.
Next to the hairballs, also protected behind glass, is a taxidermied spotted calf with four extra legs growing down from its stomach. Next to it stands a smaller, baby calf with two extra legs growing out of its back. These freaks are unlabeled, but a monk we later questioned said that both came from the Abbey's farm, as did the pig hairball.
(So did another item, a disembodied Saint Benedict metal hand clutching a book, which is all that survived from a fire that destroyed the Abbey in 1926.)
An entire menagerie of stuffed animals are displayed in the museum's Larry Epping Wildlife Exhibit (Larry was a graduate of the Abbey college, a wealthy local businessman, and evidently a good shot). A full-size buffalo, elk, wolf, and grizzly bear stand mute beneath a big moose head, along with countless smaller critters. A mountain lion chomps down on a rocky mountain mule deer, a bobcat lunges at a grouse. For unknown reasons a screech owl is perched atop a miniature high voltage power line tower, suggesting that the tiny bird is actually as big as a bus.
This is a museum, not a reliquary, so many of the religious items on display are replicas -- things that a monk might buy on vacation (if monks take vacations). A life-size head of Mary, copied from Michelangelo's Pieta, is accompanied by a sign describing how it was cast from a mix of polymer and marble from the same town where the marble was quarried for the original statue.
The museum's Crown of Thorns and cross-of-Jesus nails are "identical" copies of those in the Bible, according to a yellowed typewritten sheet. The nails look like railroad spikes; the crown is a showpiece of the Holy Land's hellish vegetation. Nearby, a box top is filled with pebbles from Jerusalem, there's a fossil of a fish head with teeth, and an exhibit labeled "Bird-Skin Art" that seems unfathomable (Are they bird skin baby booties? Hats?).
Mount Angel Abbey stands on a lovely hilltop in Oregon's wine country, the kind of plush setting that normally might consign a quirky museum collection to the dumpster or the compost heap. So we're thankful it endures; we don't really expect the monks to put the animal mutants in a Nativity scene, or make a rosary out of the pig hairballs. But if they did, we'd definitely bring our cameras.