The Earliest Years of Saint John's Abbey, 1856-1862
Part 9 of 16
by Fr. Bruno Riss OSB (1829-1900)
Among the infuriated ranters mentioned in the closing scene of last number, two were conspicuous: one threatening to maul my head to a pulp, if I ever came again; the other swearing he would make my character so infamous with all the vicinity, that my presence would be impossible, and vowed, he would succeed in this even if he must run his feet off his legs. For the benefit of the former I appointed the day on which I would return, and specified even the time at which I would pass his house. God protected me from these two men in a very wonderful manner.
When in the following month I was traveling from Chaska to Waconia afoot and burdened with a heavy carpet-sack, I was again met by some women who cautioned me not to continue on that road as the man aforesaid was actually seeking my life. I was inexorable and bent upon continuing my journey in reliance upon the help of God. I went along fearlessly and at length approached the farm of my enemy. Looking ahead I perceived none but this individual on the road, awaiting me. While traveling I generally wore my religious habit; hence he could not mistake me as I approached. As much as I could perceive he was waving his arms and making signs to me which I could not understand. I went along confidently and he hastened to meet me until I could hear his voice. But there were no abusive words on his lips, no threats and no blustering; he was rather a suppliant. "Oh, Father, hurry to my house." I inquired of him the cause of his hurry. "Oh, Father, my poor wife, come, aid her." I again questioned him as to the nature of the case. "Oh my wife is in travail for the past three days and the physician gives her up." I made haste. In those days I practiced medicine and a little medicine often availed more than a hundred choice sermons which were not listened to. For cases such as I was called for in this instance, I possessed a remedy employed by the Indians, and recommended to me by Father Pierz, the missionary. I entered the house, consoled the afflicted lady, administered a few drops of the medicine and enjoined on the parents to bring the child to church for baptism on the day after its birth. A child was born, but sad to say it had a deformed head; in fact, it seemed to have two heads, one above the other. The tumor, if so I may style the deformity, was nearly as large as the head. A number of neighbors were soon at hand and busy tongues read in this incident a divine interposition. The father had threatened to batter my head (the head of his child was so shockingly deformed, etc.). Strange that I , the object of his loathing, should be instrumental in his favor. The child was brought for baptism; the father desired that it should not take place in the presence of many witnesses. No one, however, would be shut out, all wished to learn how I would act in the case. The sight of the child shocked me. After administering baptism, I gave the father severe reprimand on account of his scandalous conduct towards me and charged him to ask pardon for his scandal of all present. With this he complied, sinking down upon his knees. He was sincere, for he asked me to select five acres from his farm for a Catholic cemetery on the condition, which he repeated and emphasized, that the Bishop must have the deed. Now he begged me to help the child. What medicine would avail here? I blessed the child, prescribed some medicines for external application and then left the house. A great change passed over the father. He became a true friend to me by the help of God. On the following day the man overtook me at the next mission and brought me the news that the tumor had entirely disappeared.
There was remaining this other enemy, who swore that even if he would run the feet off his legs, he would talk me out of the country. The hand of God found him speedily. On returning home he complained of great pains in the feet, which began to swell and ulcerate. Physicians were called; after several weeks of treatment they concluded that amputation alone could save the healthy limbs. This decision was a crushing blow for this man, the father of six or seven children. For four weeks every imaginable remedy was applied in vain. At my next visit to Waconia, his wife besought me to visit him, without informing him who had invited me. The good woman prayed that God might cure her husband as he had interposed in favor of the man who had given the five acres for cemetery purposes. On pretext of asking for a drink, I entered the house from which an intolerable stench proceeded. I greeted the sufferer, who immediately showed me his feet, lamenting that no physician could cure him. Finally he asked me, if I possessed or knew of some remedy. The ulcers were disgusting; I recognized in all this the finger of God and began by inspiring him with confidence in divine mercy. His cure, I told him, must proceed from the interior, not from the exterior. He protested that no medicine would be too bitter or too dear for him. I took him at his word, and prescribed as the first medicine sincere conversion. "I will assist you in preparation for a good confession, for as long as you remain in enmity with God, you cannot expect that He will work a miracle on you, and nothing short of a miracle can cure you."
Again God helped. His face bathed with tears he made a humble general confession. Then I administered some medicines to him. A double miracle was wrought in his case, for when I returned in the following month, he called on me accompanied by his wife and children to confess and perform his Easter duty. He was completely won to our cause. Oh, how good is God in His boundless love. He is continually working miracles and we do not notice them.
Upon perusal of the preceding articles, many of our readers will have said: These are rather strange stories we find chronicled of early Catholic settlers of Minnesota; they must have been an ungrateful set of men, still we find them praised very much in other quarters. I admit the justice of the latter, for there was much to praise and much to blame. Whosoever is acquainted with circumstances, will divine the reasons. When the Benedictines came to Minnesota in 1856, the southern part of the territory was already, although sparely, sprinkled with Catholic settlers. Stearns County was comparatively empty. The first Catholic settlers were led by different motives from those that actuated later settlers. All indeed were looking for permanent homes; but the later arrivals settled in Stearns County because they had learned that the Benedictine Order, and consequently churches and schools existed there. They provided for their spiritual interests, which was scarcely a consideration with the southern settlers.
It was then as it is now. The bad Catholics are generally in the van and act the "terrorists"; the indifferent are, as a rule, cowards, and overawed by the ringleaders, "howl with the wolves." The holy martyrs and good Christians did not give such an example. I made the acquaintance of individuals, who, on meeting me on a lonely road, would kiss my hands and habit for joy of seeing the priest in the village, as they said. But when they appeared in the parish meeting, where the insolent were as insolent as they could be, they were foremost in applauding any measureagainst the priest.
Thus it was in Chaska where the good Franciscan Fathers are laboring now. When I was called to Victoria for the first time, I was instructed to come on a packet boat and, by all means to keep my religious habit concealed beneath my coat. When I landed at Chaska my guide drew me behind a wood pile at the landing and remained there until the crowd had dispersed. This precaution appeared strange to me. My guide would not enlighten me until we were on the road to Victoria when he told me that parties at Chaska had sworn not to allow a Catholic priest to come to the village. They had already maltreated Father Benedict, Eberhard and Cornelius. It passed beyond my endurance that I should be compelled to hide myself in this manner every time I arrived in Chaska (twice a month). After I had learned that the majority of the Catholics of the village were lukewarm, I fell to devising a scheme to break this barrier. God suggested the happy idea. When the greatest blusterer had been pointed out for me (he was a storekeeper and had a whiskey shop in addition) I resolutely took steps. As soon as I had arranged my schedule for the following month, and had set aside one day for special work, I wrote to this individual, that I was resolved to assist the Catholics of Chaska in erecting a church at that place and that I would arrive there on a specified day, to take counsel and necessary steps in a meeting with the Catholics at 4 p.m. I requested him to spread these news among all the Catholics of the vicinity. Lightning from a clear sky could scarcely have appalled the people more. The day arrived. In the afternoon I left Victoria where I had held divine service. Some men of this village accompanied me until we arrived in sight of Chaska. They stopped and began to beg me to desist from such an undertaking, that if I entered Chaska I would be rushing to destruction, etc.