Mission to America: A History of Saint Vincent Archabbey, the First Benedictine Monastery in the United States

Article excerpt

Mission to America:A History of Saint Vincent Archabbey, the First Benedictine Monastery in the United States. By Jerome Oetgen. (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press. 2000. Pp. xiii, 607. $39.95.)

Benedictine monks contributed to the civilization and the Christianization of Europe through their scholarship, involvement in education, and by spreading the Gospel message and the spirit of Benedict's Rule. The Benedictines, however, did suffer some serious setbacks throughout their history. The reformers in the sixteenth century poured scorn on monasticism and supported the dissolution of the monasteries in their countries. The policy of Napoleon succeeded for a time in eradicating Benedictinism from parts of Europe, but following his defeat, Benedictine monasticism reappeared. An important element within the Benedictine tradition, which survived the upheavals of the centuries, was the urge to undertake missionary work. In 1846, a young monk, Boniface Wimmer, from the recently restored abbey of St. Michael's at Metten, Bavaria, arrived in New York City with eighteen candidates to establish monasticism in America. That foundation, Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, currently numbers over 180 monks, and Jerome Oetgen's book chronicles the development of this monastery and its influence on American religious history.

Wimmer (1809-1887) is the star of this story. Nicknamed Projektenmacber, that is, a visionary, he successfully enlisted the support of Ludwig I of Bavaria and the Ludwig Missionsverein for his American dream of educating Germanspeaking immigrants. Oetgen skillfully describes the difficulties of the early years at Saint Vincent,Wimmer's relations with the Bishop of Pittsburgh and Roman authorities, the impact of the Civil War, the establishment of a college, seminary, and parishes, and the foundation of other monasteries in this country. Some, however, might disagree with the author's treatment of Wimmer's dealings with the Benedictine sisters in America. Because of his determination, Saint Vincent quickly achieved stability and exerted an influence in church affairs: it became an abbey in 1855 and an archabbey in 1892.

Oetgen's chronological narrative continues with a discussion of Wimmer's successor, Andrew Hintenach, and concludes in 1963 with the election of Rembert Weakland, the current Archbishop of Milwaukee, as superior. The characteristics and policies of each archabbot clearly emerge, and the author shows how these superiors influenced the monastery's history throughout the twentieth century. The growth of the college, prep school, and seminary, building projects on the monastery grounds, the two world wars, the effect of the Great Depression on monastic life, and Saint Vincent's mission to China and the financial and legal problems associated with this enterprise receive adequate attention. …