Father Hugh Witzmann, OSB

WitzmannHugh.jpg

Monk of Saint John's Abbey
Collegeville, Minnesota

Born: 15 March 1928
Professed: 11 July 1949
Ordained: 1955
Died: 17 March, 2012


Reuben Aloysius Witzmann was born on a farm near Cold Spring, Minnesota, on March 15, 1928, the second of seven children of Benedict and Philomena (Diel) Witzmann. He went to country school near Cold Spring until his eighth grade when he attended Saint Boniface grade school in town. Father Giles Nathe, OSB, a young associate pastor at St. Boniface in Cold Spring, was an inspiration to Reuben and encouraged him to attend Saint John's Preparatory School, from which he graduated in 1946. Reuben began playing football as a sophomore and found an interest in photography. The family moved to Saint Paul when he was a junior because his father had obtained a civil service job there. Summer employment for Reuben was now no longer farm work but employment at a meat packing plant, ushering at a theater, filing mail orders at Montgomery Ward, or operating a 33mm multigraph machine for an alumnus of Saint John's.

Reuben entered Saint John's University as a college priesthood student in 1947. After his sophomore year, Reuben made a 5200 mile trip to the western United States to broaden his education. He was impressed by the mountains and the many scenic vistas. Upon his return he entered the novitiate of Saint John's Abbey in July 1948, receiving the religious name, Hugh. His patron saint was one of the great abbots of Cluny.

After graduating with a degree in philosophy and mathematics from Saint John's University in 1951, Hugh entered a four-year theological course concluded by his ordination in 1955. After ordination he taught in the Saint John's Preparatory School mathematics department from 1953 to 1955, and in Saint John's University mathematics and engineering department for five years. Father Hugh developed a desire for studying art and during the summers from 1957 to 1962, he attended summer school at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1963.

Father Hugh became an instructor of art history, sculpture, photography, and design at Saint John's University from 1961-1997. When the new Saint John's Art Building was being planned, Hugh designed his own sculpture and bronze fabrication studio as part of the project.

Art became Hugh's passion and life. He applied for numerous grants to enhance his knowledge of art and architecture. He travelled extensively, studying with master sculptor Elmar Hillebrand in Cologne, Germany, and with art historian Joseph Gulman, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Hugh received several grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a Fulbright Scholarship to Italy, and a McPherson grant. These grants took him to Columbia University, Syracuse University, the American Academy in Rome, the Johnson Atelier Institute, Princeton, New Jersey, and the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. Over the years he did further studies in England, Holland, Belgium, France, Spain, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, Italy, Sicily, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Morocco, and India. His work as a photographer resulted in a unique collection of slides for his art history course and the Liturgical Press, which are still in use.

Among his awards and exhibitions: in 1957 he was one of the three award winners in a competition sponsored by the Liturgical Conference for his silver-hammered crucifix; in 1961, in an exhibit with eight other colleges at the University of Kansas, for his bronze sculpture of "Madonna of the Gospels" (now displayed in Alcuin Library). In 1965, the "Madonna of the Gospels" was also displayed at the 1965 World's Fair in New York. In 2004 Father Hugh received the "Bene Award" from Ministry and Liturgy magazine for his bronze statue of Saint Benedict.

Some of Father Hugh's sculptures include: A Last Supper bronze relief which hung in the Saint John's Student Dining Room; a bronze Antony the Great of the Desert fashioned for Abadia de San Antonio Abad in Humacao, Puerto Rico; a bronze statute of Saint Augustine of Hippo which graces the entrance to the parish church of Saint Augustine in St. Cloud, Minnesota; and a bronze sculpture of the Good Samaritan for the Saint Cloud Hospital, where it is displayed near the hospital chapel. Loved by many were also his sculpture of "Job" and an elegant and simple pair of bronze doves, "Doves of Peace."

Commenting on his more than 40 bronze sculptures in an interview in 2000, Father Hugh observed, "Bronze is the only way to go for me. It is an ancient medium, so durable. Bronze is a metaphor of qualities I find in monastic living - simplicity, honesty and a humane beauty purified through fire. Sculpture should be seen and touched. When people see my works, I hope they touch them as well and feel the texture so they really understand the work." Many of his works in bronze were produced by the ancient lost wax process.

In 1997, Father Hugh was named artist-in-residence at Saint John's Abbey and University. He had to give up the studio he built as part of the new Art Building and so he adapted a 1878 smoke house building on campus as a small work place. In recent years Father Hugh had some of his most popular sculptures cast in bronze in China in order to reduce costs. Unfortunately, he also suffered lung impairment from his work with bronze casting that took its toll in his later years.

For most of his life as a priest, Father Hugh also provided pastoral ministry on weekends in many local parishes and in the Twin Cities. He was an excellent, though low-keyed, and challenging homilist.

Father Hugh leaves a rich heritage of bronze sculptures throughout the United States and especially at Saint John's.

Father Hugh died on Saturday 17 March, in the retirement center at Saint John's Abbey. He is survived by brothers, Otto and Bernard; sisters Julia Piechowski, and Sister Clare, OSB, of Saint Benedict's Monastery, Saint Joseph; nephews and nieces, and the community at Saint John's Abbey. The Eucharist Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated for Father Hugh on Friday, March 23, in Saint John's Abbey Church with interment in Saint John's Cemetery following the service.

We ask each community member to offer two Masses according to the manner of his participation in the priesthood of Christ. We commend our brother, Hugh, to your prayers.

Abbot John Klassen OSB
and the monks of Saint John's Abbey.