Tuesday, October 13, 2009


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

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