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

Part 5 of 16
by Fr. Bruno Riss OSB (1829-1900)

In the spring of 1857 new forces were sent out into the western portion of the Lord's vineyard form St. Vincent's Abbey. They were Rev. Augustine Wirth, OSB, destined to take charge of missions in Kansas where Father Henry Lemke, OSB, had already labored in what is now St. Benedict's Abbey some sixteen miles from Atchison, and Revs. Benedict Haindl, OSB, and Clement Staub, OSB, both sent as aids to the Stearns County pioneers. Upon their arrival in Minnesota, the Bishop of St. Paul, in view of the great scarcity of priests deemed it advisable to appoint them elsewhere, an arrangement to which the Abbot of St. Vincent subsequently assented. Father Benedict was sent to Shakopee and assumed charge of the Catholics in Scott, Carver, Le Sueur and the western half of Hennepin County. Very Rev. Prior Demetrius was appointed pastor of the German Catholic congregation as St. Paul and vicinity, while the former pastor, the founder and builder of the old Assumption Church, Father Keller, was sent to Fairbault with the whole southeastern portion of Minnesota for a field. The southwestern regions were in charge of Father Prendergast, (I think that was his name), who lived in Mankato. The St. Paul parish extended all the way from Stillwater to the Crow River,  St. Michael's, St. Walburga's etc.

Father Clement first came to St. Joseph and resided with Father Bruno; Father Cornelius Wittmann, appointed prior after Father Demetrius de Marogna, occupied the little monastery at St. Cloud with Father Alexius.  Our missionary district extended in a northerly direction from St. Cloud to the country of the Indians, the scene of the venerable Father Pierz's labors, and towards the West indefinitely to where the world is fenced off from the rest of creation, and whence the hoppers paid us a visit.  The pastor of St. Paul roomed in the sacristy of his church.  This cell was scarcely six feet wide; the only window was seven feet above the floor and extended into the second floor which formed a similar room destined for the use of strangers.  In order to gain room for a table, two chairs and a stove in the lower apartment the pastor placed his bed beneath the side altar which stood before the wall dividing the sacristy from the body of the church.  The severity of Minnesota winters, however, compelled Father Demetrius during the second year of his residence at St. Paul to erect a shanty aside of the church with the scaffolding material used in the erection of the old church.  This structure was burned not long after; Father Demetrius was badly scorched and barely escaped losing his life on this occasion.  He then again resumed his quarters in the sacristy.  The indebtedness of the congregation did not warrant the erection of a parish house. When sometime later he received an assistant in the person of Father Meinulph Stukenkemper, OSB, then recently ordained, the latter occupied the second floor of the sacristy.  The window from the first floor entered it only two feet.  What poverty and privations the early priests of Minnesota were exposed to!  They bore all patiently prompted by love of God and love of the souls they had come to save, and what was their reward here? The servant is not better than his master. "If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you."  Would that those, who were made recipients of so many benefactions at the hands of these toiling servants of the Lord, at least said a Requiescat for the peaceful repose of their departed souls.

Let us return to Stearns County.  Father Cornelius was pastor of St. Cloud and St. Augusta, and Father Alexius, as has been said once before, visited scattering congregations as far south as Forest City.  At the same time these two Fathers put the college upon its feet.  In the first volume of The Record some items of this part of the history were preserved to memory.  Even in Stearns County, for the material weal of which the Benedictines had so strenuously exerted themselves, they were not spared persecutions.

An American contested our claim to the northern part of the Rothkopp estate per fas et nefas and burdened the Order with a wearisome and expensive lawsuit. One afternoon as I came from St. Cloud and crossed the prairie through our lands, I beheld a new shanty located within our line. There were at that time no minions of the law at St. Cloud and settlers had to find justice on feudal principles. Nothing remained for me but to notify our friendly neighbors, who faithfully appeared on the following day armed with axes, first to show the "jumper" in a rather palpable manner the furrow which marked the limit of our claim and then to threaten him with an injection of blue beans provided he did not shift quarters. He moved his shanty into the flat near the river and continued to annoy us. As I was one morning approaching St. Cloud, where I was to say Holy Mass, this troublesome individual issued from his shanty and fired upon me with a rifle at ten steps distance. But my last hour was not due; the bullet did indeed graze my head, without however any fatal results. I greeted the gentleman and pursued my way without being further molested that day. I was aware that Father Alexius must take the same road on the next day coming to St. Cloud, I posted the employees of a saw mill in the immediate vicinity as to the conduct of the dangerous man and asked of them to have an eye on him about the time Father Alexius was to pass by. This was a prudent provision; when Father Alexius was seen approaching the "jumper," mistrusting his skill in the use of his rifle, hoped to overpower him by muscular force and throw him into the Mississippi. This would have been the outcome of the struggle had not the saw mill hands interfered. They turned the tables, gave the assailant a delightful ducking and threatened that unless he disappeared from the neighborhood within a few days they would set him to drinking water without a chance to get air. And he disappeared from the scene.

Father Bruno retained charge of the congregation at St. Joseph, because he supervised the improvement on the monastery lands; Father Clement Staub visited the small stations of St. James and Richmond, to which where added St. Martin, then known as Ley's Settlement and New Munich.

When the farmers were plowing their fields on the spring on 1857 they noticed that after the sun had shone for a few hours on the fresh furrows the soil had a whitish appearance as though a heavy frost had settled; still it was not frost, but grasshopper eggs which were hatched in the gentle sunlight.  Every handful of soil was alive with young hoppers.  They grew rapidly; whenever old land was re-plowed the same phenomena occurred.  We concluded that they had hidden in the old fields only and I experimented with a new piece of land on the prairie, on which I planted wheat and oats.  Later on I sowed two acres with corn and potatoes.  All this succeeded wonderfully.  Wheat and oats stood two feet high, the corn and potatoes were developing splendidly. Our neighbors were astonished: some farmers entertained misgivings about us, under the impression that because I was a priest I could dispel the hoppers from our own soil and would not do the same for them.  But I was as powerless against the insects in my own behalf as in their case.  The young brood already measured half an inch in length and their organs of annihilation were well developed; not so their wings, and hence they could not find out where the new meal was spread for them.  They would have inevitably perished but for the tender province of God which extends its care even to the injurious insect, the instrument with which He afflicted us for His honor and our salvation. 

A careful observer could notice the ingenuity employed to perpetuate their existence. When they had cleared a field or garden of all that grew in it they arranged themselves in curious position. Thousands and thousands formed countless concentric circles about an empty space 2 or 2½ inches in diameter; their heads were turned towards the center and thus they stood motionless for hours and half days like a well disciplined army.  You might pass through such a throng, crush myriads of them without disturbing the great body.  They fell to devouring their dead companions and closed in ranks where the breach had been made.  This maneuvering was a mystery to me for some time, but I was to make a sad experience.  While these young hoppers were unable to fly, there was another class of them four or six times larger with beautiful red on the lower side of the wings.  These I imagined the generals or quartermasters of the regiments.  There were not many of this class, but one was superfluous to us.  I observed that these quartermasters would visit a batch of young ones, alight in the empty space in the center and instruct them where they would find the next meal.  I kept close watch over our flourishing fields day for day. One afternoon one of these quartermasters paid our grain a visit; he flew around the field and apparently took note of it's condition; then flew away to a desolated spot where myriads of young hoppers were anxiously awaiting orders.  I followed my unwelcome visitor to the spot and found him in the midst of his troops giving orders.  The hopper language was a conundrum for me, but from their tactics and maneuverings I inferred the substance of the leaders commands, for when he had finished chirping he headed the procession and hopped slowly, in consideration of his weak followers, in the direction of our fields.  I saw that our grain was doomed, but I followed the hosts to witness further developments, and admired the wonders of creation thus unfolded to my gaze.  Now a new surprise awaited me.  The first arrivals did not immediately fall to devouring but, as it were upon a word of command, marched ahead and surrounded the entire piece of six acres in order to begin their raid from all sides.  Still there were new wonders. The insects did not proceed to devour at pleasure but every stalk was occupied by as many as conveniently found place upon it.  Hundreds gnawed at one stalk until it had disappeared; they fell together in a heap and rushed for the next victim.  Not a particle of the grain remained.  When the dusk of evening was setting in I returned sadly to my house.  On the following day you might have examined the field with a magnifying glass without finding a vestige of the grain, corn and potatoes.  This is apparently incredible to the reader; in fact I would scarcely believe it myself from reading if I had not been an eyewitness.  I saw the grasshoppers devastating this field twice, the second time when after a heavy rain sprouts again began to be visible. Truly God is admirable in His works.


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