The Earliest Years of Saint John's Abbey, 1856-1862
Part 11 of 16
by Fr. Bruno Riss OSB (1829-1900)
Were it not for this beautiful sentiment I would long since have laid aside my pen, for my hands and eyes at my advanced age are scarcely equal to the task of setting down my experiences; but the Benedictine motto reads: "May God be glorified in all things" and, faithful to this motto, I shall continue.
Our work was fatiguing; every day we visited a different mission, heard confessions till near noon, then sang High Mass, preached, baptized, solemnized marriages, instructed the children, then partook of a slight meal, shouldered our baggage, journeyed eight, ten or twelve miles to the next station to go through the same order of work again. Such was the routine of pioneer priests; good health bore us up in these exertions. Great difficulties were encountered when we were called to visit the sick. As I have previously stated, I was compelled to change my route every month on account of the Sundays. My calendar was pre-arranged for the entire month, and I was expected on the appointed day at the respective stations. If I had missed fulfilling one of these appointments, the people would not know when I was to come again. There were no post offices in existence then. God interposed in our behalf also in these circumstances. There were few sick calls. Whenever a sick call was announced, the trip was made in the night.
One day while I was celebrating Mass at Jordan a boy approached the altar and told me he had been traveling two days to call me to a sick person. It was after the elevation. I reserved a particle and started out on the journey after Mass. At Jordan I lodged with the parents of the present Vice President of St. John's University. I never allowed my hostess to remain at home and cook for me during divine service. After service I generally partook of a cup of milk and a morsel of bread; then I waited until a more substantial repast could be prepared. On this day the end of my journey was St. Joseph, four miles from Jordan. The dying person dwelled in Carver County, between Benton and Young America. There was no road from Jordan to this point. I must first proceed to Shakopee, thence across the river to Benton, etc. Since the boy had been out two days looking for me I did not remain long enough to take dinner, but after hastily drinking a cup of milk departed. My guide told me there was a shorter way, a winter road (when the marshy soil was frozen) on which he had often traveled to Jordan. We took this road. I engaged a horse, my guide had none. After crossing the river in a ferry boat, we were on a prairie. Stakes placed at intervals of quarter or half-miles were our only guides. We arrived at a forest beyond which there was a vast marsh. An apostate Catholic lived on the outskirts of the woods. My guide inquired of him if it would be possible to cross the marsh in this season. The answer was encouraging. The party might have recognized me as a priest; he was perhaps satisfied to know he had deceived me. We followed his directions, passed through the woods and reached the marsh - a lake covered with dense weeds. To cross this would have been our doom. However God protects His own. We were on the point of attempting to cross when we heard two voices loudly calling us back. We turned. Two Norwegians had observed us and in broken English warned us of the danger ahead. These two Protestants now left their work and accompanied us for a mile and showed us the way. I tried to remember the route we were traversing, but what would it avail me on my return in the deep of night? We arrived at the bedside of the sick person about 6 p.m. Her husband was a priest hater of the worst description. He would not even feed my horse. I tied the animal by the wayside and plucked some grass to feed it.
The lady had patiently suffered and God had not forgotten her. She was perfectly conscious when she received the last sacraments and passed away calmly to her eternal home. May she rest in peace.
Not a bit of bread, not a mouthful of water was given me. In the name of God I mounted my horse and returned homewards. I called for a morsel of bread at some Catholic families along my route, but they answered "We have none." In utter darkness I penetrated the forest. Shall I ever succeed in passing through and reaching the prairie? was the question that pressed upon me continually. I permitted my animal to follow its instincts. Occasionally by movements of the head it seemed to inquire whether I had hold upon the bridle. Midnight had passed, and ahead, ahead we went, but whither? I knew not. I asked the poor animal if it knew the right road. I was apparently understood, for at that moment my foot struck one of the guide stakes mentioned above and it became clear to me that the horse had instinctively retraced the line of our previous journey. About 2 a.m. we reached the river. I supposed the ferryman on the other side was asleep. Distant cries struck my ear. I followed the direction and soon found the ferryman engaged in trying to transfer an ox team. Near the banks of the river the oxen had balked and run into the water. My assistance at rescue was welcomed, as the wagon had been thrown into the stream I employed the ferry in crossing. Toward 4 a.m. I arrived at Jordan hungry, thirsty, and sleepy. I must first secure some rest; as to other demands I must exercise patience, as that day had been designated for divine service at St. Joseph. I had not broken my fast, although I had partaken of no nourishment besides the cup of milk on the day preceding. I did not wish to rouse the family at my lodging place, so I entered my apartment through the window. Mr. Schreiner's dogs knew me and gave no signal, I also knew the surroundings sufficiently well, found the key to the feed chests, fed the horse, and re-entered my room for a few hours' rest. Before the family was astir in the morning, I had replaced the keys and started out for St. Joseph. In the confessional I soon forgot the demands of my famished interior. Mr. Schreiner could not explain the remnants in the horse's manger as the keys had been kept in the house that night, nor was the mystery unraveled for him until at my next visit I told him how I had taken liberty with his hospitality without his knowledge.
The powerful intercession of St. Joseph to obtain the grace of a happy death is well attested by the following incident. I had returned to Shakopee on the evening of March 14, intending to pass a day at home. It was very cold. The next day I set out for the Carver County missions. But that very night warm weather set in, rain fell, the river was open and torrents inundated the Minnesota valley. In vain did I inquire for a boat to carry me across. It was useless to attempt crossing as the stream was filled with blocks of ice and floating timber. At this point the river was more than a mile in width. This was the first time I could not fill my appointments, and prospects of a better chance within a few days were meager. What was to be done? Could I remain at home idle, while hundreds on the other side of the river were anxious to assist at service, if they had occasion? I was not at loss long. "Tomorrow," thought I, "is the 17th, St. Patrick's day, and on that day I shall certainly meet many of my Irish parishioners at St. Thomas, ten miles form Belle Plaine. They will be overjoyed to have the priest with them on their great day. From St. Thomas I will go to St. Joseph on the 19th, to Jordan on the 20th and to St. Benedict's on the 21st. All this coincides nicely." My preparations were hurriedly made and I set forth over Jordan, whence I sent information of my early visit to St. Joseph and St. Benedict's, onward to Belle Plaine and St. Thomas, about 25 miles. The settlement was soon aroused by the news that they were to have divine service on St. Patrick's day. Late at night I arrived at my lodging place; parishioners were abroad all night spreading the news. At 5 o'clock in the morning I was in the confessional and remained there till 1:30 when Mass began. The services were finished at 3 o'clock. I looked about but could see no preparations making for a dinner; the room was filled with people. I grew tired of waiting and asked the lady of the house whether she could not give me a little to eat. With tears in her eyes she requested me to dismiss the people first (they all expected to take dinner with me, as I was told it was customary at stations in Ireland). They were ill pleased with this treatment, it appeared. Now for the dinner. I had on the previous evening eaten the last piece of bread which could be found on the premises. Dough was prepared in haste and partly baked in the oven; the potatoes were at hand, corn meal boiled in water served as "tea" and one egg figured on the board. The egg I passed to the old grandmother who was highly delighted. The meal was disposed of about 5:30 p.m. and I had to visit a sick person six miles distant.
It was a Swiss family, belonging to St. Henry's. An Irishman who was well acquainted had brought the news that I was at St. Thomas. The grandmother residing with the family was on the point of closing her earthly career. She had always carefully inculcated on her children and grandchildren two maxims, to honor the priests, and to venerate St. Joseph who would not suffer them to die without the ministration of a priest. Her own firm faith in the efficacy of the intercession of St. Joseph was beautifully rewarded. The poor old lady felt that she could not live two weeks longer. My appointment to visit St. Henry was not due within that period. She did not case to pray St. Joseph for the grave of having a priest at her deathbed, and hoped, as it were, against hope. And behold, on March 17th unexpected message was brought: the priest is at St. Thomas! Immediately one of her sons called on me and requested me to attend his mother, who, he stated, was not dangerously ill, but could at any time fail under pressure of her old age.
About 6 o'clock in the evening we were on the way, plodding our course through snow two feet deep, and for six miles, although my appetite had been regaled only be two potatoes with salt, dried dough and cornmeal tea. We arrived at 9 o'clock. I heard the lady's confession and lodged with the family during that night. On the following morning I celebrated Holy Mass in the house, gave the old lady the Viaticum and administered Extreme Unction to her after Mass. She was exceedingly happy to have experienced this consolation. How she thanked St. Joseph for thus rewarding her confidence. Again and again she enjoined on her children to foster this devotion. We had just partaken of dinner, on this day the eve of the Feast of St. Joseph, when she closed her eyes to the miseries of earth as calmly and joyfully as is only given to a true Christian and devout child of St. Joseph.
Now I perceived why God had prevented me from attending the Carver County missions I was to visit. How wonderfully the efficacy of devotion to St. Joseph is illustrated by this incident! Indeed they that look upon their priests as representative of God, and honor them as such, obey them and, in them, God and His holy will, are walking the right path. They will also follow the saints not only by a mechanical devotion to them, but, according to the will of God, by the practice of their virtues. This uninstructed lady unconsciously implanted solid philosophy in her family when she taught them to honor their priests. Would that all parents insisted upon this point; the many sermons and admonitions given by the priests would not be spoken in vain!