Abbot Baldwin Wilfred Dworschak, OSB

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Sixth Abbot of Saint John's Abbey
Collegeville, Minnesota

Born: March 1, 1906
Professed: July 11, 1927
Ordained: 1933
Died: June16, 1996

 

Abbot Baldwin Wilfred Dworschak, OSB, Abbot of Saint John's Abbey for over twenty years (1950-71) and President of the American-Cassinese Congregation of Benedictine monasteries for six of those years (1965-71), died on 16 June 1996.

Abbot Baldwin was born ninety years ago on 1 March 1906, to Mathias and Catherine (Waters) Dworschak of Arcadia, Wisconsin. The youngest of this couple's two daughters and one son was given the baptismal name of Wilfred. The German ancestry of his family name disguised the genealogical fact that his mother was a native of County Clare, Ireland. During his teaching years he invariably collected bets from unsuspecting students named McCarthy and Kelly who thought for sure a Dworschak could not possibly be as Irish as their own emerald veneer. His mother died three weeks after Wilfred was born, and a relative took over the maternal duties of the family.

After completing the eighth grade at Saint Aloysius parochial school in Arcadia, young Wilfred entered Saint John's Preparatory School in 1920 and graduated in 1924 as class president and valedictorian. He interrupted his college courses at Saint John's to enter the novitiate in 1926 where he received the monastic name of Baldwin. He made his first profession of vows as a monk the following year, and then completed his college undergraduate program plus his seminary studies before being ordained to the priesthood in 1933. For the next two years he took undergraduate and graduate classes in English at the University of Minnesota, but he was recalled to the abbey before completing his thesis for the master's degree.

Before and after his ordination, Father Baldwin taught English, religion and metal craft classes at Saint John's. He was a student dormitory prefect for ten years, acted as the faculty advisor of the university's student newspaper and yearbook, served as Dean of Men for a year, and was the superior of monastic priesthood students for three years. In early January 1947 Abbot Alcuin Deutsch called Father Baldwin into his office to inform him (not ask) that he was the new Prior of the community.

Following the subsequent request of the ailing and failing Abbot Alcuin for a coadjutor abbot (Alcuin had been abbot since 1921), Father Baldwin was elected the abbey's sixth abbot on December 28, 1950. In the days when abbots still chose mottos to summarize and highlight their vision, Abbot Baldwin wisely chose the pregnant phrase from Chapter 64 of Saint Benedict's Rule which tells the abbot that his goal must be to "prodesse magis quam praeesseto serve rather than to preside."

Abbot Baldwin's service was motivated by his obvious love of the Rule of Saint Benedict. He shared that love with the more than three hundred members of the Saint John's community who were working and praying from the pines of Collegeville to the palms of the Bahamas as well as in newly founded missions in Kentucky, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Japan. In a brief article in the July 1955 issue of The Oblate, Abbot Baldwin put first things first when he wrote, "First of all, we must ask ourselves very frequently whether welove the Rule ... Why? Because obedience that falls short of love is hardly obedience at all."

Out of his love for the Rule and his dedicated service to the community grew two of the major events of Abbot Baldwin's term of office, events that would leave their indelible mark on monastic life at Saint John's and elsewhere. The first event was the articulation of a 100-year building plan for the Collegeville campus with the new abbey church as the cornerstone of that plan. The second event was the aggiornamento, the religious renewal of the Second Vatican Council.

What a writer called "the most exciting architectural story since the building of the great medieval churches in Europe" began in 1952 when Abbot Baldwin asked the renowned architect Marcel Breuer this question:

Can you as an architect help us build structures that in turn will remind us constantly that Benedictines, in these troubled times, have something to say to the Church, to the world-at-large?


The resounding "Yes!" that Breuer and his associates gave both in word and in work to that question seems now to have been a sneak preview of what the Church as a whole would soon be asking itself as it convened the historic Second Vatican Council a decade later and gave its emphatic answer in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. The impact of that "Yes!" is evident in the abbey church with its blend of liturgical insight and architectural genius.

Writing in the October 1986 issue of the Saint John's Abbey Quarterly to commemorate the silver anniversary of the dedication of the new abbey church in 1961, Abbot Baldwin gave a glimpse of the creative courage he had exercised during the planning of the modern structure. He tells of a bishop of the Province who told him emphatically, "Father Abbot, you will not get by with the building of that church you are planning." In the concluding paragraph of this article Abbot Baldwin reveals the true spirit of what critics may have considered his "edifice complex."

He writes:

Does God need a grand building? No; God does not, but his people may well have such a need -- the need for a building that inspires and stimulates people to live better lives, a building that serves the purpose which Saint Benedict in his Rule commended to all his followers as "the work of God" to which "nothing is to be preferred" (RB 43:3).

The oils were hardly dry on the consecrated stones and altars of the new church before Abbot Baldwin was called upon to hear and heed the warning of the psalmist: "Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it" (Psalm 127:1).

He turned his full attention to the ferment and fervor of change that would soon sweep out some of the dust of cloister customs that had accumulated during the abbey's first century of worship and work. As the elected President of theAmerican-Cassinese Congregation of Benedictine men, he was privileged to be a voting member of the final working session of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. He can be credited with the "Americanization" of monastic life at Saint John's as the community, sometimes rambunctious but usually reasonable, slowly and surely broke out of the mold of European monasticism crafted by previous abbots.

Confreres have only to recall the collage and cacophony of changes that were discussed and implemented during these often difficult but never dull decades. Certainly the biggest and best change was the one in which Abbot Baldwin was personally involved. As the representative of American Benedictines who ordinarily spoke English he simply would not and did not take "No" for an answer to his 1966 appeal to Roman authorities that the community be allowed to pray in the vernacular. His petition was finally granted.

Add to this life-giving change such momentous moves as the integration of clerical and non-clerical monks in choir, at table, at recreation, and even in the cemetery(!); the further emancipation of Brothers through the granting of chapter rights and the taking of solemn vows; adjustments in the daily schedule; the introduction of the noon buffet and table conversation; the establishment of policies affecting personal budgets, vacation and sabbaticals -- remembering these changes and many more reveals the truth of the statement made by a confrere on the occasion of a 1979 Christmas party tribute to Abbot Baldwin:

You lived through all of these changes with the community. You were patient and understanding, even tempered and optimistic with much personal prayer and pain of which we were little aware.

Elected under the rule that would have allowed him to remain abbot for life, in 1971 Abbot Baldwin first reminded the community that his own father had lived to be ninety-two, and then he graciously stepped down and away from his office at the age of sixty-five. He chose not to be an abbot-emeritus, lurking over the shoulders of his competent successors with the hint that he might do it differently. Laying aside his abbatial pectoral cross, he did take with him one item from his two-decade term, namely, his motto. He continued "to serve rather than to preside." One of his most valued services was the recording of textbook assignments for college students who have the learning disability of dyslexia. Following a rigorous routine of reading book and lecture material for three hours every morning for more than a dozen years, Abbot Baldwin enabled some two dozen students to manage reading assignments that would otherwise have been difficult if not impossible. He also found time and energy during these latter days to take care of the abbey-parish cemetery.

In 1993 Abbot Baldwin received the Pax Christi Award, the highest honor bestowed by his alma mater, on the occasion of his sixtieth anniversary of ordination. One final tribute was given him the day he died. He who held the place of Christ in the monastery and was addressed by that title of Christ -- Abba -- died on Father's Day, 16 June. He who had lived a life of dedicated celibacy had been and remains a spiritual father of his monastic family. Moreover, the gospel of that Sunday -- the Eleventh in Ordinary Time -- enshrined the clear and concise message of Jesus which had also been the motivating force of this extraordinary and humble man of God, namely, "The kingdom of God is at hand!" (Matthew 10:7).

On 23 March of this year Abbot Baldwin underwent major surgery for colon cancer. His death came from a heart attack while he was recuperating from a second surgery. The Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated on 19 June at Saint John's Abbey in the church that was so much the focus of Abbot Baldwin's life of worship and work. Burial was in the abbey cemetery.