By Jerome Oetgen
By 1855, when Pope Pius IX raised the community in Pennsylvania to the dignity of an abbey and named Wimmer its first abbot, the school at Saint Vincent had begun to take clearer shape. It was now divided into three main “departments”: the Seminary, the Classical department, and the Commercial Department.
The Seminary, where most of the lectures were conducted in Latin, had 28 students studying theology and preparing for the priesthood. These students ranging in age from about eighteen to twenty-six, had already received a sound foundation in the liberal arts. They spent six years in the Seminary, the first two studying philosophy, the last four, theology.
The Classical Department had 53 students in 1855. These students, ranging in age from about twelve to eighteen-years-old, underwent a six-year program of studies in languages, the humanities, mathematics, rudimentary science, and the fine arts. The upper classes were taught in German, the lower in English. This program of study was intended primarily for candidates for the Seminary, although not all students in the Classical Department went on to the priesthood. Some were preparing to enter professional schools of law and medicine.
The Commercial Department, which in 1855 had 34 students, involved a four-year program similar to the Classical course but omitting the study of Latin and German and including the study of “Bookkeeping.” Classes in the Commercial Department were all conducted in English, and students, who ranged in age from twelve to eighteen, were preparing to enter business.
These three departments formed the basic structure of Saint Vincent College for the next fifty years.
A major concern of the college administration during the period immediately preceding and then following the Civil War was the training of the faculty for teaching duties. Wimmer, as president of the college as well as abbot of the monastery, took the leading role in organizing a program for faculty development. Except for isolated cases, all the college faculty members were monks at Saint Vincent Abbey, and the abbot saw to it that the most talented of them received the best education available.
Some of the priest-professors had already received university training in Europe when they came to Saint Vincent. Wimmer himself had studied theology at the University of Munich under such renowned professors as Aman, Allioli Leber, Oken and Dˆllinger. Two of the early rectors of the college, Fathers Ulric Spˆttle and Alphonse Heimler, had also studied at the University of Munich before joining the monastery in Pennsylvania.
In 1859 Wimmer sent Heimler to Georgetown to study physics and astronomy; he received an M.A. from Georgetown in 1860. During this period Father Edward Hipelius went to Rome to study canon law, and Wimmer sent Fathers Cyril Eder and William Walter to Munich to study history, theology, and Hebrew. In 1866 Wimmer established a house of studies in Rome for American Benedictine scholars and put Father Oswald Moosm¸ller, an accomplished historian and author, in charge of it. To this house of studies he sent such young and talented monks as Adalbert M¸ller, Innocent Wolf, and Hilary Pfr‰ngle. And in 1870 he sent Fathers James Zilliox and Xavier Baltes to study under the Jesuits at the University of Innsbruck. All these men returned to teach on the faculty of Saint Vincent College and to join Wimmer in establishing monasteries and schools in other parts of the United States.
Among the lay faculty at Saint Vincent in the 1850s and 1860s were Dr. Rudolph Müller, of the University of Munich, professor of natural philosophy, chemistry and astronomy, and Professor Maurice Schwab of Munich, director of the department of music at Saint Vincent for more than two decades.
Wimmer wrote to King Ludwig of his progress: “We are quietly continuing our educational program. I am very anxious that our college gradually becomes what it ought to be: not only a preparatory school for youths who are studying for the priesthood, but also . . . an institution which shall fill all just demands. So far I have appointed the ablest men, who generally have received their education in German institutions, as professors.”
The American Civil War slowed but did not severely inhibit the development of the college. There were hardships, of course. Several of the Benedictines were drafted into the northern army, including a number of professors. The Saint Vincent community paid the standard fee of $300 to have four of these monks released from service, and Wimmer petitioned President Lincoln to release the others. ” I cannot believe,” he wrote to Lincoln,” that the law intends to press clergymen (of any denomination) into military service, because as a general matter these men are very warlike indeed if the fight has to be done with their tongues or pens, but otherwise they keep at a good distance from danger, and what should the government gain if some hundred cowards were in the army?” The petition was only partially successful. The monks were not released but transferred to hospital duties.
Father Emmeran Bliemel, a professor in the college who had been sent to work as a parish priest in Tennessee shortly before the outbreak of hostilities, joined his male parishioners as chaplain when they formed part of the 10th Tennessee Regiment of the Confederate Army, and was killed at Jonesboro, Georgia, in 1864 while administering last rites to a soldier on the battlefield.
At Saint Vincent itself the war brought scarcity. Funds were depleted, and the administration found it difficult to obtain the necessary supplies to feed the students adequately. Twenty-three students from southern states were stranded at the college and could not pay their fees. Wimmer supported them out of the college’s dwindling funds for four years, flinching only when the patriotic fervor of the southern boys led them to raise the Confederate battleflag over the college, bringing the wrath of a platoon of armed local farmers down upon Wimmer and the Benedictine community.