The Earliest Years of Saint John's Abbey, 1856-1862
Part 1 of 16
by Fr. Bruno Riss OSB (1829-1900)
It happened in January 1856 that six American bishops sent petitions to the late Archabbot Boniface Wimmer, OSB, for the introduction of the Benedictine Order and erection of monasteries in their diocese. This movement caused some perplexity. Widely divergent opinions and proposals were brought to the front in a chapter in which those applications were considered one favored acceptance of this, another of that post. The Abbot listened, no conclusions were reached. Finally he arose and said: "We will commit the whole affair to the hands of God may He decide where we should make the beginning, I shall," said he, "write to each of the bishops and tell him our needs; i.e., the conditions upon which we will be able to correspond with his request. All of these letters I will mail at the same time and the first bishop who will reply satisfactorily shall have our priests." And behold, the voice of God came from the West, from St. Paul, the most distant point which the mails only reached via Dubuque and thence per stage; from St. Paul came the first unconditional call for Benedictine monks.
It was concluded to open the mission by sending the then Prior of St. Vincent Abbey, Pennsylvania, Very Rev. Demetrius di Marogna, with two clerics prepared for Holy Orders, Fraters Bruno Riss and Cornelius Wittmann and two lay brothers Benno Muckenthaler and Patrick Greil. On Holy Saturday March 22,1856, the Rt. Rev. Abbot, for the first time, conferred Minor Orders on the above named clerics and four others. On April 7, the little caravan of pioneers departed from Pittsburgh by steamer, destined for St. Paul over Cairo and St. Louis, for at the time there were no railroad facilities beyond Dubuque and on account of our cumbersome baggage we chose the cheaper route. The boat was crowded so much so that we five had to put up with a single cabin with two berths; three of the company reposed upon the floor of the cabin. Our journey to St. Louis covered a period of 14 days. There we encountered some tempting inducements. The Archbishop of St. Louis was one of the six applicants for Benedictine Priests, and replied to the Abbot's letter and thought, at our arrival, that we had come in response to his request. He would not have us go farther. At the same time the congregations of Germantown and Highland, Illinois, had received an informal promise of a Benedictine priest and from these sources no endeavors were spared to retain us. But obedience and God's will called us farther north. We lingered for 4 days at St. Louis awaiting the departure of a steamer for St. Paul. We increased our baggage by provisions, mass wine, tea, coffee etc., and then prepared to ascend the Mississippi. At Davenport we disembarked for half a day; our sojourn at this point was the source of many sad hours to our brethren at St. Vincent. We spent the time looking up the resident priest and seeing sights.
About 3 o'clock p.m., we left Davenport and had to pass beneath the C.R.I. railroad bridge, which crossed the river at this point at an oblique angle, a serious obstacle to navigation, especially during the spring floods. Our steamer struggled for nearly an hour trying to effect passage between the piers of the bridge. Fat and pitch were thrown into the furnace to raise steam-pressure to the utmost. We passed safely. Not so the steamer which ran in our wake. Its boiler exploded and its passengers were hurled to destruction. Two other steamers came up to offer assistance; they also burned and hundreds of lives were lost. The good priest at Dubuque was uninformed as to the steamer on which we were embarked and was deeply grieved as he supposed that we were lost. The next day he mailed a Davenport paper to St. Vincent's where we were also believed to have perished and mortuary services were celebrated for us, while we slowly but cheerfully were veering toward our port of destination. At our arrival in St. Paul we were warmly received by the saintly Bishop Cretin. The Ember week was not far distant; the bishop would not apply the dispensations despite the scarcity of priests and postponed ordination to the Ember Days. Then on May 14, the two clerics were ordained subdeacons, on the 16th deacons, and on the 17th priests. On the next day, the feast of the Most Holy Trinity, Father Cornelius celebrated his first Holy Mass at 9 a.m., at which time services were held for the Germans, and 10:30 a.m., Father Bruno celebrated for the first time, the Right Rev. Bishop preaching the sermon. A hall of the Episcopal residence was at the time the church for the congregation consisting of 8 French, 9 German and 10 Irish families. There was considerable demand for German priests and the demand grew with the inflow of immigrants. The diocese had but one German priest and he was a French man an Alsatian, the Rev. Fr. Keller. On the 16th the Rt. Rev. Bishop had sent the Rev. Father to Faribault to attend to the immediate spiritual wants of the German congregations. The newly ordained priests immediately were granted faculties and on the afternoon of their ordination day were ordered to taste the sweets of their vocation in the confessional. The same duty was assigned them on the morning of the Sunday on which they were to celebrate their first Holy Mass: after Mass a marriage was solemnized and several baptisms, administered. Hardly had they sat down for dinner when one was ordered to accompany a funeral to the cemetery, but to be back, unmistakably, by 3 o'clock for the celebration of Vespers. In the evening there was May devotion and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and the Bishop jokingly regretted that no sick call had been announced, which he certainly would have entrusted to me. So passed our fist day in the active exercise of priesthood.
On the following morning at 7 o'clock, Rev. Bruno celebrated Holy Mass and departed with the two lay brothers and baggage to meet at St. Anthony a boat bound for St. Cloud, while two days later the Bishop himself, with Fathers Demetrius and Cornelius traveled to Sauk Rapids by stage for the purpose of introducing them into their chosen field. I say 'chosen' for the Bishop gave us utmost liberty to choose or select from the entire extent of the territory. He would have preferred to see us take root in St. Paul and by way of inducement offered us the 30 acres laid out for a cemetery the convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph stands upon the site today. But we were sent out as were the Benedictines of old, to found a monastery and did not consider the turmoil of a city desirable environs.
St. Cloud, 20 May 1856
While we were yet deliberating whether to locate near the Mississippi or the Minnesota River, the aged Indian missionary, Father Pierz appeared upon the scene and reminded His Lordship that he — Pierz — had first suggested the introduction of the Benedictines, to labor among the German Catholics of Stearns County. This tipped the scales and Stearns County was made our choice.
The boat left St. Anthony on May 19, and by evening arrived at the point where the Crow River enters the Mississippi. Here a stop was made until the next morning. The craft was merely a boat for transportation of freight, had no conveniences whatsoever for passengers, furnished no meals, not a chair to sit upon, still 50 passengers entered at this place. For two days and one night we sought comfort among the trunks and other freight, and were exposed to ferocious attacks of mosquitoes and had nothing to eat.
On the afternoon of the 20th the boat was moored about two miles below St. Cloud; orders were given to have freight unloaded at this point while passengers were to step out at St. Cloud. About half of the freight was unloaded. Father Bruno and one of the lay brothers were on shore attending to their baggage and the other lay brother remained on board keeping guard over our cask of mass wine for the little cask was an attraction to the deck hands. Before we who were on shore could realize our situation, the boat pushed off and made for Sauk Rapids. Now find a human habitation or even St. Cloud without roads or guides! The lay brother remained with the baggage and Father Bruno set out to explore.
To find St. Cloud was then a rather more difficult task than it would be today, comprising as it did one house and four less dignified edifices and these far apart. On the prairie Father Bruno met a Catholic German, a Mr. Lodermaier, who showed him the direction in which he would find St. Cloud and stated that he now stood upon the land intended for a monastery, the property or claim of two brothers by name of Rothkopp. At last he succeeded in engaging a vehicle which transferred the poor brother and the baggage to St. Cloud. And so it occurred that the Benedictines made their entry into St. Cloud on the evening of May 20 and took lodgings with Mr. Joseph Edelbrock.
Up to the date of our arrival St. Clouders had not dreamt of making land claims, all looked so hopeless. But our appearance turned the tables and that very night the inhabitants of St. Cloud claimed and staked out the entire prairie between St. Cloud and the crossing of the Sauk River not leaving a single spot in the vicinity for us to locate upon. On May 21 Father Bruno visited the Rothkopp brothers and made arrangements for a transfer of their two claims and took possession of the log house on the 22nd.
On May 22, Feast of Corpus Christi, the Benedictines held church service for the first time. Father Pierz had previously conducted services at St. Cloud. The attic of Mr. Joseph Edelbrock was arranged for a chapel; the altar was placed at one end under the apex of the gable to enable the celebrant to stand upright, but it was necessary, especially at the Elevation, to look upward lest he strike the roof. The narrow apace could not contain all who had come for services and so many were compelled to remain on the lower floor and that was fortunate. In the course of the solemnities they noticed that the ceiling our floor was giving way and improvised supports with fence rails. Otherwise we might have had a sad accident.
The other lay brother left the boat with his baggage at Sauk Rapids and through the kindness of Mr. Adam Duerr who was working in the neighborhood was given temporary quarters in the block church which had been erected by Father Pierz assisted by the Indians and few surrounding Germans. Then he was joined on the day following by Fathers Demetrius and Cornelius, who also took lodgings in the church and were happy to have a roof overhead. Here they remained until more capacious room had been arranged on the Rothkopp farm.
The log house of the Rothkopp farm was 12x12 and 6 feet high; a single pane 8x10 inches inserted rudely between the logs served as a window, while mother earth was reared at a distance of 12 feet from the former and the intervening space roofed over, making the whole length of the building 36 feet. The intervening space served as chapel. The mosquitoes were a terrible plague, the altar cloths were soon stained with blood from hands and the face of the celebrant who could not well struggle with the leeches.
This summer was a preparation for the ensuing famine. The Rothkopps were poor, the priests still poorer. Wheat and corn were ground in coffee mills into flour for bread, a piece of bacon thrown into the frying pan eased potatoes in their descent, coffee we had brought with us from St. Louis. During the week we worked hard and on Sundays conducted services in St. Cloud and Sauk Rapids. The St. Clouders had put their shoulders to the work and had erected and two story frame building and arranged the lower floor for church.
At St. Joseph there was already a log church and a pastoral residence under construction. But a few turbulent spirits agitated against the expected monks and went so afar as to send a petition to the Bishop of St. Paul begging him not to inflict the monks upon them and not to permit them to come to St. Joseph. In consequence the misguided hotheads had no services until August.
At St. James, also, a log chapel 16x20 or 24 stood finished; at Richmond a similar structure not yet under roof; but both congregations had no services during that summer for the same reason.
Another addition, 12x36 - frame, was annexed to the existing 12x36 building and the whole presented an imposing front of 72 feet facing the river. Frequently rafts on the river would draw up near us and the hands, mistaking our place for a boardinghouse, would call in and demand a dinner. What was to be done? The brother had to prepare something in a hurry, as this was the only means of ridding ourselves of the unwelcome guests.
Daily new settlers located here, for the news had made the rounds, that there were government lands to be had in Stearns County and that a monastery was to be erected to attend to the spiritual needs of the new arrivals.
During this spring and summer, when Fathers Demetrius and Cornelius resided at Sauk Rapids and Father Bruno at St. Cloud, we were frequently obliged to cross the Mississippi. Mr. Anthony Edelbrock was proprietor of the ferry and his son, a wide awake youth of 12 or 13 attended to transfer of passengers. This boy was always most attentive towards the priests; when the ferry slipped its cable and ran down stream, as occasionally happened, he would transfer us in a skiff at no small risk through the maze of floating logs and would punctually await us at our return. He was soon a favorite with the priests, who fixed their attention upon him and encouraged him to take up a course of study. He is now Abbot Alexius Edelbrock, OSB, of St. John's Abbey. Thus God knows to recompense a seemingly insignificant favor accorded to his servants.