The Earliest Years of Saint John's Abbey, 1856-1862

Part 16 of 16
by Fr. Bruno Riss OSB (1829-1900)

Our German congregation developed rapidly. The first settlers assembled to select a fit place for a church, however humble, and then begged the Bishop for a pastor. Owing to circumstances their request could not always be immediately granted, but they persisted for a long time and success came to them in the end, according to there words of out Lord: "Ask and you shall receive." As soon as a congregation had been organized, its further development was an assured fact, as the wave of immigration then set in. With the extension of the settlement the distance to the church also increased for some. Then there were generous church members (or occasionally a speculator under the cloak of religion) who offered from ten to forty acres of land for a new church at the distance of six or eight miles from the old one. The priest would inspect the locality, and consider its fitness for the purpose. If all proved satisfactory, the new station was organized and the surrounding Catholics cooperated devotedly in the erection of the new church. Some of these small stations sprang up with surprising rapidity.

Meier's Grove or Meier's settlement, (Stearns County) now a blooming parish, is an instance. Toward the end of the paschal time one Mr. Meier came to me at New Munich, where I was officiating that day and asked me to visit his infirm and aged mother, so that she might have an occasion to comply with the Easter duty, as she could not come to church. The people lived five or six miles from New Munich and had proved themselves faithful and active members of the congregation. The following day was not taken up by any appointment; so I concluded to go to his settlement and offer Holy Mass there the next morning, in order that the aged lady might not be compelled to fast too long. The people were overjoyed. But what was the result? One of the Meier brothers immediately sent a communication to the Wahrheitsfreund, if I am not mistaken, stating that there was much government land in the vicinity of New Munich, well adapted for Catholic settlers; that a church was to be built on his grounds, and that a Benedictine priest had in fact celebrated Mass there already, etc. And behold, before winter set in a goodly number of Catholics had settled in the neighborhood.

In this and similar ways many of the congregations were founded. A practical Catholic will consult the best interests of his welfare if he settles where his religion will not suffer. Temporal wealth and beauty of location are desirable ends but they must not be placed before the interests of the soul:"What doth it avail a man if he gain the whole world, but lose his soul?

The settlers in Minnesota, particularly in Stearns County were earnest Catholics. Most of them came to the state only after they had learned that there were priests there. As good Catholics their main concern was to assure the salvation of their souls, for which end they sought to live near a church and priest. An active Catholic is also aware of the fact that he is responsible not only for his own soul, but also for that of his children. His next matter of attention was the school. Schools are as necessary for the preservation of religion, as the roof is for the church. The finest building wanting a roof will soon be a ruin. A splendid church is of little consequence unless there is a school beside it. Our settlers were convinced of this and set about devising means of furnishing school facilities for their children. But how was this to be accomplished by men who frequently lacked the indispensable necessities of life? Whence should they draw means to support a teacher, when the pastor could scarcely realize 20¢ at a Sunday collection? The missionaries were not anxious to obtain high salary, and thus were certainly no obstacle to the development of the school question. For all this, it was impossible to salary a teacher. Still, everywhere initiatory steps were taken. In every congregation, however small, there could be found some who had sufficient education to read and write and were possessed of sincere charity for their neighbors. One or two such individuals were selected in each settlement who, for a reward beyond any we could bestow, instructed the children in their own dwelling, and later on in the church. They taught reading, writing, arithmetic and the catechism.

As soon as a church was completed we insisted that the faithful should come to church on Sundays and holy days with their children. The Rosary was recited in common, an appropriate chapter from the Goffine, (Explanation of the Epistles and Gospels) was read and then the schoolmasters began their task in the presence of the parents. This created zeal and competition. No father would be pleased to have his child foot of the class; everyone endeavored in course of the week to assist his children in the preparation of their class tasks. And as appetite is whetted by eating, the farmers soon requested the Sunday school teachers to teach daily during winter. The improvised pedagogues found this oppressive, since they could not devote time to clearing the timber from their lands under such circumstances. An arrangement was entered upon by which parties sending children to school obliged themselves to render an equivalent amount of wood on the teacher's farm (to cut timber, split rails, haul wood, break soil, etc.).  In consequence they had a school during six months without expense save the outlay for books. After some time professional teachers settled. Their salary was also raised by service rendered on the church lands by the parties who sent children to school. In this manner they provided at a trifling expense for the education of their offspring.

This expedient was necessary and possible not only thirty years ago, but could be profitably resorted to even at the present, especially in new settlements. I am certain it would prove more successful than the whining and complaining we meet with in papers so frequently. What our old settlers accomplished in the bush or on the prairie may as well be accomplished by others. There was one valuable advantage in this method. An adage says: "The more labor spent upon the acquisition of an object, the greater value that is attached to that object."

He that pays a few dollars a year for the school is not so deeply interested in it as one who renders a certain amount of manual labor for another in order to give his children the privilege of a schooling. Their exertions incited them to observe whether their children were availing themselves of the opportunity. It was, moreover, a deep lesson to the children when they saw how their fathers were toiling that they might have an opportunity of getting knowledge. Many also, who had no children at school, contributed by such work to the support of the teacher, and the arm of divine bounty was not shortened for any of them. The poor settler who from his scant possessions contributed his mite to the cause of the church and education prospered, his children were grateful and a joy to their parents; while others who were well-to-do and clung to their perishable wealth, giving nothing for the welfare of their neighbors, were soon separated from mammon. They became doubly poor. A true Christian finds it a source of joy, if he is in position to contribute to the promotion of the honor of God. It has been my experience, wherever I was sent, that the most practical members were also the most generous givers.

In conclusion I shall narrate an instructive incident. In one of the congregations I attended (it was not a thousand miles from the home of The Record) there was an inn kept by one of my parishioners. The proprietor was a Catholic, not only by baptismal records, but in his actions. On Sundays and as often as there was divine service during the week, he with his wife and all the members of the household assisted. Whenever anything extraordinary was undertaken, or whenever he had some special petition he always had recourse to prayer and Holy Mass. Meals were taken in common with the servants, and travelers who chanced to lodge there, and grace was said aloud before and after every meal. The proprietor would not suffer any one to eat or leave the table without saying prayer. Some may think: How old fashioned! He must have driven people who did not share his faith from his board!  Do not judge too hastily.

One evening a carriage brought a traveler who wished to put up at the inn for the night. He professed no religion particularly. At supper he was not little surprised when the landlord objected to his taking meal before grace was said. He complied. He had finished his meal before the rest and rose to leave the table. But the landlord was at hand again, "Please wait, till we have said grace."

You would suppose the gentleman left for other quarters. He took his hat, left the room and called on me at the rectory. He introduced himself as a prominent business man. What was that to me? After this introduction he asked me whether the landlord of the inn was a reliable, honest man.

"You may roll him in gold and not a particle will cling to him, but what is his own," I replied.

I inquired the object of his question and he answered, that he was looking for a reliable party to whom he could entrust thousands of dollars for the extension of his business in these parts. He told me of the incidents at the supper table, and how he had been impressed by the simplicity and straightforwardness with which the landlord had lived up to his religious convictions. Such was the man he sought. He had referred to me and to find whether my own opinion coincided with his own. The innkeeper became wealthy in temporal riches, and, as long as I was acquainted with him, remained with his family a steadfast Catholic and accomplished much good in secret by his generosity.

May these few recollections serve not merely to gratify the curiosity of the readers of The Record, but encourage them to act in accordance with the Benedictine motto: "May God be glorified in all things."

Fr. Bruno Riss OSB originally published the series of articles in The Record (1889-1890), the student newspaper of Saint John's University. They were transcribed for the Web by David Klingeman OSB, Archivist, in 2002.

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