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How the Benedictines Shaped American Catholicism: An Interpretative History



The Benedictine Order in the United States: An Interpretative History




Introduction




The Benedictines are one of the oldest and most widespread religious orders in the Catholic Church. They follow the Rule of Saint Benedict, a sixth-century monk who wrote a guide for living a balanced life of prayer, work, and community. The Benedictines are also known as the Black Monks, because of the color of their habits.




The Benedictine Order in the United States: An Interpretative History



The Benedictines came to the United States in the nineteenth century, mainly to serve the pastoral needs of the growing number of German-speaking Catholic immigrants. They established monasteries, schools, colleges, parishes, missions, and other institutions that enriched American Catholicism with their distinctive spirituality and culture. They also formed federations or congregations that reflected their diversity and autonomy.


In this article, we will explore the history and contributions of the Benedictine Order in the United States. We will focus on three main topics: (1) The first Benedictine monastery in America: Saint Vincent Archabbey; (2) The American Cassinese Congregation: A federation of Benedictine monasteries; (3) The Swiss-American Congregation: A distinctive Benedictine tradition.


The First Benedictine Monastery: Saint Vincent Archabbey




The vision of Boniface Wimmer




The founder of the first Benedictine monastery in America was Boniface Wimmer, a young monk from Bavaria who had a dream of bringing Benedictine life to the New World. He wrote to his abbot in 1845: "I feel an inner call to go to America ... There are millions without faith ... I have a burning desire to bring them to Christ."


Wimmer received permission from Rome to start his venture, along with financial support from a Munich immigrant aid society. He gathered 18 recruits, mostly lay brothers and novices, and sailed for North America in 1846. After arriving in Pennsylvania, he accepted an offer from Bishop Michael O'Connor of Pittsburgh to take land near Latrobe, where he founded Saint Vincent Archabbey.


The challenges and achievements of Saint Vincent Archabbey




Wimmer and his companions faced many difficulties in their new home. They had to clear the land, build their own buildings, farm their own crops, and learn English. They also had to deal with hostility from some of the local people, who were suspicious of their foreign accents and habits. Wimmer wrote: "We are hated by all, even by many Catholics ... We are called lazy monks, black devils, and worse."


Despite these hardships, Wimmer and his monks persevered in their mission. They provided sacramental care and education to the German-speaking Catholics in the area, as well as to the Native Americans and African Americans. They also founded the first Catholic college in Pennsylvania, Saint Vincent College, in 1848. They soon attracted more vocations and donations, and became a thriving community.


The expansion and influence of Saint Vincent Archabbey




Wimmer's vision was not limited to Saint Vincent Archabbey. He wanted to spread Benedictine life throughout the United States and beyond. He sent monks to establish new foundations in other states, such as Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Georgia, North Carolina, and New Jersey. He also sent missionaries to foreign lands, such as Brazil, China, Taiwan, and Tanzania.


Wimmer's efforts made Saint Vincent Archabbey the motherhouse of many Benedictine monasteries in America and abroad. He also became the leader of the American Benedictine movement, organizing meetings and conferences to foster cooperation and communication among the different communities. He was recognized by Pope Pius IX as the "Archabbot of America" in 1855.


The American Cassinese Congregation: A Federation of Benedictine Monasteries




The origin and purpose of the American Cassinese Congregation




The American Cassinese Congregation was founded in 1855 by Wimmer and eight other abbots of Benedictine monasteries in the United States. It was named after Monte Cassino, the famous abbey in Italy where Saint Benedict wrote his Rule. The purpose of the congregation was to provide mutual support and guidance among the Benedictine communities in America, while respecting their autonomy and diversity.


The congregation adopted a constitution that outlined its principles and norms. It also elected an abbot president, who served as the representative and coordinator of the congregation. The abbot president had no authority over the individual monasteries, but rather acted as a facilitator and mediator. The congregation also held regular meetings or chapters, where the abbots discussed common issues and made decisions by consensus.


The diversity and unity of the American Cassinese Congregation




The American Cassinese Congregation was composed of monasteries that had different origins, cultures, languages, and charisms. Some were founded by German monks from Saint Vincent Archabbey or other European abbeys; some were founded by Irish monks from Saint John's Abbey in Minnesota; some were founded by Italian monks from Subiaco Abbey in Italy; some were founded by American-born monks from various backgrounds.


Despite their differences, the monasteries of the American Cassinese Congregation shared a common bond of Benedictine spirituality and tradition. They followed the Rule of Saint Benedict as their guide for living a balanced life of prayer, work, and community. They also shared a common mission of serving the Church and society through various apostolates, such as education, pastoral care, social justice, ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, and cultural preservation.


The role and impact of the American Cassinese Congregation




The American Cassinese Congregation played an important role in the development and renewal of Benedictine life in the United States. It fostered a sense of solidarity and collaboration among its members, as well as with other religious orders and lay organizations. It also promoted a spirit of adaptation and innovation to meet the changing needs and challenges of the times.


The Swiss-American Congregation: A Distinctive Benedictine Tradition




The foundation and identity of the Swiss-American Congregation




The Swiss-American Congregation was founded in 1881 by Martin Marty, a Swiss monk from Einsiedeln Abbey who came to America in 1876. He was appointed the first vicar apostolic of Dakota Territory, where he established several missions for the Native Americans. He also founded Saint Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana, which became the motherhouse of the Swiss-American Congregation.


The Swiss-American Congregation was characterized by its strong attachment to its Swiss roots and its close relationship with the Native Americans. The monks wore white habits, instead of black, to honor their homeland and to distinguish themselves from other religious orders. They also adopted a more austere and contemplative lifestyle, following the example of their patron saint, Meinrad of Einsiedeln, who lived as a hermit in the Swiss Alps.


The growth and development of the Swiss-American Congregation




The Swiss-American Congregation grew rapidly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as more Swiss monks joined Marty's mission and new foundations were established in other states, such as Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, and Wyoming. The congregation also expanded its apostolates to include education, publishing, printing, farming, and cheese-making.


The Swiss-American Congregation faced many challenges and changes in the twentieth century. It suffered from a decline in vocations and donations, as well as from internal conflicts and divisions. It also had to adapt to the social and cultural transformations of American society and the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The congregation underwent a process of renewal and reorganization, revising its constitution and redefining its identity and mission.


The spirituality and mission of the Swiss-American Congregation




The Swiss-American Congregation maintained its distinctive Benedictine tradition and spirituality. It emphasized the values of simplicity, humility, hospitality, silence, prayer, work, and obedience. It also cultivated a special devotion to Mary, under the title of Our Lady of Einsiedeln, who was venerated in a black statue at Einsiedeln Abbey.


The Swiss-American Congregation continued its mission of serving the Church and society through various ministries. It focused especially on the pastoral care and evangelization of the Native Americans, who were considered as brothers and sisters in Christ. It also supported various causes of justice and peace, such as racial equality, human rights, environmental protection, and interreligious dialogue.


Conclusion




The Benedictine Order in the United States has a rich and diverse history that spans over 150 years. It has contributed to American Catholicism and society with its unique spirituality and culture. It has also faced many challenges and changes that have tested its faithfulness and vitality.


The Benedictines in America are not a monolithic or uniform group. They are composed of different congregations and monasteries that have their own origins, identities, charisms, and missions. They are united by their common bond of following the Rule of Saint Benedict and their common goal of seeking God in prayer, work, and community.


The Benedictines in America are not a static or stagnant group. They are dynamic and adaptable to the signs of the times. They are open to new opportunities and challenges that call them to grow and renew their life and mission. They are faithful to their tradition and creative in their expression.


The Benedictines in America are not an isolated or irrelevant group. They are connected and engaged with the Church and society. They are responsive and attentive to the needs and aspirations of the people they serve. They are witnesses and agents of God's love and grace.


FAQs





  • What is the difference between an abbey and a priory?



  • An abbey is a fully independent monastery whose superior is an abbot. A priory is a dependent monastery whose superior is a prior.



  • What is the difference between an archabbey and an abbey?



  • An archabbey is an honorary title given to some abbeys that have historical or cultural significance. An archabbey has no special authority or privileges over other abbeys.



  • What is the difference between the Rule of Saint Benedict and the Constitution of a Benedictine Congregation?



  • The Rule of Saint Benedict is a universal guide for living a balanced life of prayer, work, and community. The Constitution of a Benedictine Congregation is a specific set of norms and regulations that govern the organization and administration of a group of Benedictine monasteries.



  • What is the difference between the Benedictine Confederation and the Benedictine Congregation?



  • The Benedictine Confederation is a worldwide network of Benedictine congregations that represent the order's shared interests. The Benedictine Congregation is a regional or national federation of Benedictine monasteries that provide mutual support and guidance.



  • What is the difference between the Benedictines and the Cistercians?



  • The Cistercians are a reform movement within the Benedictine Order that originated in the twelfth century. They follow a stricter interpretation of the Rule of Saint Benedict and emphasize simplicity, austerity, and manual labor.



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