The Earliest Years of Saint John's Abbey, 1856-1862
Part 10 of 16
by Fr. Bruno Riss OSB (1829-1900)
I did not listen, but proceeded in the name of God. As soon as I entered the village, I perceived that I was expected. No men were visible, but women and children on the streets and at the doors of their dwellings received me with uproar and abuse. Being a stranger in town I inquired for the store aforesaid. I was directed to turn the corner. When I reached the corner I was confronted by a noisy assembly who greeted me with shouts and yells: "Kill him, strangle the priest" (were some of the greetings). This did not disconcert me, for I knew that barking hounds would not bite. I extended kindly greetings to right and left, passed through the mob, entered the store and invited the men to enter with me. No one remained outside. The store was thronged. I sprang upon the counter, with my heavy walking stick, because I wished to be safe against attacks from the rear and have the assembly completely within sight and hearing. Silence ensued and I addressed them, praising the zeal they showed by leaving their occupations to attend this meeting at which, together with the priest, they were to consider the erection of a church. I expressed the hope, they would agree upon erecting one of the finest churches in the county, not a log church but a brick structure. My audience listened attentively and occasionally applauded. By the angry expression of his countenance I discovered the chief tyrant of Chaska. He could no longer restrain himself, but interrupted me, crying: "Come, down from that counter; we will make an end of you; we need no church" etc. Here came the crisis. I leaped down from the counter, ran towards him, seized him lightly by the coat and said loudly: "Attention, you shall take a vote upon this proposition: This man shall enjoy the double privilege of being the first contributor to the church fund, and the first who should go to confession. All those favoring the proposition, say "aye". If the store had been plastered, I think the plaster would have fallen down, such was the vociferous vote of assent that the assembly bellowed. The battle was won.
The poor victim paid $15 cash down and lamented about the miserable priests: "This is the seventh place from which priests have driven me; I thought I would be secure here, but I can remain no longer." He left and on the following morning his den was empty; we were rid of him. Now I proceeded to solicit subscriptions for the church fund; the proprietor of the brickyard signed last. In his case I again demanded a vote. The proposition was to the effect that he furnish the brick necessary for the erection of the church without cost. Very naturally he voted "No, no," but his voice counted only one vote, the whole assembly voted in the affirmative. He resigned himself to the decrees of fate, and he never suffered from the sacrifice. Thus was the church of Chaska built.
Every month I held divine service in the public school rooms until the church was completed. But the devil who had held absolute sway here for so long a time placed new obstacles. The walls were built. A roof must be built over them. Here Satan stirred up avarice. There were four carpenters in the congregation. To whom would the contract be awarded? None would yield to the other. Finally the four united and offered their bid. Every one demanded more than the job was worth. They demanded $400 for the work, the material was furnished. This was an expense the congregation could not cover.
No one besides these carpenters could undertake the work and they were on the point of victory, hand not the pastor studied architecture in Europe. I advised the congregation that the work might easily be paid with $100, and demanded sufficient time to procure help. I knew I could, for at Victoria I had made the acquaintance of a young carpenter who did all the work in the village for a very slight compensation and who proved a helper in need at St. Bernard's (Benton) in the erection of the church. The name of this friend in need was Nicholas Stimmler, well known in later years at St. Paul and in Stearns County as Father Valentine Stimmler, OSB. The poor youth even at that time was desirous of studying for the priesthood and Father Cornelius and myself assisted him in his endeavor.
How Watertown, Carver County, Was Founded
While I am speaking of Carver County, I may as well relate how wonderfully God wrought here and how He utilized the evil designs of men to effect good. Watertown was a so-called Yankee settlement. All the land within a radius of three miles belonged to New Englanders. Outside of this circle dwelt some Irishmen who were strangers to us. For baptisms or purchase of provisions they would travel afoot to St. Anthony (i.e. East Minneapolis). Only one family bordering on the German settlement, then known as Helvetia, attended the church at the latter place. They frequently requested me to celebrate Holy Mass in their house but it was inconvenient for me to sacrifice a day for one family. To arrive at a satisfactory settlement, I told them that I would comply if other families of the neighborhood would join them. They were under the impression, they were the only Catholics of the vicinity; they had never ventured to penetrate the dense forests around them. I instructed them to listen at morning and evening for the sound of a woodchopper's axe or the barking of a dog. If they heard a sound they should try to find out what kind of people lived in that direction and in case they were Catholics, to inquire if there were not others in the neighborhood. At my next visit three children were brought for baptism.
I then appointed a day of the next month and enjoined on all present to search for the Catholic settlers and to advise them when and where divine service would be held. Lest I should be compelled to make a circuit of five miles around a muddy lake, a man offered to carry me across in his boat (the hollow trunk of a crooked tree). I lay on the bottom of the craft while we were crossing and the boatman continually warned me not to stir, lest the boat lose its balance and we should be lost. After a ride of fifteen minutes we reached the opposite shore. On the next day quite a number of settlers were at hand with ten babies to be christened. The news was spread. In order to accommodate all I held services at three different points of the settlement about Watertown. If I could have gained Watertown itself, it would have been a favorable center for work. I indicated the location of Watertown to most of the settlers, they might not make a journey of 40 or 50 miles to purchase a sack of flour and carry it home on their shoulders. Only the settler whose acquaintance I had made first was proprietor of a yoke of oxen. One day I was traveling to Watertown accompanied by an Irishman who helped me carry my heavy baggage. Among the inhabitants of the place were also two apostate German families, who could bear the sight of a black robe as little as a bull can bear the sight of a red rag. They were too cowardly to attack me themselves and had devised a means of harming me. They had two large and malicious dogs. On the day when I was to pass, they gathered other dogs at the house. My companion left me to make some purchases in a store near by. I continued my way alone with my baggage on my shoulders until I reached the blacksmith shop which was owned by the apostates mentioned above. The doors flew open and ten or twelve dogs were set upon me. I trembled for my life, and could not see a way of escape, humanly speaking. However, as I have once before remarked, I was not worthy to become a martyr. God also governs brutes. They surrounded me and, regardless of their masters' calls, licked my hands and face as it were for joy on meeting me. They placed their paws upon my shoulders and I could not advance a step for some minutes, till I had returned the caresses. This barking and yelling came to the ears of my companion who came forth from the store, and without giving the matter further attention I continued my journey to St. Boniface's thanking God for this kind protection.
The Irishman who had been an eyewitness of my experiences returned home and everywhere spread the news, how the Yankees had made an attempt upon my life and how the dogs could not bite the "holy priest." The next rumor that came to my ears was that he and his friends had vowed vengeance upon Watertown and the would-be murderers of their priest.
The surprised and terrified inhabitants of Watertown luckily fell to parleying and inquiring for reasons. They were amazed at the charges brought against them, protested they were innocent and asked for a stay of proceedings till I should come again. This arrangement was satisfactory to all parties. On occasion of my next visit, uninformed of these exciting proceedings, I was met at some distance from the village by a number of men who apparently awaited me. I entertained no flattering suspicion of their design: they had failed to remove me by setting their dogs upon me, now they are come to attend to the matter themselves. Still I went ahead and all was well. As soon as I approached them, one took the baggage off my shoulders and they told of the excitement that prevailed in consequence of the attack the Irish settlers had designed. They inquired also regarding the dog episode.
I was first brought to a hotel where refreshments were offered me. All present regretted the disgraceful attack upon me and expressed their willingness to offer satisfaction. Even the two apostates were brought in to apologize and hear from my lips the verdict, which was, that they must henceforth attend at church regularly, prepare for a good confession and have their children baptized. They accepted the verdict and soon complied with its demands.
The people of Watertown invited me to hold religious service in the village; placed at my disposal free of rent a specious hall and offered to furnish my board as often as I came to them. I was moreover invited to select a block for a church ( a diocesan ordinance required that an entire block be secured in a village), and accepted of five acres for a cemetery. The logs were to be sawed, windows, doors, hardware and other requisites were to be furnished free of cost, and the carpenters volunteered to put in about 50 days of labor without compensation. As most of the Irishmen of the vicinity were present at these transactions, they spread the good news that the next service would be held at Watertown.
Many a time in later years I would have suffered dozens of dogs to caress me to secure similar success in other places, but it is not we, it is the Lord that disposes all things well.