When Boniface Wimmer, the young Benedictine monk from Metten Abbey, Germany, felt a call to serve the missions in America, he was denied by his superiors three times, three years in succession. But he persisted, and finally was granted permission on his fourth request.
Wimmer’s biographer, Jerome Oetgen, has taken a much longer route with his latest endeavor, waiting 32 years for publication of a work begun in 1976—Boniface Wimmer: Letters of an American Abbot. The volume, containing translations of 200 of the most important letters of the more than 1500 Wimmer wrote, has been released by Archabbey Publications. Oetgen began the project after publishing the first edition of his biography of Wimmer, An American Abbot (1976). He attributes the initiative to make the letters of Boniface Wimmer available to English speakers to Egbert Donovan, O.S.B., eighth Archabbot of Saint Vincent Archabbey.
“Archabbot Egbert was enthusiastic about making the letters of Wimmer available in English,” Oetgen said. “Some of the letters had been translated by Benedictines at Saint Vincent and other American Benedictine communities over the years, but the majority remained in the original German or Latin. The Archabbot asked me to undertake the job of coordinating the translation project.”
Oetgen got sidetracked with other projects, first working on his doctoral dissertation, then pursuing careers first as a college teacher and later as a U.S. diplomat, then preparing a second edition of An American Abbot (1997), and writing Mission to America: A History of Saint Vincent Archabbey, the First Benedictine Monastery in the United States (2001), both published by Catholic University of America Press. But despite the passing of more than three decades, the letters project never left his slate.
Looking at photos for the book
Nearly two-thirds of the letters were eventually translated by 31 men and women, most of whom were Benedictine monks and sisters. Translators included Leopold Krul, O.S.B., ninth Archabbot of Saint Vincent. Oetgen, who translated many of the letters himself, edited the translations, comparing them with the originals, then collated and had them bound into a three-volume set for use in the Archabbey Archives. Several copies were prepared for the convenience of researchers using the Archives. Some of the important letters had been published earlier, but usually these were letters related to specific topics, such as the early history of Benedictine women in the United States.
Oetgen’s goal was to make a wider selection of letters available to readers of English. Then the question of publication arose. “After I finished Mission to America, Archabbot Douglas Nowicki expressed interest in publishing all of the translated letters,” Oetgen said. Given the fact that the forthcoming book of only 200 letters is more than 600 pages long, such a publication would have been more than 3,600 pages in length. “There is a lot of repetition in the letters Wimmer wrote,” he added, “so it really wasn’t necessary to publish them all.” Oetgen therefore began the careful and difficult process of selecting the most important letters to be edited and published.
“This collection allows a wider reading public to have a choice sampling of a correspondence that is indispensable for understanding the history of Benedictine monasticism and the growth of American Catholicism in the nineteenth-century United States. Jerome Oetgen gives us the unmistakable voice of Boniface Wimmer and in the process dispels stereotypes and creates a more balanced and nuanced portrait of a commanding figure in modern Church history,” said Father Joel Rippinger O.S.B., of Marmion Abbey, Illinois.
“Wimmer’s achievement has been generally underestimated in the history of American Catholicism,” Oetgen said, noting that the “principal focus of his missionary labors and apostolic work was on immigrant Catholic communities in rural America at a time when the most dramatic and formative events in nineteenth-century American Catholicism were taking place in the densely populated cities of the land.”
“Wimmer did not work in the wings but rather on the broad full stage of the great multicultural drama that was the nineteenth-century American Catholic Church,” he stated. “If his role did not often bring him to center stage, he was nonetheless, clearly, one of the key supporting actors.”
Looking at photos for the book
Wimmer went on to establish 11 abbeys and priories that operated dozens of schools throughout the United States. Currently, there are 32 abbeys and priories around the world that are a part of the American Cassinese Congregation, founded by Wimmer.
The late John Tracy Ellis, who was known as the dean of Roman Catholic history in the United States, called Wimmer the “greatest Catholic missionary of nineteenth-century America.” Wimmer was a practical man whose pragmatism, optimism, and contribution to the Catholic Church in America are clearly reflected in the letters he wrote. He was also a spiritual father who guided many monks, nuns, and lay people through the difficult moments in their spiritual lives. Oetgen noted that one of his favorite letters is one in which Wimmer shows himself to be a gentle and understanding father to one of the younger monks who was unhappy with a decision the abbot had made.
“You must renew your faith in Divine Providence, which wisely and miraculously directs and orders everything, even the smallest event, and which brings about our temporal and spiritual well-being,” Wimmer wrote to monk Julian Kilger. “When you are as old as I am, you will become more convinced that for those who love God, all things will lead to the best, and that a life under obedience or under the Rule [of Saint Benedict] is one of the greatest blessings that God can grant to anyone. We cannot do stupid things except when we deviate from obedience to the Rule, since the Rule gives us the surest guarantee for peace and assures the final attainment of our goal and destination. The fact that we sometimes think we would be more at peace and happier if things happened according to our own desires has its origin in the fact that we lack the experience of a life of true freedom, or else those who have had this experience have paid too little attention to it…. Indeed, we know that no Christian is perfect. None of us is without shortcomings.… There will always be disappointments, but they will never disturb our peace significantly or for a long time. Disappointments will further our salvation, not endanger it.”
Oetgen, who has a doctorate from the University of Toronto, is currently a U.S. diplomat serving in Haiti. Previous assignments have been in Rome; Madrid; Quito, Ecuador; Managua, Nicaragua and Asunción, Paraguay. Prior to entering the diplomatic corps, he taught in the English Department of Seton Hill University.
“For a long time I have given much and even daily thought to this journey of mine,” Wimmer wrote to Gregory Scherr, Archbishop of Munich on October 29, 1845, a year before undertaking his mission. “I understand all the difficulties: local, physical, and moral. I have also often considered that it would be presumptuous to think of forcing oneself on God as if one had a missionary vocation. I have not forgotten to ask Our Lord with prayer and pleading whether my underlying motive might not be to escape from obedience, or the desire to become a superior myself. Yet I have never to my knowledge been plagued by these ambitions. On the contrary, the result of my soul searching is always the same: my poor, forlorn countrymen stand before me and call for help. I should and want to help as best I can. I desire to go—as firmly as can be desired—with several others or alone, whichever is possible and convenient. I will not rest until I have succeeded.”
Neither did Jerome Oetgen.
Oetgen will lecture on the heritage of Wimmer on March 19 at Saint Vincent. A book signing event is planned in conjunction with the lecture. Prepublication orders are being taken for the book at http://www.stvincentstore.com.
By Kim Metzgar