Friday, December 11, 2009


Peter Engel was a boy of 13 when he started classes at Saint John’s College in September 1869. His parents had moved from his native Wisconsin to St. Michael, Minnesota, a few years earlier. By his own account they sent him to Saint John’s because he didn’t like farm work but showed some aptitude for studies. “I had at that time no clear idea about my vocation,” he wrote later (qtd Barry,Worship and Work, 224).

Four years later—“not before Christmas, 1873” he says as though it were a point of contention—he made up his mind to join the Order. He was sent to St. Vincent Abbey in Pennsylvania for his novitiate year, July 1874-1875, and stayed on a few months longer to study physics and chemistry. Apparently that was the extent of his graduate education in science. Years later he would send Anselm Ortmann to Johns Hopkins for advanced work in physics, the first of many Saint John’s monks to be engaged in graduate study in the new century.

He was elected abbot in 1894 and continued in office until his death in 1921. Like his predecessors Alexius Edelbrock and Bernard Locnikar he kept the title of college president while designating a vice president to carry out administrative duties. All the rest of his career would show that he was a born educator with particular interest in scientific fields. Colman Barry says that of Saint John’s early abbots he was the one most interested in developing the school (226).

“He had studied and taught natural philosophy, physics, and chemistry; developed a physics laboratory; opened a meteorological station . . .; installed a wireless telegraph station . . . ; and opened an astronomical observatory on top of the water tower” (226).

He had the buildings wired for electric light in 1898. On October 10 the current came on, generated by a new dynamo in the power house. “The study-halls were now brilliantly lit up by dazzling clusters of lamps” (Alexius Hoffman, St. John’s University: 1857-1907, 119).

The 1901 library with St. John’s Photo Studio on the third floor.

Half a dozen campus buildings of little architectural distinction, all of which are still in use, sprang up in a loose configuration behind the Quad in the first decade of the twentieth century: a combination library/music department/photo studio, now Wimmer Hall (1901), a gymnasium, now Guild Hall (1901), a residence for the Franciscan Sisters who staffed the kitchen for fifty years, now St. Francis House (1904), an infirmary, now Greg House (1907), a science building, now Simons Hall (1910).

A charming edifice that no longer stands was the brick observatory constructed according to Peter’s design in the summer of 1894. It stood on the high ground east of the Quad but was razed in 1961, a few years before word of historic preservation reached Collegeville, in order to clear the site for the Prep School.

Completed in Peter Engel’s first year as abbot, the observatory had a seven-inch telescope and a revolving dome.

Abbot Peter was keenly interested in photography. He took the lead in documenting his era on glass plates that now constitute an invaluable archival record.

Enrollment doubled during his term in office and was gradually separated out into standard American levels—high school, college, seminary—although not yet labeled as such. In 1894, the year before he took office, enrollment in the ecclesiastical course stood at 39, the other levels at 199. In 1921, the year of his death, there were 59 students in what was now called the School of Theology and 400 students in the academic, collegiate, and commercial departments.

Intercollegiate athletics got its start while Abbot Peter was president. Saint John’s joined six other colleges to form the MIAC in 1920. The 1920-1921 catalog announced that “the purpose of this conference is to foster at its highest the spirit of intercollegiate friendliness, which is so important a factor in giving athletic rivalry its proper educational value” (87).

In this 1912 view the Gymnasium and the new Science Center stand North of the Quad.

Peter Engel was admired and loved for his personal warmth and fair-mindedness in spiritual and pastoral matters as well as education. A man of the extreme center, Colman Barry calls him, quiet but firm (225). His twenty-six years of rule followed by Alcuin Deutsch’s twenty-nine years provided the guiding principles and the steady direction that shaped the Saint John’s we know today.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Alexius Edelbrock

In his centennial history of Saint John’s, Worship and Work, Father Colman Barry refers to Abbot Alexius Edelbrock as an empire builder. He notes that John Ireland, newly appointed coadjutor bishop of St. Paul, came to the formal blessing of Alexius as abbot on October 24, 1875, and that “the fascinating careers of Minnesota’s two ecclesiastical ‘empire builders’ were thus initiated in that same autumn of 1875” (132).

Alexius was 32 when he was elected abbot. He had been appointed president of Saint John’s College three years earlier. He kept the job, explaining to Abbot Boniface Wimmer in Pennsylvania, “I do not even have anybody to run the college and the whole task devolves upon me” (qtd. Barry, 132). To “run the college” he invented the office of vice president and appointed Father Chrysostom Schreiner to fill the post. His successors continued this arrangement until 1922 when the fifth abbot, Alcuin Deutsch, reorganized the school as preparatory school, college, and seminary, each headed by a dean.

He was a local boy, born in Westphalia and brought to this country by his parents, Anton and Christiana Edelbrock, the first German settlers in St. Cloud. He was one of five boys who started classes at the new Benedictine college on the banks of the Mississippi in November 1857. His description of the experience is unvarnished: “There was poverty everywhere; a poor and miserable house, poor and scanty food; poor and bad lights. The tallow candle was the only light in those days. . . . We had few books. The Professor lectured, we had to write. Yes, we were started in on the European plan” (Barry, 58).

He was abbot for fourteen years, then was forced to resign by discontented members of the monastery supported by John Ireland, now archbishop of St. Paul. Colman Barry relates the story of malicious troublemakers and overbearing ecclesiastics with considerable relish but with ultimate sympathy for the wronged abbot.

In his fourteen years Alexius had given Saint John’s its permanent identity. Partly this was a matter of names. When the community achieved abbatial status in 1866 the abbey was named St. Louis on the Lake in honor of Ludwig I of Bavaria, but the school was already known as Saint John’s College. People found two names for the same place confusing. In 1880 the abbot decided to retire St. Louis and dedicate the whole institution to St. John the Baptist.

Three years later he prevailed on friends in the legislature to move an amendment changing the title of the school from Seminary to University, a change regarded as pretentious by some of the monks and lampooned in the German language Catholic weekly, Der Wanderer.

Alexius was untroubled by his critics. He had a frontier zest for grandiose gestures. In 1879 he conferred pontifical doctoral degrees in philosophy and theology on three of his monks in virtue of a papal brief granted at his request the year before. One of them, Bernard Locnikar, who was to be the third abbot, declined the honor out of sheer embarrassment.

Bernard Locnikar

“Collegeville” became a name for Saint John’s when Alexius got James J. Hill to locate a train stop on the corner of abbey land intersected by the railroad. The stop was named Collegeville Station and a U.S. post office was built across the tracks from the station. The name was to outlast the railroad.

Abbot Alexius also gave Saint John’s the Quad. He inherited the brick front constructed in three parts—south wing, main building, north wing—between 1868 and 1873. To it he added the church, now the Great Hall, in 1882, and extended the structure to form a quadrangle (1886) that some of the monks thought vastly overbuilt for this rural outpost.

The Quadrangle 1886

He insisted on use of the English language in monastery and school. The Record, the school paper, began publication as a monthly vehicle for student writing in 1888. Acquisition of a printing press, used and not in very good condition according to Alexius Hoffmann, chronicler of the era, followed in 1889.

Colman Barry summarizes growth during Abbot Alexius’s tenure:

Beginning with a religious community of fifty-two members, by 1889 he was heading a Benedictine family of fifty-seven priests, ten clerics, thirty-seven Brothers and thirty-two scholastics. Enrollment in the school had increased from 183 to 350. The monastery was caring for forty-five missions of which he had inaugurated thirty-five. (163)

When Alexius was forced out of office in 1889 he found a patron in Archbishop Corrigan of New York, who gave him land for a parish that could become a monastic foundation with the provision that Saint John’s Abbey also accept responsibility for a Catholic mission to the Bahama Islands. The new abbot, Bernard, wanted nothing to do with responsibility for the Bahamas but he was generous in supporting his predecessor and supplying priests for the new parish, St. Anselm’s, which would be swallowed up in the South Bronx in Alexius’s lifetime.

There Alexius proceeded to build a cavernous four story rectory large enough serve as the residence for a new monastic community and planned a large church in the Byzantine style. Only the basement of the church was built before his death in 1908. The church was completed in 1916 and is cited in the November 5, 2009 New York Review of Books as “one of the finest examples of the medieval revival in America” (43). Alexius would not be surprised at the compliment. He always thought big.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


When I refer to the foundations of Benedictine education I’m not thinking about curriculum or religious services, but about the broad underlying structure of ideas and attitudes that supply both the foundation and the motive for Benedictine involvement in education: the underlying way of thinking, the underlying way of looking at life, the way of living, historically and now, that is characteristically Benedictine.

I have in mind Benedictine community, Benedictine love of learning, and Benedictine spirituality.

To get to the Benedictine notion of community we have to step back in time to the 520s and 30s and 40s in southern Italy, to a mountain top called Monte Cassino, where a man whom we might nowadays describe as a college drop-out gathered around himself a group of young men interested in seeking God together.

Some of them may have been well educated but they didn’t intend to start a college. What they wanted was a school of the Lord’s service and their teacher was to be the man who had discontinued his studies in Rome because its worldly environment was not what he sought. His name was Benedict.

Benedict’s reputation rests on the Rule he wrote for his monastery. It is a work of genius. The monastic movement shaped by the Rule of Benedict is generally credited with a major role in preserving the learning of the past and creating a social fabric that provided security and a stable environment for new growth in Christian Europe. Yet Benedict didn’t invent anything people had nott thought of before. There was already a long tradition of Christian monastic life—sometimes solitary, sometimes in community. Benedict drew on this long tradition when he set down the rules for his followers at Monte Cassino.

What resulted was a work stamped with his deep respect for the person and his unerring sense of proportion. With typical modesty he calls it “a little rule for beginners,” but the Rule of Benedict was to be adopted by hundreds and eventually thousands of religious communities great and small, male and female, over the following centuries and to serve as a model for many other civic and social bodies. In the words of a modern commentator, Benedict had come up with a guide for developing sustainable communities that is as relevant now as it was 1,500 years ago.

Let’s look at that a bit. How does Benedict build a community? I’m dwelling on this because in some respects it is as relevant to academic communities as it is to monasteries.

To start with Benedict puts all of the members on the same footing. Age, wealth, professional accomplishments, social prominence does not count. Rank in the community is simply by when you arrived. A certain respect for the elders of the community is appropriate, but this is simply one aspect of the mutual respect that all the brothers should have for one another. And bear in mind that this is a cross-generational community, from youths to men of advanced years, who go on living together year after year.

The line of authority is clear. The community is governed by an abbot whom the members choose from their midst. Benedict details the qualifications of the abbot, above all the discretion and sensitivity required in dealing with individuals as individuals. He must be aware that he will have to give an accounting to God for the welfare of each member of the community. The sick and the elderly may need a special diet that includes meat. Those with heavy responsibilities should be given the help they need in order to carry out their duties with a tranquil spirit. In community decision making the young should be heard. And so on.

There is also a strong horizontal relationship. The members need to care for one another, even be obedient to one another with mutual respect and love. “The brothers should serve one another” Benedict says, “for such service increases reward and fosters love.” (Chapter 35.) A sense of serving the common good is pervasive. As far as possible the community is to be self-sustaining. This means that somebody has to plow the fields, herd the sheep, prune the vineyards, be good at a whole range of other practical skills.

Everybody is expected to take a turn at the domestic chores. An English writer describes arriving very late at a monastery where he had an appointment to see the abbot. He got lost in the countryside and arrived long after dark. Someone in black pants and a T-shirt opened the door when he rang the bell, said, “Ah, yes, we were expecting you,” got him to a room, brought him a bite to eat, told him when breakfast was in the morning. The guest asked one thing: “Do you suppose I shall still be able to see the abbot?” “Oh, I’m the abbot,” his host said, “but you must be tired now. I’ll see you in the morning.”

This incident catches the spirit of the Rule to a tee. It reminds me of a story told about Abbot Basil Hume, the future archbishop of Westminster, who came to christen the child of some friends of his at their home and helped his hostess get the house ready by vacuuming the living room rug. The framework of community comes alive under the warmth of Benedict’s persuasion that nothing is to be preferred to Christ’s love in their midst. Equal standing; caring and wise authority; mutual respect and service: there you have the building blocks of Benedictine community.

Historically what did Benedictines do in community? For one thing, many monastic communities became centers of learning. This is the second point I want to make about Benedictines and the bearing of their fundamental values on higher education.

A focus on learning was there in embryo from the first in Benedict’s emphasis on reading. You had to be a reader to follow the way of life he prescribes. Besides work and prayer the monks were expected to spend two, three, maybe even four hours a day reading. The chapter of the Rule that deals with the daily manual labor devotes as much attention to the hours reserved for reading as it does to the hours reserved for work.

The central place of reading in the monk’s life explains why copying manuscripts and making books became such a characteristic occupation for monks. Every cloister had its library as surely as it had its chapel. First of all the monks read Sacred Scripture and the great church writers like Augustine and Basil and Ambrose, but they also preserved and made new copies of profane authors like Cicero, Pliny, Tacitus—the whole body of classical literature that medieval scholars called Grammar with a capital “G,” what Jean Leclercq calls “the first stage and the foundation of general culture” (The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, 17).

Despite this emphasis on books the monks did not found universities, although as the universities developed Benedictines were often university students and sometimes professors. However, both monks and nuns provided schooling for their own members. A famous product of this schooling was the eighth-century English monk, Bede, born in 673, who came to the monastery of Jarrow as a youth and lived his entire life there. He is renowned for his major work, A History of the English Church and People, a full length history which remains the major source for its period. He lived from 673 to 735. In his lifetime the monasteries of northern England were the focal point of learning in Western Europe.

“From the start,” as I noted in an article I wrote some years ago, “Benedictine life required a certain level of disciplined intellectual activity. . . . It is not surprising that in the centuries following Benedict, monasteries became centers of literary culture, preserving the ancient texts in new copies and composing a body of liturgical texts, homilies, commentaries, and chronicles of their times” (The American Benedictine Review [June 1995] , 123). English Benedictines undertook to send a portion of their membership—one for every twenty monks—to Oxford or Cambridge, a practice that continued until Benedictine life in England was violently terminated by Henry VIII in the 1540s. (See Benedictines in Oxford, ed. Henry Wansbrough, OSB, and Anthony Marett-Crosby, OSB, [London, 1997], 39.)

One of the first printing presses in Europe was founded at the great Spanish abbey of Montserrat as early as 1499. Toward the end of the sixteenth century Benedictines founded communities in the New World with monasteries and schools in Brazil that continue today. In the nineteenth century Benedictines came to North America and began to offer education at high school, college, and seminary level. Suffice it to say that it’s a long history of learning as an integral part of Benedictine life that we continue in contemporary schools and colleges under Benedictine auspices.

Finally let me note, however briefly, the particular character of Benedictine spirituality. Krista Tippett, author of Speaking of Faith, puts her finger on the key to what is distinctive about Benedictine spirituality when she remarks that

Benedictines “take great pride in the fact that their order began in the sixth century, predating the major divisions in the church” (Tippett, 117).

One of the results of that early origin is that monastic spirituality is firmly rooted in Sacred Scripture and the early Christian writers. Concentration on these sources leads Benedictines to a comprehensive and ecumenical view of the Christian life.

It is ecumenical in the original sense of the word, “belonging to or representing the whole Christian world.” It is also ecumenical in the more limited way we generally use the term today to mean bridging the gap between Catholic and Protestant or between Eastern Orthodox and Rome. Benedictine spirituality took shape long before the split between Eastern and Western branches of the church in the 11th century and the further divisions that resulted from the Reformation in the 16th century. It is a spirituality that transcends ecclesiastical divides because it is rooted in religious sources that antedate the sometimes bitter theological and political differences of more recent centuries.

In addition, Benedictine spirituality continues to be shaped by daily immersion in the hours of prayer and Eucharist that make up the monastic liturgy. A life steeped in the Psalms and the Gospels affords a large common ground with other people of faith within the Christian tradition and in interreligious dialogue.

Seen in this light the motto “Pax” or “Peace” often seen at the entrance to a monastery takes on dynamic meaning. It doesn’t mean passive toleration—You go your way, I’ll go mine—but active commitment. As Paul puts it: “Live in peace and the God of love and peace will be with you” (2 Cor. 13.11). On the contemporary American campus with its new interest in spirituality this commitment to building peace by the way we live is a Benedictine strength that should not be disregarded but treasured and cultivated.

Let me summarize what I’ve said. I’ve dwelt on three major facets of the Benedictine heritage that continue to have a deep effect on education under Benedictine auspices. They are the distinctive structure of community that Benedict worked out so wisely in his Rule for monasteries, the central role of disciplined intellectual activity in the Benedictine tradition, and the deep theological and spiritual grounding of the Benedictine tradition in Sacred Scripture and the writers whom Benedict calls “the holy Catholic fathers” in the stirring conclusion to his Rule.

David Bentley Hart suggests that in our time “the life of those ancient men and women who devoted themselves to the science of charity, in willing exile from the world of social prestige and power, may perhaps again become the model that Christians will find themselves compelled to emulate” (Atheist Delusions [New Haven, 2009], 241). “Compelled” may be too strong a word, but called upon to recognize and value sounds right for an institution that prides itself on its Benedictine heritage.


Father Wolfgang Northman (1842-1876) was appointed president of Saint John’s College in 1867 for a five year term. The college had been chartered ten years earlier as St. John’s Seminary but had continued to enroll students year by year under the direction of whoever happened to be in charge of the small monastic community. Unlike the 1854 charter of Hamline University which included details of organizational structure and programs, the St. John’s charter merely named the officers of the corporation—president, secretary, and procurator (treasurer)—and provided that they should serve as its trustees.

When the first abbot, Rupert Seidenbusch, arrived from Pennsylvania in 1867 he immediately appointed Father Wolfgang president and inaugurated a building program. He found the entire community, monks and students, newly located at what was to be its permanent site on the high ground at the north end of the lake. Monks and students lived in a hastily constructed fieldstone house and two adjoining wooden structures taken apart and moved there from a temporary site more than a mile away through the woods.

Abbot Rupert called for brick yards on the property and projected a new two-storey brick residence 100 x 40 feet adjoining the stone house to the north to be completed in 1868. He also called for two more monks from Pennsylvania to bolster the faculty. In August he left for Europe on a begging tour and was gone until the following March.

When classes started in the fall Father Wolfgang found himself with fifty-two students and a faculty of eleven full and part-time instructors including himself. He had had all of his education at St. Vincent Abbey in Pennsylvania. His field was music but he also taught church history, Greek, Latin, mathematics, and bookkeeping. At the time of his death only eight years later it was noted that he was a fine organist and accompanied the choir on important liturgical occasions. The instrument would have been a harmonium; the first pipe organ at Saint John’s would be installed in 1891.

No year-by-year records of his administration survive but two milestone events stand out. In 1869 the school was authorized to grant college degrees and in 1870 the college published its first catalog.

The catalog was a dignified sixteen-page booklet printed by The Wanderer in St. Paul. One page sufficed to list the course of studies for the elementary school, the six years of the classical and commercial course which would eventually become separate high school and college programs, and the ecclesiastical course for seminarians. Naming the officers and the faculty took up three pages. Listing all ninety-four students—twelve seminarians and eighty-two college students—filled three pages. Nearly half the catalog, seven pages, carried an itemized list of premiums distributed at Commencement on June 28, 1870, for distinction in everything from Latin to elocution to bookkeeping.

Most entertaining is a high-flown and highly imaginative introduction describing the sylvan glory of this new Athens. After a boost for Benedictine education down the ages the writer gives directions about how to get to the place, eighty-six miles from St. Paul, all but the last twelve by the St. Paul & Pacific Rail Road. Effort to get to the “highly picturesque grounds of the College” is amply rewarded. The lake, six miles in circumference, abounds in fish. On the west side of the campus flows the Watab River, “beautiful in its windings through the valleys as the Peneus through the Thessalian Tempe of old.” If esthetic superlatives are not enough, it is good to know that “the location is undoubtedly one of the healthiest in the Union, as many who have regained health and vigor testify.”

Getting down to business, the school year comprises two five-month sessions, tuition and board is $90 a session, and students who make unusual progress may abbreviate the six years usually required to complete the Classical and Commercial course.

Wolfgang Northman completed his five-year term as president in 1872 and was followed by Alexius Edelbrock, who kept the title when he was elected abbot three years later and appointed a vice-president to direct the abbey’s academic enterprise. Father Wolfgang continued to teach music and do parish work until he died unexpectedly on a winter morning in 1876. He was the first monk to be buried in the abbey cemetery.

A view of the Quad in 1881

Tin-type of the framehouse