The Earliest Years of Saint John's Abbey, 1856-1862
Part 2 of 16
by Fr. Bruno Riss OSB (1829-1900)
Soon after our arrival in Minnesota the zealous Bishop Cretin summoned Rev. Father Weninger to hold missions in his diocese. This missionary was particularly qualified for this undertaking on account of his acquaintance with the German, English and French language. Towards the end of June, 1856, he also came to Stearns County and opened a mission at St. Cloud, which was numerously attended not only by the Catholics of St. Cloud, but also of Sauk Rapids, St. Augusta, St. James, St. Joseph and even Richmond. Father Bruno was associated with the missionary in his work and cooperated by celebrating masses and assisting in the confessional. Now the people of St. Joseph also made application for a mission; their application was favorably heard only after they had begged of the bishop to allow the Benedictines to come to them. On occasion of this mission the deluded agitators learnt that after all the monks were not as dangerous as they imagined, that they suffered every one to have his own, nay more, did what they still do, i.e. assist others, to acquire a settled home. A three days mission at St. Augusta followed upon that of St. Cloud; Father Cornelius assisted. Mission crosses were also erected. Upon the removal of all obstacles the mission was opened at St. Joseph, which then had a log church with residence for the pastor, where Rev. Pierz had at an earlier date several times held services. This missionary had also taken a claim of 160 acres of prairie and 80 acres of timber for the benefit of the church. The latter claim was however lost by the action of lay men who accomplished what had before been ascribed to the monks.
Rev. Pierz had also claimed 160 acres for the church at St. James and in the opinion of men of that day had invested heavily to secure the claim, — however with a result as discouraging as the one just recorded, — the claim was 'jumped' and deemed first-rate booty. The mission conducted at St. Joseph was highly successful and there was abundant work for Father Weninger and Father Bruno in the confessional. Three days were then devoted to missionary service at St. James and three days to Richmond.
At Richmond a log church was hastily constructed and put under roof. This chapel was so small that there was not room for two confessionals. As there were moreover some penitents hard of hearing, one of the confessionals was placed outside the chapel and Father Bruno heard confessions in the open air.
The pesky mosquitoes were very solicitous lest anyone should be overcome by drowsiness. At St. James the two priests took lodgings with Mr. Brixius, one of whose sons later on entered the Benedictine Order and died as Br. Placid. At Richmond they lodged with Mr. Baumler. Father Weninger who was either not accustomed to mosquitoes or was a favorite with them, was so disfigured by their bites as to be well nigh unrecognizable.
The Mission at Richmond was concluded on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. On the Eve of the feast a message from Prior Demetrius, by lighting express — ox-team — summoned Father Bruno to depart instantly for St. Joseph where he was thence forth to be pastor with St. James and Richmond for stations, while the Prior was to take charge of St. Cloud, Rev. Cornelius of Sauk Rapids and St. Augusta.
The 15th of August, on which day Father Weninger preached a sermon in St. Joseph, was the beginning of a two years after-mission sent by Divine Providence. During the discourse of the missionary a heavy darkness suddenly set in, accompanied, as we thought, by a tremendous hail-storm, the clatter of which drowned the voice of the preacher. But it was something worse than hail stones, for when we left the church our eyes behold nothing but greedy grasshoppers, which had darkened the sun and in their descent had struck so heavily upon the roof of the chapel.
This small, voracious, yet invincible monster had in a short time devastated all that grows and blooms upon the face of the earth. Within about 2 or 3 days the fields presented the appearance of having been newly plowed. Then an indescribable misery entered the home of the poor settlers of Stearns County. The entire harvest was a dead loss for those settlers who had taken their abodes in this region during the previous year; those, of course, who had settled during the year of the famine had no crop to lose, as they had not planted any.
The first terrible winter was at hand. The few victuals that remained were soon consumed, prices rose enormously, because the nearest market was St. Paul, and it remained a full week to make a trip with an ox-team. Still hope did not die. What would man be without hope? Spring came; seed wheat stood at $2 per bushel, but it was bought and sowed. But the new brood of grass-hoppers suffered nothing to grow, except peas. Everything else became their prey. They found their way into houses and destroyed what clothing they could reach. In the church not a shred of cloth could remain exposed, everything was locked up in presses. Even the priest at the altar was not secure against their attacks; before Mass the hoppers had to be swept off the altar. The priest had to vest hastily, and be very careful to keep the Sacred Host covered with the paten, and at the elevation had to leave the palla upon the chalice. During mass the altar boys were kept busy driving away the insolent insects with whips from the vestments of the priest.
For another year the poverty-stricken farmers had to live upon their own substance and that was little. Father Prior Demetrius had to procure at least bread for his small community and regarded it as a streak of good fortune, that he succeeded in borrowing money at 36 percent.
The writer of this remembers having paid $2 per bushel for corn in the husks, and $3 per bushel for frozen potatoes. The corn ground in coffee-mills, so that there was no waste, and then boiled together with the frozen potatoes furnished a scanty meal. There was abundance of game about, but we had no money to purchase powder and shot. Once we succeeded in capturing a few owls which were quite a delicacy. In the winter there was a good chance for fishing. A hole was cut in the ice and this was soon so full of fish that we could easily catch them with willow baskets. So we did not famish; we had fish to eat although they were not fried in salt and lard. But we were contented with what we had, for hunger is the best of cooks.
About this time Father Bruno received 200 marks from his mother in Europe and accompanied by a lay brother set out for St. Paul, on an ox-team, taking up lodging quarters beneath the wagon, wrapped up in a blanket. With these 200 marks he purchased 6 barrels of superfine flour with 30 pounds of pork thrown in, — the pork was alive with maggots, still, after being cleaned served well enough for frying. On the return trip the poor oxen for want of fodder succumbed to fatigue in the neighborhood of Crow River. How could we, under such circumstances, forward our goods to St. Cloud? What would become of the flour and the precious pork? Yet here, as well as everywhere else, we struck upon honest men. Every passing driver was asked, for God's sake, to take with him at least one barrel of flour, and our provisions got to St. Cloud after all. The oxen were driven aside from the road for some distance, unhitched and left on the spot under the protection of heaven. Father Bruno and the brother made the remaining 40 miles of the trip on foot, and were rejoiced to find that the provisions had arrived intact at St. Cloud. A few months later the brother went down to look for the abandoned team and actually found them on the spot where we had left them. Could anything remain undisturbed by the same roadside at this day? I have said Divine Providence held an after-mission and so it was. Before this time some of the settlers were really infatuated. No one seemed to be contented. Government lands were not as yet surveyed, and every one used his own measure. The 160 acres which some of them staked out comprised a whole section. But when the grasshoppers had made havoc with their fields the settlers realized that a section did not produce more than 160 acres. Peace and contentment were restored where before envy and private quarrels had reigned. A Mr. Berger one Sunday proposed to some of the people this conundrum: Why did God afflict us with grasshoppers? He himself gave the following solution in his own humorous way: "God saw that when we lived in the States from which we emigrated, we were good for nothing and wanted to cure us without harming our good neighbors and therefore he led us to this place and the grasshoppers after us and now, I hope, we are all cured."
And now let us return to the cradle of St. John's Abbey and University. As I have previously mentioned, a house, 12x72, had been erected during the spring. The priests and lay brothers, assisted by Mr. Lodermeier did the carpenter work. Father Bruno had brought tools with him from St. Vincent Abbey. A small raft that could not pass on account of low water was purchased, I might say, at our door. There was no dressed lumber to be had; consequently we had to dress it with planes ourselves. The doors for our building were not finished until late in October, although by this time it is so cool in Minnesota that the mosquitoes creep into winter quarters. Without a stove and with only a bed sheet for a door, rooming was not a comfort during that season, nor did we seek for such luxury, for our hands were full of work and we had to hustle to finish all the doors so that we could keep the wintry blasts out of the house.
The chapel 12x12, was first finished and dedicated. The dedication occurred on the feast of St. John the Baptist. Then, in memory of the fact that St. Benedict dedicated his chapel on Monte Cassino to St. John the Baptist, this great Saint was chosen as the patron of the monastery. As the tidings of salvation were first preached from the banks of the Jordan, so they were to spread westward from the banks of the Mississippi.
When the chapel was completed Father Prior Demetrius organized common choir. Although we were but three priests, worked hard throughout the day and had poor fare, choir was never intermitted even if only two priests were at home. And this exertion, I must confess, did not shorten the life of any of us. Two of us are still alive and Father Demetrius, in spite of the effort choir attendance cost him, reached a venerable age. Let the rising generation remember that the service of God does not shorten life. When the late Archabbot Boniface Wimmer arrived on October 18, 1856, at 5 o'clock in the morning, to visit us for the first time and entered our house while we were in the choir, he was greatly pleased and edified at the disposition and religious zeal which prevailed. He did not interrupt our prayer but patiently waited behind the curtain door of our chapel until we had finished our office and the two lay brothers had recited the rosary together in the kitchen.