By Jerome Oetgen
The end of the war issued in a new prosperity for the college, which began to develop its resources and receive renewed support from America and Europe. Gifts and donations from benefactors in Munich and Rome brought the library collection to more than 12,000 volumes. The art collection was expanded, and in 1864 an abbey press was established which published monastic and theological works through the 1860s and 1870s.
The college had in fact progressed to such a stage that in 1869 the administration petitioned the legislature of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to allow it to grant academic degrees. On April 18, 1870, the legislature issued Saint Vincent a charter empowering the college faculty “to grant and confer such degrees in the arts and sciences . . . as they deem proper or as are granted in other colleges or universities in the United States.” It was a sweeping charter which permitted the college to grant any degree it cared to. And in 1871 Saint Vincent awarded its first academic degrees when Maximilian Betzel of Staten Island, New York, and Martin Bergrath of Westphalia, Michigan, received the bachelor of arts, and William Sweeney of Wilbur, New York, received the “master of accounts” degree.
The years which followed witnessed the steady growth of the college’s three departments. By 1884 there were 286 students, who had the advantage of a “large library” as well as modern chemistry and physics laboratories. there were 36 students in the Seminary, 156 in the Classical Department, and 94 in the Commercial Department (including 8 “post-graduates,” students who had finished the commercial course but who wished to prepare more thoroughly for professional studies in law and medicine). The annual cost for tuition, room and board was $180.00.
In 1884 there were 37 faculty members, all of whom were members of the Benedictine community. Students preparing for the legal profession took courses in law, civil government, and political economy; those preparing for medical school in physiology, chemistry, and botany; and those for the engineering profession, in algebra, geometry, and mechanical drawing. All students were required to take a core curriculum which included logic, English, rhetoric and literature, history, Latin, German, elocution, and composition. An elementary school “for beginners” had been attached to the college, where in 1885 there were 61 young boys between the ages of ten and fourteen registered, preparing to enter the classical and commercial departments. The students throughout the college came from twenty American states and five foreign countries, and at the end of the 1885-85 academic year, twenty degrees were conferred: two bachelors of arts and eighteen masters of accounts.
Boniface Wimmer’s death in 1887 ended an era at Saint Vincent. For forty years he had guided the monastery and college with a clear vision and a firm hand, and his death left a vacuum which was difficult to fill. Father Andrew Hintenach was elected to succeed him as abbot of the community and president of the college, but Hintenach’s tenure was brief, and he resigned four years later, to be succeeded by Father Leander Schnerr.
Under Schnerr the college entered the twentieth century and began to undergo the changes which caused it to develop into the undergraduate institution of today. By 1905 there was a clear differentiation between the undergraduate college, which offered a four-year course of studies, in either a classical or commercial track, leading to a degree, and the preparatory (or high) school. There were 43 students in the preparatory school, 322 in the college, and 65 in the seminary.
The college itself was divided into two residence halls: one, the college proper, the other, the scholasticate. As the college catalog for 1904-05 explained, “the Scholasticate — which, studies excepted, is altogether distinct and separate from the College — forms the preparatory Seminary for such as feel themselves called to become members of the Benedictine Order, hence, only those are received who intend to become Benedictines. The discipline is calculated to impress on the minds of the aspirants a due sense of the requirements of monastic life.”
But even for those students not planning to become Benedictines, the regimen at Saint Vincent at the beginning of the twentieth century was decidedly monastic, as their week-day schedule reveals. The students rose at 5:00 a.m. and attended Mass at 6:00 a.m. The rest of their day was as follows:
6:30 a.m. – Breakfast, followed by Recreation
7:10 a.m. – Study Hall
8:00 a.m. – Classes
11:30 a.m. – Lunch, followed by Prayer and Recreation
1:45 p.m. – Classes
5:30 p.m. – Supper, followed by Recreation
7:00 p.m. – Study Hall
8:30 p.m. – Night Prayers and Bed
And the college catalog made it quite clear that the students were at Saint Vincent to develop not merely their intellectual skills but their moral character as well:
“In the moulding of a staunch, fearless, upright character, good traits must be encouraged and developed, vicious habits must be checked and eliminated, natural inclinations must be carefully directed or corrected. To the attainment of these ends it is very important that the relations existing between the students and Faculty of the College be not mistaken or misunderstood. Superiors and Professors mingle with the students not in the role of detectives and severe taskmasters, but rather in the capacity of true friends and wise moderators, whose only ambition is to secure the temporal and eternal welfare of their subjects and pupils. The discipline at Saint Vincent is strict, but not severe. It is enforced more by moral suasion than by forceful measures. No well disposed student, who realizes why he is at College, will find great difficulty in observing the Rules of Conduct.”
But life at Saint Vincent in the early 1900s was not all rules of conduct and monastic regiment. The faculty was determined to educate the whole person, and that required careful attention to the students’ physical well-being. Exercise and recreation were at the heart of the program:
“If there is anything that lends enchantment to a student’s life and tends to lighten the burden and relive the monotony of daily study, it is an inviting campus where he may find relaxation in healthful games and pastime pleasures, and add to his moral and mental culture that physical development which will render him hale of body and rugged of constitution. The College playgrounds are admirably adapted to the attainment of these objectives. They are so fashioned by nature and art as to render them a place of welcome to all students, howsoever varied their dispositions and inclinations may be. The grounds comprise twenty-five acres, seven of which are a grove of primeval oaks, in the center of which is a generous spring of purest water which has stood the test of ages. Circling paths wind beneath the shady trees. Five hand-ball courts are pleasantly located in the grove and afford many an hour of mirthful and invigorating exercise. Seven baseball diamonds grace the campus and offer ample opportunities to the lovers of the great national sport, whilst games of a less violent nature have their allotted places. A large icepond and the Loyal Hannah close by are resorts of pleasure to the lovers of skating. In wet weather and during the dreary months of winter, the students spend most of their recreation time in the Gymnasium. Thus every possible advantage to build up and develop a strong and healthy constitution, which contributes so much to the happiness of man and to his utility in society, is offered to the student during his sojourn at the College.”
The peace and tranquility of this almost idyllic world, in the hills of western Pennsylvania, isolated from the bustle and confusion of urban life, innocent in its insularity, was shattered in the next decade by two events: war and fever. And after 1918, Saint Vincent, like the rest of America, would never be the same again.
World War I had preoccupied the nation before the doughboys entered the conflict in 1917. At Saint Vincent, where so many of the monks were German-born and so many students of German descent, there was palpable sympathy for, if not outright support of, Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. This was not unusual in America in 1914, though the nation as a whole was drifting gradually toward alignment with the Allies. So Saint Vincent, which, like other Catholic institutions, had always contended with a degree of prejudiced and anti-Catholic attitudes not just from certain local non-Catholics but at times from the press itself, now had to confront a growing doubt about its loyalty to the nation as well. Since Wimmer’s day the institution was regarded by all as a German Catholic College. German was spoken in the halls as much as English. Some older monks voiced their support of the Axis cause. So when Protestant America went to war against Kaiser Wilhelm, Saint Vincent felt it had to prove its loyalty.
Students with German surnames flocked to the recruiting offices to join the crusade against the barbarous Hun. Prayers were offered in the archabbey basilica for the Allied armies. Some of the younger monks volunteered for chaplain duties. The older professors, who spoke German in the cloister and the college halls, made a conscious effort now to speak English everywhere. And when the war ended in November 1918, a transformation had occurred at the college. No longer would it bill itself or, for that matter, think of itself as a German Catholic institution. It had become a self-consciously American Catholic College. Like the rest of America, Saint Vincent had emerged from its insularity in an instant.
The immediate aftermath of the war tested the mettle of the institution even further. The influenza epidemic which struck the world in 1918 had a devastating effect at Saint Vincent. The infirmary overflowed with the sick and dying, and in the basilica requiem masses were being sung. The new archabbot and president of the college, Father Aurelius Stehle, ordered classes suspended. The crisis, however, was short-lived. The college reopened after a month and at once began to grow. More and more Catholic families could now offer their sons a higher education. Saint Vincent benefited from the prosperity and in 1919 enrolled 536 students. A new residence hall (Aurelius) was planned, and the institution entered the Roaring Twenties with enthusiasm.