The Earliest Years of Saint John's Abbey, 1856-1862
Part 4 of 16
by Fr. Bruno Riss OSB (1829-1900)
Since The Record in its first volume contained several chapters relating to the early history of St. John's College and I was not closely connected with the educational work of the community, I shall not touch upon the activity of the pioneers in this sphere. The pen of one of the early professors, Father Cornelius for instance, might be eminently serviceable in this line. The present sketch will be devoted chiefly to recollections of Father Alexius Roetzer, OSB, the second instructor of the infant college.
He was, as I have mentioned in a previous chapter, the first priest who followed us to the West, in October 1856. Owing to his acquaintance with the English language, his services were in demand for the English-speaking settlers. His missions were widely scattered: Sauk Rapids; an Irish settlement 8 or 10 miles east of Sauk Rapids; Clear Lake; a station about 35 miles from St. Cloud, on the road to St. Paul; a small congregation of twenty families about 25 miles south of Richmond. At intervals he assisted the Fathers at St. Cloud, St. James and Richmond. The good missionary was afflicted with bodily ailment which rendered him somewhat melancholy. He was possessed of a vigorous Bavarian constitution which carried him through the wasting exertions of his missionary trips. Towards the end of his career he was afflicted with pneumonia, contracted whilst living at St. John's on the Mississippi. He was very conscientious, almost scrupulous. One morning during Lent (he never partook breakfast during Lent) an Irishman called for the priest to attend a sick person. He asked where the sick person lived. "Oh just on the other side of the Mississippi, quite near, not far off at all." Father Alexius' services were, of course, required. I requested him to take a cup of coffee before starting; it was a bitter cold day. But Father Alexius trusted that he needed go only a short distance and that he could be back by noontime. Indeed, it was on the other side of the river, on the road to St. Paul. Onward and onward they plodded through the drifting snow. The noon hour passed, the afternoon wore on, darkness set in, the guide missed the road for some time; but finally, about 9 o'clock, the house was reached. A distance of 40 miles had been covered and this was "just across the river." The poor priest, fasting and fatigued, had made a sad experience. Had the stranger told us that he lived so far away, the Father might have used a sleigh: we had two horses in our stable. On his road he passed two of his missionary stations; here he might have procured a meal, but he was too bashful. He had no money with him, and would not ask for a meal. When he reached the house in which the sick person lay, he fainted from fatigue and was almost a more precarious position than the person to whom he was to minister. When he had sufficiently recovered he took a cup of tea and some crackers for supper. It was late and he was compelled to remain over night. The next day he returned to St. Cloud, on foot, and reached our humble monastery at an evening hour. From this episode his pneumonia dated. Still his admirable spirit of self-sacrifice would not suffer him to interrupt his missionary career, and for another year he continued at his post not shirking even the most trying duties of his calling.
He was a stranger to self-indulgence, and exceedingly charitable. Frequently, when he made visits to St. James and Richmond, he stopped at the parsonage of St. Joseph. His foot gear was generally in a very dilapidated condition and I often purchased socks for him at Linnemann's. But this was useless, whenever he returned from his missions, I found that he had exchanged with poor people and now wore their rags. If ever a cent came into his possession during the grasshopper plague, it was begged of him before he returned to St. Cloud. Sometimes I reproached him for this, but his sympathetic heart would not relent; the prevailing poverty and misery at all points so strongly appealed to his kind heart that he could not retain anything in his possession whilst others had nothing.
One afternoon in winter he startled upon a trip from St. James to Richmond. He was provided with a horse and cutter. A new road had recently been cut through the dense shrubbery. The settlers indicated the route he should take; he drove on, but soon lost the road and entered deeper and deeper into the forest in which the farmers were wont to cut fuel and fence wood on Uncle Sam's Territory. Helpless as he was in emergencies of this kind, he at first did not fancy that he had gone astray. Of a sudden a bear appeared upon the scene and frightened the horse, which immediately turned around and made homeward and reached St. James, instead of Richmond, in the evening.
One fine summer noon (it was after we had erected a two-story log house on the monastery lands in the valley of the Watab) Father Alexius, having celebrated Mass for the brothers, returned to St. Joseph. He had made a precious find! Coming through the woods he had seen a lovely little spotted animal, about as large as a rabbit, although its tail was longer. The little animal captivated him. He must have it; he pursued it and behold, it did not object much to being caught. He felt that the animal was rather damp but no suspicion dawned upon him. He was overjoyed at his prize. Here I must remark that the good Father had scarcely any olfactory powers and did not know, consequently, that he had captured a pole-cat. He carried it in his arms, continually caressing it and in his mind evolving schemes to tame it. Near St. Joseph, a farmer, Mr. Fiedler, met him and, very naturally, perceived at a good distance what the Father was carrying. He dared not approach but by voice and signs told him to cast the abominable thing from him. In vain; Father Alexius could not appreciate the farmer's aversion to his beautiful captive. The farmer then hastened to tell me in what agreeable company Father Alexius intended to return to my residence. I took down my gun, went out to meet him and told him to drop the stinking brute, and finally threatened to shoot it in his arms if he advanced one step more with it. Upon this he dropped the animal, I fired and the polecat was killed. Then I told the Father to change his clothing and bury the suit he had worn on this memorable occasion for some time. My rough treatment of the case was a great surprise to him and he took it very much amiss that I begrudged him a little innocent amusement. Knowing his physical defect I pardoned his mild resentment.
During the second fall a Catholic settlement among the Norwegians, south of Richmond, heard that priests had settled in Stearns County. They sent a deputation to us requesting an occasional visit. I was anxious to see that part of the country myself and accompanied Father Alexius into those parts. At Richmond we secured a team of Mr. Schultheis. Nearly a day was taken up by the trip. The settlers there had splendid land - rolling prairie, at intervals lovely lakes bordered by butternut trees. One circumstance, however, surprised me. These people who, apparently, would not profit by the experience of others, did not believe that the prairie, with two or three feet of black soil, was available for anything but pasturage, and they did not own cattle extensively. To secure arable land they began clearing away timber. It was only after the priest had explained and assured them, that they were inclined to believe in the productiveness of the prairie soil. The next day, after we had performed the duties of the confessional we left for home. When we reached the prairie, the whole wide expanse was surging with flames. We could not pass through and drew up at a house near by. The inhabitants were Americans, old people, with a child about two years of age. In course of conversation I asked the lady how they had come by the child. She told me, that there son had married a Catholic girl of the neighborhood and that she had died soon after the birth of the child. The father of the child then brought it to his mother and asked her to bring it up well. The old lady was a staunch Methodist and did not fail to let me know she would endeavor to make a good Methodist of the young one although it was baptized a Catholic. I could not learn the baptismal name of the child, but the lady called it Washington Shakespeare. One of the thousands of sad consequences resulting from mixed marriages.
We remained with these old people over night. On rising next morning we were perplexed at beholding the prairie covered with six inches of snow. No sign of a road! Our hosts showed us in which direction Richmond lay and our horses instinctively kept in some sort of a road. We had driven about a mile when Mr. Schultheis remarked that we would be in rather a quandary if a bear met us. Some minutes later we arrived at the top of a slight elevation; as if to justify our fears, a colossal specimen of the tribe of Bruin came tottering along towards us. A little later four hunters with dogs followed. Before they reached the bear, he fell down dead. During the pursuit they had given him six bullets, three of which had lodged in the head. It was a magnificent prize, round as a barrel and measured seven feet from snout to tail. We were not molested by any other wild animal during the remainder of our trip, and arrived safe at Richmond.
The severity of the winter increased the sufferings of Father Alexius to such a degree, that permission was granted him to return to St. Vincent's, where he died.