By Jerome Oetgen, author of “An American Abbot; Boniface Wimmer, O.S.B., 1809-1887,” “Mission to America,” and “The Letters of An American Abbot.”
It was Boniface Wimmer’s aim to transplant the ancient Benedictine Order from Europe to the New World. The Benedictines had already experienced a long and notable history in Europe when Wimmer introduced them to America. They had founded centers of spirituality, learning, and culture throughout the Old World, and these centers, for nearly thirteen centuries, had made unparalleled contributions not just to the dissemination but, at times, to the very survival of Western civilization. During the early Middle Ages Benedictine communities, and the schools attached to them, had kept the light of faith and learning alive as barbarian tribes descended upon Europe, destroying the fabric of the old Roman civilization. And in the nineteenth century, when Europe was once again devastated by invasion, chaos, and war, a Benedictine revival in France and Germany confronted a rampant secularism and reasserted those Christian values which for generations had informed the spiritual and intellectual foundation of Western culture.
From the beginning education had played an important role in the Benedictine tradition. Schools were attached to the monasteries from earliest times, and there had developed in them a heritage of humane and liberal learning centered on such Benedictine values as stability, community, hospitality, and moderation. “We intend to establish a school for the Lord’s service,” Saint Benedict wrote in his sixth century monastic Rule. “In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome.”
Wimmer’s plan was to imitate the model of his Benedictine predecessors by establishing strong, stable communities of monks who would devote their lives to the service of God, the pursuit of learning, and the education of youth. He believed that America was fertile soil for the planting of this ancient tradition and that the tradition itself would contribute a new and vital spiritual energy to the young nation. He wrote: “I am determined to have our monasteries not only schools of religion and the sciences, but also nurseries of the fine arts in order to develop a better taste for these things and to keep from our people the American mercenary spirit which thinks of nothing but how to make a living, because necessity demands it and example encourages it.”
With the aid of several American bishops, as well as friends and benefactors in Europe (including King Ludwig I of Bavaria, Cardinal Karl August von Reisach of the Roman Curia, and Archbishop Gregory Scherr of Munich) Wimmer established at Saint Vincent the community he had envisioned. And then for the remaining forty years of his life, he worked tirelessly to strengthen the monastery and school in Pennsylvania and to establish others throughout the United States. From Saint Vincent he founded Benedictine communities and schools in Minnesota, Kansas, North Carolina, New Jersey, Illinois, Georgia and elsewhere. In 1855 Pope Pius IX elevated Saint Vincent to the rank of an abbey, naming Wimmer its first abbot — the first Benedictine abbot in North America. And by 1887, when he died, Wimmer was recognized throughout the American church as an outstanding ecclesiastic and educator, a worthy successor of Saint Boniface, his patron and the Benedictine who had introduced Christian culture to Germany.
Saint Vincent College: The Early Years
The beginnings of Saint Vincent College were modest. When Wimmer arrived in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, in 1846, he was accompanied by four students for the priesthood, young laymen from Bavaria who formed the first class in the school established at Saint Vincent.
At first the plan was for the community at Saint Vincent to devote its energies to the education of German-speaking youth for the priesthood. But that plan soon changed. The urging of Bishop Michael O’Connor of Pittsburgh and the condition and needs of the Catholics in the vicinity of the monastery convinced Wimmer that the new community could not limit its work to Germans alone, that its school would have to education English-speaking Catholics as well, and that accommodation had to be made for students who had not received the call to a priestly vocation.
It is one of the great virtues of the Benedictine tradition that it combines the spirit of stability — both spiritual and physical — with a spirit of adaptability. This virtue especially helped the Benedictines at Saint Vincent in the early years, when flexibility and openness to change were necessary if their enterprise was to succeed. Almost at once the monks began accepting non-Germans into the school at Saint Vincent, and very soon they began receiving into the college boys who were not destined for the priesthood.
Records for the earliest years of Saint Vincent are scarce and where they exist, they are incomplete. Nevertheless, those that survive provide the clear image of a community struggling in the farmlands of western Pennsylvania to establish itself firmly in the young nation; facing and overcoming adversity with the aid of such worthy patrons as the bishop of Pittsburgh, the archbishop of Munich, various Vatican officials, and the abdicated King of Bavaria; and striving to build on the foundations of the old Benedictine tradition a college which could meet the spiritual, intellectual, and practical needs of immigrants to the New World.
Enrollment grew steadily. Surviving records indicate that by the fall of 1849 there were 39 students in the monastery school. In 1850 there were 50, and in 1851, 60. By now Saint Vincent was drawing students not only from western Pennsylvania, but from Milwaukee, Baltimore, New York, Buffalo, and Philadelphia as well. The faculty had increased from two in 1846 to twelve in 1851, and they were offering courses in dogma, art, liturgy, moral theology, French, philosophy, Latin, German, English, mathematics and music. Most of the faculty were Benedictines, but in 1848 two Munich-educated laymen arrived — Professors Albert Breitenfeld and Aloysius Pichler — to teach mathematics and music respectively. By 1852 Wimmer could write to King Ludwig I: “I will not say that our institution is perfect, but the yearly increase in numbers indicates a healthy growth and approval by the people. It is at least the first and only German Catholic College.