Benedictines from Saint Vincent Archabbey first went to China in 1925 when the country was in the midst of armed conflicts between warlords and revolutionary forces trying to unify the fledgling Republic. The Benedictines intended to begin a priory in Peking and to establish the city’s first Catholic university. In 1929, with the approval of China’s Ministry of Education, Fu Jen Catholic University opened its doors to Chinese students.
This project in China had begun at the request of Pope Pius XI and was under the auspices of the American-Cassinese Congregation of Benedictines with Saint Vincent Archabbey as the primary sponsor. Over twenty Benedictines from various American abbeys, the greatest number coming from Saint Vincent, shared the work at the priory and university in these early years.
Archabbot Aurelius Stehle of Saint Vincent Archabbey was the primary moving spirit behind this Benedictine venture into China and was the first chancellor of Fu Jen Catholic University. His untimely death in 1930 and the Great Depression in the United States, however, made the continued operation of the university by the Benedictines highly problematic. In 1933 Fu Jen Catholic University was handed over to the Society of the Divine Word, who then operated the university until it was taken over by the Chinese Communist government in 1950.
In 1960, at the urging of Pope John XXIII, Archbishop (later Cardinal) Paul Yu-Pin began working for the reestablishment of Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan. At this time, Archabbot Denis Strittmatter sent Father Hugh Wilt, who as a young cleric and priest had been a member of the Peking endeavor, to Taiwan to assist with this undertaking.
In the spring of 1963, the Saint Vincent community under the leadership of newly-elected Archabbot Rembert Weakland approved the establishment of a dependent priory in Taiwan near the reestablished Fu Jen Catholic University. A priory building was constructed and was dedicated on the feast of Saint Boniface in June 1964. The foundation was named Wimmer Priory after Archabbot Boniface Wimmer, the founder of Saint Vincent Archabbey. It has become a center of Benedictine prayer and hospitality. The Divine Office is recited daily in Chinese. Monks from Wimmer Priory have also worked as teachers and administrators at Fu Jen Catholic University. The priory in the 1960s established a Catholic community in the neighboring town of Linkou, which is now a very active parish of Chinese Catholics. The large yard at the priory has functioned as a playground for three generations of Chinese youngsters.
At present Brother Nicholas Koss from Saint Vincent and Father Cyprian Weaver from Saint John’s Abbey (Minnesota) are assigned to Wimmer Priory. A number of priests and brothers from other religious congregations are also in residence at the priory while they study Chinese at Fu Jen Catholic University. Both Brother Nicholas and Father Cyprian teach at Fu Jen. Father Cyprian is assisting with the establishment of a College of Medicine. Brother Nicholas, who teaches in the English department, has organized two international conferences on literature and religion that were held at Fu Jen (1986 and 1990) and attracted scholars from Asia and the West. He also participated in the establishment of an Asian association for the study of literature and religion.
Benedictine Sisters from Saint Benedict in Minnesota went to China in 1930 and first worked at Fu Jen Catholic University and later at Kaifeng. In 1949 the community moved to Taiwan. Since Father Hugh’s arrival in Taiwan in 1960 the monks of Wimmer Priory have worked closely with the sisters in attempting to bring Benedictine life to China. The sisters and Brother Nicholas are also planning to start a program for Benedictine Oblates as well as to work on the translation of books about Benedictine Monasticism into Chinese.
In recent years the Chinese Mainland has opened considerably to the outside world. At the instruction of Archabbot Douglas Nowicki, Brother Nicholas has been working with officials of the Beijing Fu Jen Alumni Association and administrators of the Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan towards the reestablishment of a Fu Jen in Beijing. As a first step in this direction, Brother Nicholas and other professors from the Taiwan Fu Jen will be teaching short-term courses in Beijing on the grounds of the old Fu Jen Catholic University.
As part of its sesquicentennial celebration, Saint Vincent Archabbey will host an international on the history of Benedictines in China and on Benedictine values and Chinese culture.
Paul R. Maher, O.S.B.