Boniface Wimmer, The Founding Story
Greeting every visitor who approaches the Saint Vincent Archabbey Basilica, a bronze statue of Archabbot Boniface Wimmer, founder of the first Benedictine monastery and school in the United States, stands prominently at the basilica entrance. In one hand is the Rule of Saint Benedict while the other hand points forward with outstretched arm. This pose aptly symbolizes the founder’s gift for combining fidelity to tradition with boldness of vision.
Energized by this vision of faith, Wimmer’s initial efforts have developed into a multitude of apostolates currently undertaken by monks of the Archabbey in partnership with dedicated laypersons: a college, a seminary, some 30 parishes, a priory and high school in Savannah, the Catholic Center at Penn State University, and priories in Brazil and Taiwan. Furthermore, the American Cassinese Congregation of 21 independent monasteries in North America, totaling over 1200 monks, can trace its origins largely to the creative impulse of Boniface Wimmer.
The atmosphere for Benedictine monastic life in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century was anything but promising. All but a handful of the hundreds of monasteries that had flourished during the Middle Ages had been suppressed. After 1820, however, a period of restoration witnessed the rise of leaders who perceived the value of reviving the monastic movement, a movement which had contributed so extensively to the formation of Christian culture on the continent. Prominent among these heads of statue was Kind Ludwig I of Bavaria.
In 1830 the young monarch decreed the restoration of Saint Michael Abbey at Metten. This abbey, active since its founding in the eighth century, had been suppressed in 1803. The abbey came to life again in 1830 when two elderly monks returned after an absence of 27 years. Clearly the abbey could not survive without an influx of new members. The bishop of the Diocese of Regensburg approached priests of his diocese to inquire whether they might wish to join the new community.
One of the young priests who responded to the invitation was Sebastian Wimmer. Born in Thalmassing, Bavaria, on January 14, 1809, he pursued his studies at the University of Munich and was ordained a priest on August 1, 1831. Upon entering the novitiate of Saint Michael Abbey in December of 1832, he took the name Boniface and thus chose as patron saint the great eighth-century missionary apostle of Germany.
Almost from his earliest days as monk at Metten, Wimmer placed himself at the center of action. While serving as professor at the school of the newly established Saint Stephen Abbey in Augsburg, he worked to reestablish Saint Michael’s as an independent abbey. He strove to promote the establishment of a Benedictine house of studies in Millersdorf to train missionaries. His involvement in such causes earned him the rather derogatory nickname Projectenmacher, meaning, “quixotic dreamer” or “visionary.”
As early as 1842 Father Boniface began to petition his abbot, Gregory Scherr, for permission to go to America as a missionary. In May 1845, Wimmer met Father Peter Lemke, a German priest serving in Carrolltown, Pennsylvania, who, with the approval of Bishop Michael O’Connor of Pittsburgh, had traveled to Europe to seek aid for the bishop’s new missionary diocese. In Munich he met Boniface Wimmer, who thereafter was even more determined to carry out his plan to found a Benedictine monastery in the United States. After many refusals of Wimmer’s repeated petitions and upon the urging of King Ludwig and the Apostolic Nuncio to Bavaria, Abbot Gregory finally gave his consent.
On July 25, 1846, Wimmer and 18 candidates for monastic life departed from Munich and, after a stormy ocean voyage, arrived in New York City on September 15. None of the 18 had received any monastic training until their leader gave them instructions about the Benedictine Rule on board ship. When they reached Carrolltown, they found the land unsuitable for farming. After a meeting with Bishop O’Connor, who offered the group property called Sportsman’s Hall nearer to Pittsburgh, the band of missionaries settled at this present site of Saint Vincent on October 18, 1846. Shortly thereafter the 18 candidates were invested as monks. Thus was achieved the beginning of the first Benedictine community in the United States.
Monasticisim with Heart
Despite early hardships and setbacks the community’s growth exceeded anyone’s expectation. In August 1847 Father Peter Lechner, O.S.B., of Scheyern Abbey in Bavaria arrived with 20 candidates for the lay brotherhood. By 1849 there were nearly 50 men in the community. The college and seminary also grew quickly. Wimmer was determined to maintain a high quality of education amongst the rigors of frontier life. His philosophy of Benedictine education has often been characterized by his own quote: “I will not spare expense to teach the students first the necessary, then the useful, and finally the beautiful things, as long as they contribute to their refinement.”
Wimmer understood that a good school depended foremost on a competent faculty. He sent his monks out for studies in the best European and American universities. Two lay professors from Bavaria, who were added to the faculty in 1848, were eminently qualified in mathematics and music. The catalogue of 1859-60 could boast of a library of 12,000 volumes and a curriculum preparing students for professions in law, science, medicine, education and business. Between 1847 and 1857 Saint Vincent received nearly 300 oil paintings from the collection of King Ludwig. In 1866 Abbot Boniface established a house of studies in Rome for American Benedictine students. Saint Vincent Seminary, too, was soon firmly established: already by 1848 there were 25 students enrolled, with a faculty of five professors.
Saint Vincent was raised to the status of an independent priory in 1852. Then on August 24, 1855, Pope Pius IX officially promulgated an apostolic brief whereby Saint Vincent became an abbey, the first monastery of the new American-Cassinese Congregation in the United States. At the same time the Pope personally appointed and blessed Wimmer as the first abbot of Saint Vincent for a three-year term. When this temporary appointment expired, Wimmer was elected by the monastic community according to the usual Benedictine practice.
Soon Boniface Wimmer’s vision of extending Benedictine communities throughout the United States began to show signs of fulfillment. In 1856 the abbot and monastic chapter considered requests from four bishops to establish missions in their dioceses. The monks decided first to send missionaries to the Diocese of Saint Paul, Minnesota, a region with many German settlers but few priests. A priory was established there in 1858, and in 1866 it attained the status of an abbey. This community, Saint John’s Abbey, grew to be the largest Benedictine community in the world. In 1857 the Saint Vincent community responded to an appeal for help from Kansas. The original foundation of two monks expanded to become a priory in 1858 and then became Saint Benedict’s Abbey in 1876. Despite his reservations about founding a monastery in a city, Abbot Boniface agreed to send monks to Newark, New Jersey, in 1857. The unique urban community became Saint Mary’s Abbey in 1884.
The Saint Vincent community also felt a special responsibility for service in the American South. Monks were stationed in Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Texas, and Alabama. Some of these ventures failed and the abbot had to withdraw his men. Others developed into independent abbeys, notably Belmont Abbey in North Carolina (1884) and Saint Bernard Abbey in Alabama (1891). Abbot Boniface and the community also responded to requests for Benedictine monks in Illinois and Colorado. Springing from these early foundations were Saint Procopius Abbey (1894) and Holy Cross Abbey (1925). In 1857 Wimmer remarked, “Each abbey must become the mother of other abbeys: the mission spirit does not allow me to rest nor to stand still.”
The founding story of the Benedictine Sisters in the United States is also related to Boniface Wimmer and the foundations Saint Vincent had made. In 1851 Wimmer had appealed to the Priory of Saint Walburga at Eichstatt in Bavaria for sisters to teach in the settlements where he had established monasteries. The following year Wimmer helped three sisters from Eichstätt to establish a community in St. Marys, Pennsylvania. The subsequent story of his relationship with the sisters was often one of contention over the issues of authority and the allocation of funds. The matter of jurisdiction was finally settled by a Roman decree of 1859 which determined that foundations of Benedictine Sisters in the United States would be independent of Wimmer and the American-Cassinese Congregation. Nevertheless, the sisters and the monks ultimately have built upon one another’s work, and both groups have made significant contributions to church and society.
The Civil War caused the community anguish. Saint Vincent was cut off from its foundations in the South, and some monks were drafted into the Northern army. At various times the monastic community suffered from serious crop failures and financial debt. The 25th anniversary year of 1871 began with a financial misadventure in Kansas and ended with the destruction of Saint Joseph Priory in Chicago during the great fire in that city. Still the abbot was able to inspire the community to see promise in each crisis and to share the little they had with others. During the bank failure of 1872-73, Wimmer wrote, “We daily give food to thirty or forty strangers and shelter them in our exterior buildings.” His practical theology in the face of crisis might be summed up in his comment “Man’s adversity is God’s opportunity.”
Forward, Always Forward
Boniface Wimmer died on December 8, 1887. Despite all the setbacks and difficulties, Wimmer’s 41 years of prayer and work in America had produced results. The college and seminary had prospered, now bolstered with a charter from the Pennsylvania legislature to grand academic degrees. The foundations from Saint Vincent formed a network of monastic houses and schools from coast to coast. Abbots of the foundations had received their formation under Wimmer and in many cases reflected his enterprising spirit. Toward the end of his life he wrote, “No one imagined us capable of accomplishing anything significant, and yet we did accomplish something. God’s grace was obviously with us…” The legacy of the indomitable spirit that Boniface Wimmer gave to Saint Vincent can be summed up in his own words: “Our customary tendency to move forward must continue. Forward, always forward, everywhere forward.”
Donald S. Raila, O.S.B.