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

Part 7 of 16
by Fr. Bruno Riss OSB (1829-1900)

Early one fine morning in the spring of 1857, we were standing on the banks of the Mississippi watching a steamboat passing by with fresh settlers and what did we see? A small company of Benedictine Sisters. This was intended as a surprise for us by Father Demetrius di Marogna who had quietly made arrangements with the Sisters at Erie, Pennsylvania, where a branch of the motherhouse, St. Mary's, Elk County, Pennsylvania, had been recently established. The colony of Sisters had come to take charge of the school at St. Cloud. Steps were immediately taken to build an addition to our temporary church, to accommodate the Sisters, and we were seconded in our work by the good will and enterprise of the people of St. Cloud. New cares were now added; means of subsistence and necessaries of life must be procured for all. Still no one died of starvation: God knew we had not come to Minnesota to labor for our own glory or to acquire temporal wealth, but to serve Him, in this great vineyard.

The poor Sisters had many difficulties to contend with and the first Prioress, Mother Benedicta Riepp, was the first to succumb and die on Minnesota soil. The house was poorly built and very cold in winter. Fuel was at times scarce and fare all year round was, what might be called ablack fast. It happened that the hands and feet of some of them froze and they could not wear footgear during the warmer seasons ensuing. They were not withstanding ready for duty at the school day by day. With what propriety can the scoffing element of mankind stigmatize these disinterested workers as drones, indolent visionaries and high livers? Thanks be to God, they are so named, for it is another proof that they are the servants of Christ. The servant may expect no better treatment than his master. Even this small seed of a community spread and grew to be a great tree, as the present shows. In the fall of that year, Rt. Rev. Abbot Boniface Wimmer revisited Minnesota and brought new workers with him: Father Eberhard Gahr and the lay Brothers Thaddeus Hoermann, Ignatius, Sebastian and Veremund, in order to enable me to hold and preempt our lands. The Venerable Sisters created a pleasant surprise for the Abbot; he was privileged to gather the first fruits of their missionary endeavor. The late Father Pierz had entrusted several Indian girls to the Sisters, who prepared them subsequently for Baptism. The administration of this sacrament was reserved for the Abbot.

How talented some of these children are, may be seen from the following incident: A girl, six years of age, under preparation for Baptism had learned to answer the usual questions in German and  English in a short time. It was amusing to note the attention with which she watched the sacred rites. She had answered the usual questions as she had been instructed; but when he Rt. Rev. Abbot began to recite the Latin prayers and exorcisms, the little girl interrupted him: "What are you saying now? It is neither German, nor English, nor Indian; how can I answer you?" She was satisfied on being told that these were Latin prayers and that she was not expected to answer.

I have remarked in an earlier paper that Bishop Cretin sent Father Benedict Haindl to attend to the Catholics of Shakopee immediately after his arrival in Minnesota in 1857. Shakopee, even in its earliest days was in the hands of Freemasons and infidels. Among other odious enactments there was an ordinance that no property could be secured for Catholic church purposes. Several zealous Catholic families from St. Louis, Missouri, had settled here and would not be without a church and priest. A private gentleman purchased two lots, favorably situated, and erected a one-story stone house which was used as a church for several years. When all encumbrances on it had been discharged it was legally conveyed to the Bishop of St. Paul who sent them one of his priests. Sometime later this clergyman was disabled and Shakopee, as well as St. Mary's, six miles distant, remained without a priest until Father Benedict arrived. His path was not strewn with roses as may be concluded from a former remark; but he suffered not only from infidels and secret associations. Renegade Catholics embittered his days in no slight measure. They are as a rule the scum of the worst.

The zealous priest did not waver; he proceeded to Carver County, where the St. Victoria's congregation had erected a log church, journeyed through Scott County and into Le Sueur County. As soon as the Catholics of this extensive vicinity heard that a priest resided at Shakopee they called on him to visit their sick. On these occasions he induced the people to found congregations and to erect churches.

Many adventures are related of his missionary tours through these counties. Once he was stopping overnight in Le Sueur County some 30 miles from Shakopee. He had driven to the place with a horse and buggy. There was no stable and the horse was tied to a fence for the night. The animal was not satisfied, grew restive, broke the halter and made for Shakopee. Next morning Father Benedict was compelled to return to Shakopee afoot, came back to his lodging place and proceeded with horse and buggy to the intended terminus of his trip. One day some youthful infidels or scoffers attacked him at Chaska and pursued him into the Minnesota River which was rather deep at that point. Fortunately a man in a skiff rescued him (I was told Father Cornelius was similarly served on one occasion).

The Abbot of St. Vincent's realized that he could not govern the western enterprise effectually from his Abbey in Pennsylvania, as he was not thoroughly conversant with circumstances. He concluded to appoint a Prior for all the Benedictine Fathers of Minnesota. Father Benedict Haindl was the choice. He was consequently obliged to retire from his post along the Minnesota River and transfer his residence to St. Cloud. Father Cornelius Wittmann was appointed his successor in Shakopee. There was at this time work for more than one man at this point and I was sent as assistant to Father Cornelius. At the same time several priests from St. Vincent's, Fathers Anschar, Magnus, Pius and George came to aid us. I arrived at Shakopee late one evening aboard a small packet boat which ran daily between Carver and St. Paul. There was no depot or warerooms to protect trunks or chests, much less express wagons to convey passengers and baggage. I had no choice but to leave my baggage on the landing place till the next day. After Mass I went down to the river to secure a conveyance for my trunks. I never considered I had fallen into a nest of bigots and went about Shakopee wearing my monastic habit as the priests in St. Paul and Stearns County invariably did. In the streets of the town I soon noticed my mistake: a priest (more that that, a monk) strutting about in his religious garb, was an outrage! The townsfolk were convinced I must be a Jesuit, and I was honored with this appellation wherever I showed myself. Presumably they wished to display their high degree of education.

Altogether the episode transpired peacefully. No one presumed to devour me (they thought, probably, I might be indigestible diet). We continued to appear in public wearing our religious garb, and the most acrid priest-haters became reconciled to our practice when they observed our nonchalance.

Father Cornelius and myself shared the work of evangelizing these regions and began both to build churches and to finish what buildings had been begun under the previous pastor.

I shall here take occasion to notice all the Congregations and Stations we founded and attended at least once a month, as well as my memory serves me. The secret of attending each of these many places once a month lay in the fact that we celebrated Sunday wherever we held services. The places which we two priests attended for three years were:

Carver County - Benton, Carver, Chanhassen, Chaska, Helvetia, Victoria, Waconia, Watertown, Young America.

Hennepin County - St. Boniface.

Le Sueur County - St. Henry, St. John, St. Scholastica, St. Thomas.

Mcleod County - Glencoe.

Scott County - Belle Plaine, Cedar Lake, Credit River, Jordan, Marystown, New Market, New Prague, St. Benedict, St. Joseph, Shakopee.

Sibley County - Gessen Land, Green Island, St. John.

Wright County - Delano, Waverly.

Moreover I had to attend to two or three Irish settlements where I could not build a church and at Watertown I held services in three different houses before I could find an appropriate place for church service. Our calendar was prepared two months in advance in order that the larger congregations might have service on Sunday at least twice a year. According to the arrangements I was free to return to Shakopee every two weeks. For two years I made all these trips afoot, for in the first place, I had no horse, and if I had been so fortunate, I could not have used it on these roads. The backwoods settlers generally had no need of roads as they had neither horses, nor oxen, nor wagons. Perhaps one or two yoke oxen could be found in a settlement. For this reason also it was difficult to erect log churches unless the material was close at hand. After the log structures had been completed as far as the roof, whence to obtain materials for the roof? The shingles were homemade, there were no boards except far distant along the river: but how to carry them to the settlement without a road, without a wagon and which was paramount, without money? At many places I was obliged to show the settlers how to cut boards with a log saw, in order that I might have boards for a church door and an altar table. For the purchase of nails I applied the result of three Sunday collections. The floor of these structures was mother earth.

Now it was necessary to procure vestments for divine service. Here we had a means of helping ourselves. We had an outfit. Whenever we set out on a trip we stowed away in the fathomless depths of a carpet sack: one altar stone, a Missal, a book of Gospels, a Breviary, vestments for Mass, candles, crucifix, altar wine for two weeks, altar breads (in fact all that was needed; moreover, some linens and snuff). When all had been well packed away, this baggage weighing some sixty pounds was fastened to the end of a substantial stick; this was slung over the shoulder and we plodded over hills and through swamps, in every season, exposed to biting cold and vexations of mosquitoes, from station to station for six to  eight and occasionally twelve to fifteen miles a day. Arrived at a station the morning was spent hearing confessions., celebrating Mass, preaching, baptizing, instructing until 1 or 2 o'clock in the afternoon. Everyday we had different fare, different water, different lodgings infested with all kinds of vermin; then after a short rest we moved on to the next station. Such was pioneer missionary life. The evenings were spent consulting with the settlers regarding erection of churches or chapels. I am frequently at a loss to understand how we bore all this, but God assisted us.

I had never taken notice of the fact that, although I had made missionary trips of this kind continually for two years, I had often been drenched with perspiration but had never been caught by rain. One day as I was sitting alone in the confessional in a private room it began to rain in torrents. Then I heard the father of the family ordering his son to perform a certain piece of work out of doors in the afternoon. The boy replied: "But father, see how it is raining outside." The father returned with some surprise: "Have you forgotten that the priest is with us today and that he must travel again in the afternoon, and have you never noticed that it never rains as long as he is on the road?" And thus it was, I was again reminded of the kindly providence of God by this poor settler. Truly, we ungratefuls receive so many favors and graces from God and become so accustomed to it that we almost forget to thank Him.

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