In Ages Past
Boniface Wimmer and the Benedictines in America
By the start of the 19th century, the Benedictine Order in Europe had almost reached its nadir. The French Revolution had destroyed many of its great houses, while Napoleon and his minions confiscated others. Over the next few decades, however, the order underwent a rebirth on both the continent and abroad. By the late 1800s, America, for one, had a vast network of Benedictine monasteries, schools, and churches, all due largely to one determined monk labeled "the greatest Catholic missionary of nineteenth century America."
He was born Sebastian Wimmer in Bavaria, a tavern keeper's son, on January 14, 1809. As a young man he considered careers in the military and the law before discovering a vocation to the priesthood. At age twenty-two he was ordained for the Diocese of Regensburg, but soon he was increasingly attracted toward the communal life of a religious order. (As a diocesan priest, he felt "entirely left to myself.")
In 1832 he entered St. Michael's, a thousand-year-old monastery in Metten. He was named Boniface for the saint who evangelized Germany. He taught in the monastic school, but his interest was turning toward America, where thousands of German Catholics were sailing yearly. Wimmer dreamed of establishing the order in there, just as his namesake had in Germany. (While individual Benedictines were working in America, no communal life yet existed.)
Mocked as a dreamer by his fellow monks, he refused to accept rejection. He was determined, he told his superiors:
If I cannot work in America as a Benedictine, I will go in another habit . . . I can be delayed and retarded, but not stopped. I can be persecuted with suspicion and distrust . . . but I will go my way because I freely believe that God wills it.
"I have firm convictions," he added, "and others will have to follow me." In 1845, he wrote, "it cannot be a matter of indifference how our countrymen are situated in America." The Benedictines were ideally suited to missionary work, he added, citing their early work in evangelizing northern Europe. Furthermore, he insisted that the order's rule was
. . . so constituted that it can readily adapt itself to all times and circumstances. The contemplative and the practical are harmoniously blended; agriculture, manual labor, literature, missionary work, education were drawn into the circle of activity which St. Benedict placed before his disciples.
In the summer of 1846, Father Boniface got permission to sail, with fourteen brothers and four seminarians. In Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Bishop Michael O'Connor of Pittsburgh offered land, a house, and a parish. Thus, in a two-story schoolhouse, as Wimmer's biographer Jerome Oetgen notes, was "formally inaugurated Benedictine monastic life on the continent of North America." In time, Wimmer said, "I understand English now to the extent that I can preach just barely, hear confessions, catechize, and argue with the Protestants."
Out of these humble beginnings grew St. Vincent's Abbey, a seminary, a college for lay students, all geared largely toward the German-American community. (In 1860, he started a brewery that produced "St. Vincent Beer," raising objections from some temperance-minded bishops. It closed in 1920.) By 1850, there were sixty members in the Latrobe community. "There is no place in America," Wimmer boasted, "where prayer ascends to heaven so constantly!"
Dr. Pat McNamara is a published historian. He blogs about American Catholic History at McNamara's Blog.