It took Benedictine Father Boniface Wimmer three years and four attempts to gain permission from his superiors to sail from Bavaria to the United States, where he envisioned spreading the Order of St. Benedict and evangelizing immigrants, especially ones from his native Germany.
Finally, in 1846, he led a group of 18 novices to what is now Unity, near Latrobe. There he founded Saint Vincent Archabbey and College, the first Benedictine monastery in the United States.
On Wednesday, Saint Vincent College will kick off a year long celebration in honor of the 200th anniversary of the birth of the man who Catholic historian John Tracy Ellis called "the greatest Catholic missionary of nineteenth century America."
The Boniface Wimmer Bicentennial Year will begin at 7 p.m. Wednesday with prayer and an opening ceremony. The keynote speaker will be Abbot Notker Wolf, the grand chancellor of the Pontifical College of Sant'Anselmo, in Rome, and a representative of the Benedictine Order in Rome.
Saint Vincent has planned related events for every month until closing ceremonies Nov. 19, Founders' Day.
"Boniface Wimmer was a man with a strong personality," said Archabbot Douglas Nowicki, chancellor of Saint Vincent, who has been with the school since he was a 13-year-old prep student nearly 50 years ago.
"He spoke his mind and he was clear about what he wanted to accomplish. When he established a monastery, he would always work to find the resources and to raise the money. He made tremendous contributions."
In the first five years after his arrival, Archabbot Wimmer recruited 100 monks and sent them to different parts of the country to establish schools. Because of his work, there are 75 Benedictine schools in the United States, including Saint Vincent, 150 Benedictine parishes and seven Benedictine abbeys.
At the end of Archabbot Wimmer's time, Benedictine priests under his direction were providing pastoral care for more than 50,000 people. He also guided many monks, sisters and laity through hard times in their spiritual lives.
Even though some people did not take him seriously and some thought he was ill-prepared, that did not stop Archabbot Wimmer from achieving all of those dreams.
In preparation for the bicentennial celebration, the Rev. Brian Boosel, a teacher at Saint Vincent for 16 years, developed a course on their founder. Although the class was limited to 20 students, 42 signed up.
"We were able to admit everyone into the class," he said. "I think it's important to know who your forefathers and foremothers are, and to have a sense of why they began what they began.
"They have a connection with someone who lived 150 years ago because they are students, and a lot of his vision is still alive here. His teachings of St. Benedict are just as fresh in 2009 as they were in 1846."
Archabbot Wimmer believed that everyone should have an opportunity for a quality education. At the time he came to the United States, an undergraduate education was reserved for those with financial means or who had connections that could get them into a school.
Archabbot Wimmer saw a lot of possibility for academic success in immigrants who didn't have the financial resources to excel.
"He was always stretching the limits and capacities," Archabbot Nowicki said. "He saw education as a way to liberate people. He saw problems as opportunities and said, 'Forward, always forward, everywhere forward.' And he believed that 'man's adversity is God's opportunity.' "
Archabbot Wimmer was a practical man whose hopefulness and contribution to the Catholic Church are evident in the inspiring letters he wrote.
Jerome Oetgen, a U.S ambassador in Haiti and a Saint Vincent alumnus, recently published "Boniface Wimmer: Letters of an American Abbot," a work that he started in 1976.
The book contains translations of 200 of the most important letters that Archabot Wimmer wrote from 1832 until his death in 1887. Mr. Oetgen will lecture on the heritage of Archabbot Wimmer on March 26 at Saint Vincent, followed by a book-signing reception.
"His letters revealed the tremendous challenges that he faced," Archabbot Nowicki said. "One time he wrote back to his former abbot and said they had a particularly hard year. 'We will not be held back by debt, or famine, or the ravages of bad weather ...,' he said."
Today, Saint Vincent Archabbey is the largest Benedictine monastery in the world. American Benedictines who trace their roots directly to Archabbot Wimmer work in more than 20 states, and in Canada, Mexico, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Brazil, the Bahamas, China and Japan. Saint Vincent even founded the first Catholic University in Beijing, in 1995.
"It's important in our world that everyone today has educational opportunities," Archabbot Nowicki said. "It's the way for all of us to not only become part of society, but to make a major contribution to the society that helps educate us."
For more information on the celebration, go to www.saintvincentarchabbey.org.
Freelance writer Sarah Eidemiller can be reached in care of firstname.lastname@example.org.
First published on January 8, 2009 at 5:38 am
Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09008/940238-59.stm#ixzz1l9otSQ1r
By Sarah Eidemiller