In Ages Past
Boniface Wimmer and the Benedictines in America
But Wimmer planned to extend the Benedictine way of life nationwide, beyond the German community. Within a few years of Latrobe's founding, he was getting requests from bishops from all parts of the country. During the 1850s, monasteries and schools opened in rural and urban areas: Newark, New Jersey; Atchison, Kansas; Collegeville, Minnesota. He expanded:
Our customary tendency to move forward must continue. Forward, always forward, everywhere forward. We cannot be held back by debts, by the difficulties of the times, by unfortunate years. Man's extremity is God's opportunity . . . Everywhere there is need for priests, especially in the Far West.
Wimmer had a dynamic understanding of the Benedictine rule: "Christ said, 'Go and teach all nations.' Stability is a beautiful virtue, but it should not develop into immobility."
A strong-minded individual, Wimmer could be unrelentingly authoritarian. As Benedictine historian Joel Rippinger notes, he "could ruthlessly squash the suggestions of any subordinate whose opinions were not in accord with his own." (At a time when most clergy were clean-shaven, Wimmer sported a full beard. After Pope Blessed Pius praised it during an audience, Wimmer mandated beards for all his monks.)
In the years following the Civil War, Wimmer's monks spread South and West, expanding their evangelization efforts to Native Americans and African-Americans. Monasteries were founded in Alabama and North Carolina, to work with "these entirely neglected Negroes" and to enter a region "where there are very Catholics . . . How wonderful!" In the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), Father Isidore Robot started St. Gregory's monastery, now home to St. Gregory's University, the state's only Catholic institute of higher learning.
Abbot Boniface Wimmer died at St. Vincent's on the morning of December 8, 1887. To a large extent he had successfully implemented his vision of the order as an effective educational and missionary institution nationwide: monasteries and convents; schools and colleges; hospitals, parishes, and retreat houses. Today, thanks to the priests, religious, and laypeople who live the order's charism in their daily lives, the spirit of St. Benedict is alive and well in the United States.
Dr. Pat McNamara is a published historian. He blogs about American Catholic History at McNamara's Blog.