FROM the perspective of the twenty-first century it may seem strange to discuss monasticism in America from the perspective of missionary activity. In the nineteenth century, however, the United States was considered to be an important mission territory. “During the First Vatican Council [and] among the authorities of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Propaganda Fide)...missionary work was primarily understood to mean activities among the Christians of the Eastern churches and the Catholic immigrants in North America.”3
The idea of a Benedictine “Mission” to America was the personal project of a Bavarian monk, Boniface Wimmer. Born in 1809, Sebastian Wimmer was ordained a secular priest in 1831, and served as curate at the Marian shrine of Altoetting in the Bavarian diocese of Regensburg. In 1830, through the influence of King Ludwig I, monastic life in the abbey of Metten which had been suppressed since the secularization decrees of 1803, was officially reinstated. The two aged monks who had agreed to return to conventual life at Metten hardly constituted a flourishing community, however;4 and the Bishop of Regensburg was asked for help in recruiting vocations. Wimmer was one of these. On December 29, 1833 he received the monastic name “Boniface”5 and became the second monk to make profession at Metten after the restoration. The first, Gregory, subsequently became Wimmer’s abbot.
Sent as a professor to the newly-established Benedictine College of St. Stephen’s in Augsburg, Wimmer soon won a problematic reputation among his colleagues as a Projektenmacher (“project-maker” or “visionary” here intended in the pejorative sense of “dreamer”).6 Later sent as professor to Munich, he personally witnessed the beginnings of massive waves of emigration from Europe to the United States in 1842. In that same year he became acquainted with the plight of German Catholic immigrants in America, and he petitioned his fellow-novice Gregory, now abbot of Metten, for permission to go to America as a missionary. His former confrere refused, however, suggesting instead that Dom Boniface support the American Mission with his prayers.
Throughout the next three years Wimmer’s conviction that he should go to America grew stronger. He urged his abbot to allow Metten to serve the Church by taking on responsibility for foreign missions as had the medieval English and Irish monasteries: “We [the Benedictine Order] belong to the whole world. The heretics are spreading to all parts of the earth and we are keeping warm behind the stove.”7 His notion of going to America as a solitary missionary underwent substantial revision during this time. Partly as the result of a meeting with a German-American priest, Fr. Peter Lemke, Wimmer conceived the idea of transplanting Benedictine monasticism to America.8
His abbot, however, remained unconvinced of the feasibility of Wimmer’s plans. Thus in 1845 Fr. Boniface independently contacted the papal nuncio, Archbishop Charles Morichini, and submitted a request to be forwarded directly to Propaganda Fide in Rome. He asked for permission to travel to the American missions and “also laid before His Excellency the plan of founding a monastery on the property which Father Lemke promised to sell me.”9
Wimmer subsequently received various unsatisfactory responses to his requests. His abbot eventually granted him permission to go to America; but the Chapter at Metten was unwilling to authorize an American foundation. They feared that Wimmer secretly longed for abbatial pontificalia, and that the proposal for an American foundation was merely a means for achieving his personal ambitions.10
In 1842, however, Fr. Boniface was able to win the personal support of King Ludwig I for his proposal. The wholehearted support of the nuncio rapidly followed.11 Eventually he received authorization from his abbey to proceed with his plans; and on July 25, 1846 Boniface Wimmer set out from Munich with a band of theological students who eventually became the nucleus of the American-Cassinese Congregation, today one of the larger congregations in the Benedictine Confederation.
Wimmer’s method of achieving his goal of a Benedictine mission (foundation) merits close attention. Unable to convince his monastic confreres or superior of the merits of his plan, Wimmer appealed directly to Rome through the person of the papal nuncio. When Propaganda Fide revealed its reluctance to interfere directly in the relationship between a Benedictine abbot and his subject, Wimmer was forced to seek the support of the King of Bavaria, which eventually proved essential for the achievement of his goals.
Wimmer’s correspondence with his abbot during this period reveals a curious mixture of ostensible respect for the abbatial office (“I will take you at your word, which is holy to me”)12 coupled with a bullying attitude: “...I will not let you go so easily...you will have the choice [when I write to Rome] either of declaring me unfit for this mission...or admitting simply that you do not want to live up to your word.”13 This unusual approach to the implementation of monastic goals may be seen in the lives of the other founders of missionary Benedictinism, Andreas Amrhein and Gerard VanCaloen.
3 Jacob Baumgartner, “Missions in the Shadow of Colonialism”, HISTORY OF THE CHURCH, ed. Jedin, (London, 1981) p. 527.
4 Jerome Oetgen, AN AMERICAN ABBOT, BONIFACE WIMMER, O.S.B., (Latrobe, 1976) p. 23.
5 His choice of the name “Boniface” did not signify an early interest in the Missions: rather, he took the name of Boniface Urban, dean of the diocese of Regensburg; Oetgen, p. 23.
6 Oetgen, p. 35.
7Oetgen, p. 39.
8 Oetgen, p. 41
9 Oetgen, p. 43.
10 Oetgen, p. 52.
11 Oetgen, p. 51.
This Webpage was created for a workshop held at Saint Andrew's Abbey, Valyermo, California in 1990