The Saint John's Fire Department
Visitors are often surprised to discover that Saint John's Abbey operates its own fire department. How could firefighting build up the body of Christ, help with ministering to spiritual needs, or be an extension of the prayerful life of a monk? It was a choice inspired by the wisdom of the Rule of Benedict and our Abbey's response to the practicalities of a community living in a rural setting.
The inspiration for service grew out of the Rule of Benedict which provides a guide for monastic living. For example, in describing the qualities of the cellarer of the monastery, Saint Benedict provides more than a job description. He offers an insight about how all monks should live:
He must show every care and concern for the sick, children, guests and the poor, knowing for certain that he will be held accountable for all of them on the day of judgment. He will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected.
In a later chapter Saint Benedict builds on the ethic of service by writing:
The brothers should serve one another... for such service increases reward and fosters love.
The opportunity to serve presented itself in the ordinary, daily life. Monasteries have long practiced the custom of being self-sustaining—growing their own food, or producing goods for their needs. In the early days of Saint John's, a Watchman was assigned to patrol the buildings and grounds. He kept alert for fire or other problems, and at the dawn of each day he woke the novice in time to ring the bell for Morning Prayer.
Saint John's experienced its share of fires over the years. In 1882 the grist and saw mills on the shore of Lake Watab were destroyed by fire. The chapel on Lake Sagatagan was struck by lightning and burned in 1903. People responded when available and used the basic tools at hand to control fires. One date, however, is most often linked to the formal development of the fire department: January 21, 1939. The woodworking shop burned through the night, leaving only its brick walls coated in ice by the end of the next day. The community decided to add a fire truck to its resources. A Ford chassis was purchased, and brothers from the monastery built the rest of the truck. The next major step came in 1956 when monastic members took formal training to serve more effectively as an organized firefighting team.
Through 2000 the fire department was staffed entirely by monks. As the monks shifted assignments to support its other ministries, others were invited to join this service. Today, a combination of monks, students, and campus staff train as certified responders. They serve the campus community by responding to fire calls, medical calls, and many types of emergencies. Through this expression of their care for the community, guests, and the resources of the campus, they provide for a safe place where monks and lay people live and work to pursue their search for God in their lives.
For more information visit Saint John's Fire Department.