When asked the question, “Which religious orders would be considered missionary?” the average Roman Catholic would typically respond by saying, the Jesuits, Maryknoll, and the Franciscans. The missionary history of the Benedictines goes back centuries including, but certainly not limited to, Pope Gregory the Great sending Augustine and his companions to evangelize the British isles in the latter sixth century and eventually found a series of monasteries which had a profound impact on the English people and established the Roman Catholic Church in that part of the world.
With that spirit in mind, the Benedictines once again rose to the missionary challenge in the mid-nineteenth century and repopulated suppressed monasteries in France and establish monastic life in the United States. It is my intention to briefly reflect upon the re-establishment of the Abbey of Solesmes in France and then turn my attention to the establishment of the Benedictine presence in the United States which is largely the influence of one man, namely, Archabbot Boniface Wimmer of Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
The creation of a viable monastic alternative to the Trappists in France was the work of Dom Prosper Gueranger (1805-1875). The early 1830s was not a good time for starting a monastery in France. The July Revolution of 1830 had begun on a violent anticlerical note. For the sake of prudence, the community of Solesme officially called itself “The Regular Association formed in the diocese of Le Mans under the protection and with the approval of Monsignor the Bishop.” (1) It is in this environment that Dom
Prosper, who had no personal experience of living the cenobitic (community) life, began his endeavor to re-establish Solesmes which had been dissolved as a community by Napoleon Bonaparte. Thanks to influential friends, and the impression of his own sincerity, he was completely successful. He made profession as a Benedictine monk at the ancient abbey of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls in
in 1837. Shortly afterward, Rome
Pope Gregory XVI raised Solesme to the rank of an abbey with Gueranger as its first abbot. (2) Dom Prosper reigned for over thirty years as abbot and his community eventually became world renowned for its restoration of Gregorian chant into the monastic office and the greater Church. In fact, the Abbey of Solesme produced a number of “daughter houses” (monastic foundations) throughout France and eventually established its own congregation (juridical, but loose, connection of monasteries) which is known as the Solesme Congregation and is still in existence to this day. In the typical Benedictine missionary spirit, one of Solesmes’ daughter houses, Abbey of Saint-Wandrille in Normandy sent a group of monks to North America, in order to start a foundation in Canada in 1912 in the province of Quebec. This monastery is known as the
Abbaye Saint-Benoit-du-Lac (St. Benedict on the Lake). This community has continued the Solesmes tradition of bringing Gregorian Chant to the larger Church and is now home to approximately fifty monks. (3)
Approximately a decade or so later, there was a similar revival of monastic life in Germany. In
Germany, the restoration of monasteries began in . Ludwig I(king from 1825 to 1848) reacted sharply to his father’s anti-clericalism. His agents sought out monks in Austria and Switzerland who would populate new foundations in Bavaria. (4) One of those communities was the St. Michael’s Abbey in Metten which was re-founded in 1830. A more contemplative monasticism was introduced into Germany by the brothers Rudolph and Ernst Wolter who were responsible for founding the Abbey of Beuron which had been an Augustinian priory, but was vacant since 1802. As an aside, the Abbey of Beuron had a major impact on the monastic spirituality of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, Indiana and Conception Abbey in Conception, Missouri, largely through the influence of Abbots Martin Marty and Frowin Conrad, respectively. In fact, after becoming abbot of Saint Meinrad, Martin Marty adopted the Beuronese habit for his monks instead of wearing the much heavier Swiss habit which was the custom at the Abbey of Our Lady of Einsiedeln in Switzerland, Saint Meinrad’s “motherhouse” (community which founded Saint Meinrad). Bavaria
With this in mind, I return to the re-founding of St. Michael’s Abbey. As stated earlier, in 1830 King Ludwig I of Bavaria helped to re-found this community. In addition to bringing monks from Austria and Switzerland, this new community also made an appeal to the local diocesan clergy in the hopes that some of them might be willing to join the monastery and contribute their lives and talents to this worthwhile cause. One of those men who answered the call was a young diocesan priest named Father Sebastian Wimmer. Wimmer was a man whose whole life was a litany of contradictions. As a diocesan priest, he impulsively entered St. Michael’s. After completing his initial formation he was given the name “Boniface” in honor of the patron saint of Germany, himself a Benedictine monk. As a monk, Wimmer spent all but his novitiate (one year) on assignment outside the community during his fourteen years at Metten. He was indeed a man of many projects and plans, but during the years, 1842 to 1846 those projects were melded into one---becoming a missionary to America. (5) Father Boniface became convinced that the abbey needed to start a community in the United States in order to minister to the recent German immigrants who needed to receive the sacraments and hear the Good News proclaimed from someone who spoke their language. By 1845, Wimmer had come to the conclusion that Metten’s greatest contribution to the Catholic Church in the United States would not consist in establishing a house in Munich, which had been considered, for training of missionaries, but rather in founding an American Benedictine monastery. With that in mind, he personally petitioned the Propoganda Fide in 1845 for permission to leave Germany and to found such a monastery. In the summer of that same year Wimmer received replies from Rome and his own superior at Metten, Abbot Gregory Scherr. Both refused his request. (6) While it is entirely possible, that Abbot Gregory may have sympathized with Father Boniface in terms of his missionary zeal, the top priority at this point was maintaining Metten’s presence in Germany (the community was only fifteen years old at this time) and help educate young men to serve as priests in the kingdom of Bavaria. This would hardly seem to be an unreasonable outlook and to this day the abbey is still engaged in education ministry in their area of Bavaria.
Now for most people, such refusals would have been more than enough to put a damper on any future missionary ambition. However, Wimmer was already showing those personality traits that would later mark his missionary labors. (7) Father Boniface, displaying a great deal of insight into the political situation of his time and a strong determination, appealed to King Ludwig I for assistance in his missionary endeavor.
Not only did Wimmer win a favorable hearing from the king, but his court chaplain, Father Josef Mueller, was responsible for helping Father Boniface obtain assistance from the papal nuncio and he finally received the support he needed from the Propoganda Fide.
After receiving support from Rome, Wimmer went on a recruiting tour of southern
Germany and by December 1845 had persuaded approximately twenty young men to accompany him. He had even taken the liberty of writing to Peter Henry Lemke in America (another Benedictine missionary), informing him that he would be arriving in Pennsylvania by the autumn of 1846. (8) One important fact to keep in mind is that Father Boniface was undertaking these plans without having received the approval of monastic chapter (those monks in solemn vows) to found a new monastery. His confreres refused to give him permission to found a new monastery and gave him only minimal approval to travel to Pennsylvania as a missionary.
To say that Father Boniface Wimmer was determine, would certainly be an understatement. It has been said that the founder of one monastic community is often the “pain in the neck” of another community. Given the lack of support that he received from his Metten confreres, this certainly appears to be the case in terms of Father Boniface Wimmer. He was, quite literally, “a man on a mission”. With only one year of genuine monastic formation, Father Boniface was prepared to leave his homeland and begin a missionary endeavor in a country with which he was completely unfamiliar and thereby establish a permanent Benedictine presence in the United States. Wimmer said that he had given much thought to the American missions and did not intend to abandon them: “My poor and forlorn countrymen stand before me and call for help. I should and I do want to help as best I can, I desire to go—as firmly as can be desired—with several others or alone, whichever is possible and more convenient. I will not rest until I have succeeded.” (9)
Manifesting much more adaptability than stability, Wimmer set out for the United States from Rotterdam on August 10, 1846. With him were eighteen prospective candidates, fourteen so-called lay brothers, and four aspirants to the priesthood. Only one of them had ever previously experienced life in Benedictine monastery. In a delightful irony, Wimmer, the monk who Benedictine formation had consisted of one year of novitiate, took the opportunity of the six-week voyage to instruct his charges in the fundamentals of monastic life. The brand of monastic life taught by Wimmer as “truly Benedictine” was different than that considered “acceptable” by many European monasteries. (10) Given his limited personal formation experience and missionary zeal, Wimmer’s sense of what qualifies as “truly Benedictine” would include the idea of establishing monastic foundations in the United States as quickly as possible. When one realizes that he arrived in the United States with thirty-six men, the idea that he would be establishing even one monastery, let alone several of them, seems like a major undertaking.
Wimmer displayed a firm sense of conviction upon his arrival in Pennsylvania, when he realized that the property that Peter Lemke had promised him in Carrolltown, Pennsylvania was in rather bad condition. As a result of that, he decided to accept the offer of Bishop Michael O’Connor of Pittsburgh for the parish of Mount Saint Vincent in
Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. It was there, in the fall of 1846, near the town of
Latrobe, that Wimmer began implementing his plan of providing pastoral care and educational institutions for the German-speaking Catholics of the area. (11) Over a century and a half later, the educational ministry begun by Father Boniface is still alive and well in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. The monks of Saint Vincent Archabbey own and operate a major seminary as well as a four year co-education college.
In what appears to be a blessing from God, Wimmer was receiving reinforcements within a year. Father Peter Lechner, a fellow Benedictine,brought over from Bavaria more than twenty candidates for the lay brotherhood as the nucleus of a work force. (12) The lay brotherhood, which was quite common in Europe, was made of men who wished to give their lives in service to the monastery; however, they had neither the interest and, in some cases lacked the aptitude, to become priests. There were actually four completely independent communities living under the same monastic roof. The lay brothers would eventually have their own formation program, a separate recreation and dining area, and since they were not required to participate in the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours), they would often say the Rosary and the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin and the prescribed hours of prayer. There was also a separate area for those who were in “formation” to become lay brothers. The “choir monks” had their own dining, living, and recreation area. The clerics (those in formation to become choir monks and eventually monk/priests) had their own living, dining, and recreation area under the direct supervision of the novice master. The lay brother novices did not associate with the senior lay brothers. The clerics did not associate with the choir monks and none of the lay brothers ever associated with either the clerics or the choir monks. This may seem rather strange, by American standards; however, it was quite common in every Benedictine monastery in the United States, following the European model, until the late 1960s when the vocation of lay brother was completely abolished and those former “lay brothers” were made members of the chapter and could thereby vote in community decisions. In addition, the separation between the clerics and the solemnly professed monks was also abolished over time. However, those in initial formation still have their own living quarters which are separate from those in solemn vows.
Now that our journey into the realm of lay brotherhood and the structure of the monastic community is over, let us return to the saga of Father Boniface Wimmer and his new foundation in western Pennsylvania.
Lest I be accused of painting to rosy a picture of life at Saint Vincent Archabbey, let me assure the reader that all was not concord and bliss. The dissent, which was to become a constant refrain in the first decades of American Benedictine life, arose from a fundamental and ongoing tension between two distinct groups of monks at Saint Vincent. The first group included those who wanted a more contemplative monastic life, stricter enclosure, and more time devoted to prayer and study. The second group was more activist minded and they wanted the community to devote even more time to pastoral work and manual labor. (13) Many of the members of the first group looked to Abbey of Beuron as their monastic model and this will become a factor in future years as Saint Vincent begins to establish foundations throughout the United States.
Even though there was a certain amount of tension within the community due to these two competing models of monastic life, the community was growing throughout the late 1840s and 1850s. This does not mean that the monastery was not without its share of hardships; however, the Benedictine life at Saint Vincent, as Boniface Wimmer had envisioned it was taking shape.
In 1855, Saint Vincent was declared an abbey by the Holy See and Father Boniface was appointed abbot for a period of three years. He was finally elected abbot by his confreres on September 17, 1858 and served in that capacity until his death on December 8, 1887. (14) Within a year after being raised to the level of an abbey, Saint Vincent sent a group of monks to central Minnesota and thus began the establishing of monastic foundations in the United States.
The first monks from Saint Vincent who arrived in Minnesota in 1856 did encounter American Indians, as well as bone-chilling cold, a grasshopper plague, and a shortage of food. Within ten years after their arrival they elected their first abbot, Father Rupert Seidenbusch (1866-1888). The initially fledging foundation of St. Cloud Priory (since it was near St. Cloud, MN) was raised to the level of an abbey prior to the election of Father Rupert and was named the Abbey of St. Louis on the Lake. However, in a very short period of time the name was changed once again to its present title of St. John’s Abbey. (15)
While working to assist the new community in Minnesota and maintain the life of the community in Pennsylvania, Abbot Boniface received three requests from the Most Reverend James Roosevelt Bayley of Newark, New Jersey (nephew of St. Elizabeth Ann
Seton) for pastoral assistance in ministering to the spiritual needs of the recent German immigrants. The first two requests were denied because Abbot Boniface was convinced that urban life was not in keeping with a monastic observance. However, when the third request was received at Saint Vincent, Abbot Boniface sent three monks to Newark, New Jersey from Saint Vincent and established St. Mary’s Priory in 1857 at St. Mary’s parish on High Street. (16)
As I had mentioned earlier, there was tension between two competing models of monastic life at Saint Vincent and that the Abbey of Beuron was looked to as the flagship for contemplative monastic observance. Two of the leading figures in the call for a more contemplative observance were Father Andrew Hintenach, the prior, and Father James Zilliox, the novice master. Abbot Boniface’s response to the novice master’s call for a more contemplative life was to send him to St.Mary’s Priory in Newark. (17)
St. Mary’s Priory in Newark was raised to the status of an abbey in 1884 and elected Father James Zilliox, whose family lived two blocks away from the monastery, as our first abbot. There is an old adage which states, “Like father, like son or like mother, like daughter”. Well, not surprisingly, St. Mary’s Abbey was just like her mother in terms of the rather active monastic observance of the community in terms of operating a boys’ college preparatory school and providing pastoral ministry to a variety of area German-American parishes. Abbot James’ one major desire as superior was to create a more Beuronese atmosphere at St. Mary’s. Abbot James was elected by the monastic chapter on February 11, 1885 and even though he was praised by Archabbot Boniface for the monastic observance of his community, he resigned on November 2, 1886 as a result of tuberculosis. (18) He returned to St. Vincent Archabbey in order to receive more sufficient health care. Abbot James died at St. Michael’s Hospital in Newark, New Jersey on December 31, 1890 at the age of 41 and is buried in the community cemetery plot in East Orange, New Jersey.
In the early 1880s, St. Mary’s was informed by Pope Leo XIII that they needed to send their younger monks to a non-urban setting as part of their initial formation. As a result the community purchased a piece of property in Manchester, New Hampshire for this purpose. Within a few years this priory was allowed to accept monastic candidates of their own and by 1889 the name was changed to St. Anselm Priory.
St. Anselm Priory was raised to the status of an abbey in 1927. Therefore, St. Anselm Abbey is both a daughter house of St. Mary’s Abbey and a granddaughter house of Saint Vincent.
Since St. Anselm was now an abbey, the monks of
St. Mary’s needed to find another location for their house of formation. In 1926, the community purchased a 450 acres estate in Morristown, New Jersey (at a cost of $155,000) from the estate of Luther Kuntze, a wealthy New York City banker and railroad executive. The estate known as “Delbarton” (in honor of his 3 children: Delancy, Barclay, and the recently married Mrs. Livingston) became St. Mary’s Priory and was completely dependent upon the Newark community. In 1956, Pope Pius XII transferred the abbatial title to Morristown and the community in Newark became known as St. Mary’s Priory. In 1939, the monks of St. Mary’s Priory in Morristown began operating a boys’ college preparatory school known as Delbarton School. In 1968, the Morristown community and the Newark community became separate entities and the Newark community elected Father Ambrose Clark as the first abbot of Newark Abbey.
Even before the Newark community had actually gotten off the ground (to use a colloquial phrase), Abbot Boniface was establishing another foundation in Kansas. With the assistance of Father Peter Henry Lemke, whom I had mentioned earlier, Saint Vincent bought a piece of property in Doniphan, Kansas (about 85 miles north of Kansas City) and St. Benedict’s Priory was established there in 1857. This piece of property was subsequently sold and the community moved to Atchison, Kansas and built the foundation of their new community.
The community of St. Benedict in Atchison was a community of hardworking men, dedicated to their missionary task and determined to survive in the face of financial peril and uncertain leadership. (19) There was such a strong presence of German-American Catholics in this part of Kansas, that the community was able to attract numerous native vocations who were both hardworking and missionary minded, but also observant monks as well.
St. Benedict’s Priory was raised to the status of an abbey in 1876 and elected Father Innocent Wolf as their first abbot.
Following the establishment of the communities in Minnesota, New Jersey, and Kansas, Abbot Boniface began to receive criticism (once again) that he was moving “too fast” . While visiting St. Benedict’s Abbey in the mid-1870s, he responded to his critics by saying, “If I were as timid as the directors of the Ludwig-Missionverein (Bavarian
Missionary Society) wish me to, I would now have no new foundations nor the old one so firmly established. Our motto must be: Forward, always forward.” (20) It is important to keep in mind that nothing took place at these initial Saint Vincent foundations without the knowledge and approval of Abbot Boniface. Father Innocent was a Wimmer ally and therefore his election was fully supported by the abbot of Saint Vincent.
These are just two examples (Newark and Atchison) of the numerous communities that were established by the monks of Saint Vincent. In 1855, following the raising of Saint Vincent to the status of an abbey, Rome approved the creation of the American Cassinese Congregation and in July of that year, appointed President of the Congregation for Life. He served in that capacity for thirty-two years.
By 1883, Saint Vincent had established four foundations (Minnesota, New Jersey, Kansas, and North Carolina). This year also happened to be the golden anniversary of his profession of monastic vows. As a result of both of these factors, Abbot Boniface was given the title of Archabbot for Life by Pope Leo XIII and Saint Vincent was raised to the status of an Archabbey.
Following Archabbot Boniface’s death in 1887, there were several more foundations made. Communities were established in
Cullman, AL, , St. Leo, FL, Peru, IL, Lacey, WA, Pueblo, CO, and Cleveland, OH. There are also communities in Shawnee, OK, Richardton, ND, and Elmira, NY which were not originally part of the American-Cassinese Congregation, but became members over time. St. John’s Abbey began a foundation in Saskatchewan, Canada in 1903 (St. Peter’s Abbey) which is also part of this congregation. Chicago, IL
Both Saint Vincent Archabbey and the American-Cassinese Congregation are living tributes to the vision and unceasing efforts of Archabbot Boniface Wimmer to establish Benedictine monasticism in the United States. With the exception of the communities in ND, FL, and NY, every house in our congregation operates either a high school, college, or both and are devoted to offering pastoral ministry to both local area parishes and the parishes that the individual communities staff. This is yet additional evidence that “like mother, like daughter”. Unfortunately, the community in Colorado has closed and the monks became members of other houses within the congregation.
For all of his faults, the immense contribution that Archabbot Boniface made to monastic life cannot be understated. He truly was a visionary who had the strength of personality and determination to see that his plan came to fruition.
1) King, Peter Western Monasticism: A History of the Monastic Movement in the Latin Church (Kalamazoo: MI, Cistercian Publications, 1999), p. 343
2) Ibid., p. 343
3) http://www.st-benoit-du-lac.com/histoire1/history1.html (History of the Abbey of St. Benoit-du-Lac)
4) Rippinger, Joel The Benedictine Order in the United States: An Interpretive History (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990) p. 17
5) Rippinger, p. 20
6) Rippinger, p. 21
7) Rippinger, p. 21
8) Rippinger, p. 22
9) Oetgen, Jerome An American Abbot: Boniface Wimmer, O.S.B. (Washington: CUA Press, 1997), p. 46
10) Rippinger, p. 23
11) Rippinger, p. 23
12) Rippinger, p. 23
13) Rippinger, p. 26
14) Ordo of the American-Cassinese Congregation (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005) p. 231
15) Rippinger, p. 35
16) Rippinger, p. 36
17) Rippinger, p. 30
18) Hayes, Giles A Brief History of St. Mary’s Abbey (Unpublished manuscript) p. 11
19) Hayes., p. 36
20) Beckman, Peter Kansas Monks (Atchison, KS: Abbey Student Press, 1957), p. 26
Beckman, Peter Kansas Monks (Atchison, KS: Abbey Student Press, 1957)
Hayes, Giles A Brief History of St. Mary’s Abbey (Unpublished manuscript)
King, Peter Western Monasticism: A History of the Monastic Movement in the Latin Church (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1999)
Rippinger, Joel The Benedictine Order in the United States: An Interpretive History (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990)
Oetgen, Jerome An American Abbot: Boniface Wimmer, O.S.B. (Washington, CUA Press, 1997)
Ordo of the American-Cassinese Congregation (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press)
http://www.st-benoit-du-lac.com/histoire1/history1.html (History of the Abbey of St. Benoit-du-Lac)