The Earliest Years of Saint John's Abbey, 1856-1862
Part 8 of 16
by Fr. Bruno Riss OSB (1829-1900)
When we read in a paper or magazine that such and such a priest has erected a church or chapel, few of us stop to consider what this implies (how much worry, work, bustle and patience is required to procure funds and materials). My personal experience is that it is by far easier to erect a $40,000 church in a large city, than to build a 20x30 log chapel out in the wilds, such as Minnesota was 30 years ago. I would be pleased if The Record would grant me space in its columns for the narrative of some of my experiences in this line, as I would wish to recall to the minds of Catholics what they owe their priests, and to draw their attention to the "Bonifacius Verein" which is organized for the purpose of giving aid to congregations as poor as ours were in olden times. To become a member an annual contribution of only 25 cents is required. Rev. Brokhagen, editor of the Hausfreund in O'Fallon, St. Charles County, Missouri, is president of this charitable association. How easy would it be for one member of every parish to organize clubs to affiliate to the society and thus give all a chance to cooperate in the good work.
But I began speaking of the exertions it costs a priest who is called to organize new parishes and build churches. Many a one may think, I am exaggerating our labors, and that they have accomplished as much without a priest. This may be true, but as to Father Cornelius Wittmann and myself, we often wished rather to have no church whatever than to live through all the trouble we had with those we built. I will record a few experiences.
Before we two had been sent to the Minnesota River, there were two churches outside of Shakopee, one at Marystown and another about four miles southwest of Jordan. When these churches were built, all the territory was the property of "Uncle Sam"; hence the church could only be built on U.S. land. A deed to the Bishop was then an unknown thing. A little persuasion was required, and logs were hauled to the building site and the chapel erected. Thus it had happened at the two places of which I made mention last. Father Francis Weninger, S.J., had held missions in these places. When we assumed spiritual charge, the Bishop very naturally requested us to deliver to him the deeds of these churches, since by that time the land had been paid for. But the order was easier than its execution. When Father Cornelius, who had charge of the station below Jordan, asked the proprietor of the land to deliver the deed, he would not. The people favored the "trustee" system, and were determined that the Bishop should never hold the deed. After many boisterous meetings and angry disputes and after the priest had threatened not to hold divine service unless they submitted to the wishes of the Bishop, they rushed from words to deeds and attacked Father Cornelius with weapons. He escaped however. Now for a short time a kind of schism prevailed; the obstinates only continued to go to that chapel to hold divine service or whatever you may call it (without a priest), until, finally, in fall the proprietor turned the structure into a granary.
In the meantime Jordan had become a city; the people of a "city" could not, of course, be expected to go out into the "country" for Mass. Father Cornelius accordingly made arrangements to build a new church and chose a site six miles from Jordan and two miles form the schismatic chapel. Here he soon obtained a deed and work at the church was begun. The location was not in the center of the German settlements, but this was of no consequence to the Professor (geometry prevailed with him). St. Scholastica's was also located, as it was six miles distant, although but four miles from the Bohemian church. This was too far for the Germans at the boundary line of the St. Thomas parish; they, with some Irish families, built a church of their own, another little church rose in the center of the German settlement. Now there was one little church aside of the other, and dispute and wrangling in abundance. Father Cornelius' life was again in jeopardy and thus it fell to my lot to wrestle with these people for the space of two years. The Bishop came personally to settle matters; the people promised all he asked, but the priest had to see his way through the best he could.
It was not much better in Marystown. There the Catholics had set aside 40 acres of government lands for church purposes. The church could not preempt and there was danger lest all of it should be forfeited. At that point a certain party proposed to preempt the 40 acres and to pay for them, if he would be permitted to retain 30 acres for himself. He would then deed the remaining ten to the Bishop. This arrangement was agreed to and that was the end of it. The priest's position among these people was very difficult. Although they were diligent in attendance at church, they would not contribute to support the priest. "The priests are rich enough," they would say, as so many do even today. As long as Father Benedict Haindl attended these places he scarcely ever received a meal. He took bread with him from Shakopee, also fodder for his horse. And this happened to his confreres in the ministry as well. Nothing fell to the priest's share besides the paltry 20 or 30 cents at a Sunday collection. For five years these troubles continued. No priest was anxious to be in charge in these parts. I was finally detailed to serve in this troublesome field in order that the deed of the church might be obtained. A struggle ensued. One day several of my enemies lay in wait for me outside the church with clubs. I was apprised of their presence and after service calmly invited them to come into the church to carry out any designs they harbored against me. This disconcerted them to such a degree that they dropped their weapons and left the church. Three shots were fired at me on one occasion, but I suffered no harm. In course of time I succeeded in bringing the congregation around to pay the priest a salary and give him his meals as long as he abode among them and finally secured the deed of the ten acres. This last point was carried with some difficulty. The individual who occupied the land would not follow out the terms of agreement. Too much pressure, however, bore upon him and he was forced to come to terms. He swore, I would suffer for it. Returning from one of my missions I was compelled to pass his house. There he stood on his threshold with a rifle. Some parties I had met on the road had warned and begged me not to take this road, but I would not listen. To turn aside would have been against my principle. Whilst passing before his door a strange thought struck me. I cried out to him: "Foolish fellow, you cannot shoot me. The powder is wet!" He was simple enough to examine his tool and by the time the conviction had flashed upon him that he had been hoaxed, I was out of sight. It seems I was not worthy the death of a martyr.
You can see dear Record, the justice of a remark I previously made, that it would have been easier to begin from anew than fight against such odds. But even beginnings were not always rosy. There was no church at Waconia; it was necessary to build one. The questions arose where and by whom? There were some twenty families in the vicinity, such as they were. Daring the first half-year of my attendance I scarcely had at any time a congregation exceeding twenty persons at divine service. My predecessor had several times announced services for a definite day and had failed to appear. This was water on their mills. "If the priest does not care, we do not care. The priest lies; we cannot believe him, even when he is preaching." This was the pretext they used to palliate their lukewarmness. How sad it is, if one is himself at fault in such cases. In the congregation now under my care there are at least 60 families that have fallen from their faith because former priests had promised to hold divine service and failed to fulfill their promises.
To resume the subject of church building. Waconia was platted and city lots were laid out, one block being reserved for church purposes. It was not turned over to any particular denomination but would become the property of that denomination which should first hold services in the new church at this place. There was also a Baptist congregation at Waconia then. Our congregation entered into competition and began to erect a log church. The beginning was smooth, but the completion was a matter of much work and worry. The people soon learned that I came regularly for service and soon felt induced to come in such numbers themselves, that sometimes I was forced to erect the altar beneath a tree, as there was scant room in the dwelling where services were usually held. On one occasion I advised the women to threaten their husbands that they would not cook a meal for them unless they gave a helping hand at the church. I explained in the presence of all the rules and mind of the Church (that the deed must be executed in favor of the Bishop of the diocese); in default of which he could and would not send them a priest. Scarcely had I concluded when my host arose to express his opposition to such an action; he warned the people from believing the priest, abused priests and bishop, who were but an organized gang of robbers, who would soon rob them of their little church, etc. A vast majority applauded him. I was bound to do my duty. I prepared two sheets of paper for subscriptions. I then demanded them to sign, each one according to the dictates of his conscience, either at the right hand side of the church if they were in favor of the conveyance to the Bishop, or at the left hand side if they were opposed. My antagonist felt a sting in my designation of the right and leftside and again began to bluster. They advanced to subscribe. Three for the Bishop, sixty opposed. I felt crushed; where should I find help and advice now! A look at the crucifix; I remembered those words of His: "It will be given to you." When the last signature had been affixed and the majority was exulting over their victory, I called the meeting to order to count the subscriptions and publish the result. I first turned to the three who had signed for the Bishop and asked them whether they had performed their Easter duty. Two of them had, and I struck the name of the delinquent from the list. Next I turned to the 60;one of them had complied with the law of the Church and the 59 I canceled, explaining that only those could be regarded as Catholics who had performed their Easter duty. Thus I obtained a majority of one in favor of the Bishop. The agent was satisfied, and the matter was settled thus far. A few of the more reasonable malcontents went to their homes, humbled and ashamed. The rest continued to rant and abuse me. One threatened he would maul me if I ever came to that section again. To cut off this furious wrangling I announced when I would come again.