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.