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.
“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.