Sunday, February 20, 2011

Swiss-American (Part II)

Br. Mauritius and 90-year-old Ermida Itin, the sister of his father's
godfather, Bruno Itin. She came to the U.S. in the 1950s and used
to work as a waitress at Bruno's Swiss Inn in West-Lafayette, IN.

SPECIAL FEATURE: Once again, I have asked Br. Mauritius from our mother Abbey of Einsiedeln in Switzerland to write a guest post about his experiences thus far while studying here at Saint Meinrad.
-- Br. Francis

I was in prison and you visited me

I begin this report on Dec. 10, 2010, the day the fall semester ended. That particular evening, Brother Zachary invited me to the prison in Branchville, IN, where he is a chaplain and teaches catechesis. He asked me to speak to the prisoners about my time in the Vatican and my experience as a Swiss Guard.

I had previously found some books in the library and printed out some pictures which I could show during the visit. It was a unique and enriching encounter for me. The guys had a lot of questions and the two hours went by very quickly.

“The prisoners are only a few drinks away from us,” Br. Zachary said to me when we had left the security check points behind. That statement probably contains a great deal of truth.

My name, Mauritius, is difficult for some English speakers, and I have heard various versions of it—Morris, Maurice, Mauricio, Morishus. The best and shortest one, however, I received in the prison—Bro Mo! I really like it.

I was a stranger and you welcomed me

On Saturday, Dec. 11, I left Saint Meinrad for the Christmas break. I would return three weeks later. Seminarian Pete Logsdon from the Diocese of Lafayette took me in his car. We headed north for four hours, and arrived precisely at the intended time, 6 p.m., at Bruno’s Swiss Inn in West-Lafayette, IN.

This restaurant was opened by Bruno Itin in the 1950s. Bruno used to work as a baker in my ancestors’ bakery back in Winterthur, Switzerland. My grandfather Ernst and Bruno must have been pretty close friends. Otherwise, there would be no reason for Bruno to become the godfather of Ernst’s son Rudolf who many years later would become my father!

In 1951, shortly after my father was born and baptized, Bruno immigrated to the U.S., where he first worked for a construction company in Gary, IN, and then for a pizza place in the area. He decided to start his own business and moved to Lafayette where “Bruno’s” quickly developed into a successful and widely known restaurant. When Bruno died in 2006, his three children took it over and still run it today.

When I entered the dining room, a man looked at me and (really!) asked me: “Are you a Honegger?” So I knew I was at the right place. It was a warm and generous welcome. I was introduced to so many people that I hardly had time to eat the delicious “Bruno dough” appetizers and the huge, house-made pizza.

I was especially surprised when 90 year-old Ermida started to speak accent-free, Swiss German to me. She is Bruno’s older sister who, shortly after his departure from Switzerland, followed him to the U.S. and worked for many years as a waitress in his restaurant.

I spent the night at the house of Bruno’s son and his wife Karen. When I told them of my plans to travel to North Dakota, they looked at me and said: “No, with this light jacket, you definitively cannot go to North Dakota.” In order to save space in my suitcase while coming from Switzerland in August, I had brought only my light blue jacket. How could I know at that time where I would celebrate Christmas and what the weather would be like? So they equipped me with a heavier coat, gloves, warm socks, and a pair of “180’s” to cover my ears.

I experienced so much generosity and hospitality for which I am deeply grateful. Saint Benedict writes in his Rule that in all guests, Christ is received. So, they definitively earned some credit in that regard!

After attending Mass at the cathedral in Lafayette—where several of my fellow seminarians are going to be ordained to the diaconate (on their way to the priesthood)—I took the bus to Chicago. That Sunday afternoon, a terrible blizzard hit. All the roads, even the interstate, were covered with snow. Several cars went off the road. When we eventually arrived at the bus terminal in Chicago, I told the driver, “You did a good job; this was not easy today.”

Chicago – cold and windy

Father Edward, a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, lives and works as a pastor at an inner-city parish in south-side Chicago. He had invited me to spend some time at his rectory. This was a unique opportunity for me. Fr. Edward hosts four young men with whom he prays, celebrates daily Mass, and shares a kind of community life. Two of them, Anthony and Stalone, are from India and study at the nearby technical college. Matt, a seminarian, is doing a pastoral year and works as a campus minister at the same school. Alex, from Wisconsin, volunteers at the parish food pantry which distributes food to homeless people and poor families of the neighborhood.

One morning, I helped at the pantry and was able to see how it functions. It was sad to see the poverty of these children of God. Many were African-American, but there was also, surprisingly, a great deal of Chinese. Most did not speak English.

I also spent some time getting to know Chicago. I visited the Art Institute, the Museum for Science and Industry, the Museum of Eastern Cultures, and Saint Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein.

White Christmas

I flew out of Chicago O’Hare International Airport to Bismarck, North Dakota. The woman at the check-in counter surprised me twice. First, she told me that I must pay $25 for my baggage, which I had not expected. Further, when I showed her my passport, she was able to name several cities in my native Switzerland where she had been—but she had no idea where Bismarck was, the American town where I was going. She even asked me whether it was in the United States! Obviously, Bismarck, the capital of North Dakota, is not one of the most frequented travel destinations.

Assumption Abbey in North Dakota
The flight went well and I arrived safely—but my suitcase did not. It stayed in Chicago—what poor service! It was the first time I ever had to pay extra for my baggage to be lost! However, the airline promised to send it to me by the next day.

Father Valerian, a monk of Assumption Abbey, was waiting for me at the Bismarck airport and drove me to the monastery. He proved very helpful in dealing with the whole missing baggage issue. One consequences of the lost baggage was that I was forced—not less than a whole day—to wear the Beuronese habit long worn by American Benedictines. It was hard to accept, and I did it very reluctantly. In my opinion, the opposite should be the case—the monks who live in monasteries founded by Einsiedeln should wear the Swiss Benedictine habit. (More later on this difference between Beuronese and Swiss customs when I speak about Mount Angel.)

Assumption Abbey was founded in 1893 by Fr. Vincent Wehrle, a Benedictine monk from Einsiedeln, who later became the first bishop of Bismarck. It is located in the small town of Richardton, right at the railway that connects Chicago with the Pacific Ocean. Today, however, no train stops anymore because there is only cargo transport, mainly coal. Persons travel by car on the highway.

Richardton was originally a settlement of German-speaking Catholics. The monks served as pastors and teachers for the population. The Abbey still runs a cattle ranch. Since the closing of the monastery school, several monks of the community are away from the monastery working as teachers, pastors, chaplains, or missionaries among Native Americans. Fr. Damian, for example, is a teacher at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology. Another monk, Brother Anthony, is a student at Saint Meinrad, and was my classmate last semester.

I enjoyed my stay at Assumption Abbey and felt well-integrated in the community. Especially for the Christmas celebration, the monks did a great deal of preparing, cooking, and decorating.

Go West

I left North Dakota on Dec. 26. I took the flight from Bismarck to Denver, Colorado, where I caught a connecting flight to Portland, Oregon. Despite the gain of two hours because of the different time zones, it was late night when I arrived there. Still, Br. Mark, the guest master of Mount Angel Abbey, was waiting for me at the airport to pick me up.

The weather at Mount Angel is totally different from North Dakota. Because it is near the Pacific Coast, it is always quite mild. There is snow only on the top of the mountains. Some days it rains heavily.

Mount Angel Abbey was established in 1882. It is not, however, an Einsiedeln foundation. In 1873 another Swiss Benedictine house, the Abbey of Engelberg, started a monastery in Missouri, today Conception Abbey. The two pioneer monks were Fathers Frowin Conrad and Adelhelm Odermatt.

Fr. Frowin, who became the leader of the new foundation, was fascinated with the new and powerful reformed monasticism of Beuron (in Germany). He thought it was more effective than the Swiss way of Benedictine life. He increasingly introduced Beuronese customs and abandoned the Swiss tradition, which displeased Fr. Adelhelm and the abbot of Engelberg. They even considered it as a betrayal of the Swiss heritage.

When in 1881 the foundation was raised to an independent abbey, Fr. Adelhelm was not willing to transfer his stability to Conception. After consulting with the abbot of Engelberg, he left Conception to head west. He was to establish the real “New-Engelberg” that would carefully keep the customs of the Swiss motherhouse. And even its name “Mount Angel” is a reminder of this intention—it is the English translation of Engel-Berg.

Under the influence of Frowin Conrad, the first abbot of Conception Abbey, the entire Swiss-American Benedictine Congregation (including Saint Meinrad and Mount Angel) adopted some Beuronese customs (for example, the Beuronese habit). However, Mount Angel, of all the monasteries I have visited in the U.S., is the one that is most similar to the way of life I was introduced to at Einsiedeln. I enjoyed the beautiful liturgy of the Christmas Octave, the silent meals with table reading, and I felt very much at home. Mount Angel Abbey runs a seminary and school of theology similar to Saint Meinrad.

Icon by Br. Claude at Mount Angel.
St. Maurice is on the left.
Mount Angel is also the only monastery of the congregation that celebrates the memorial of Saint Maurice, my patron saint. He is one of the patrons of the Abbey, and on a wall in the refectory there is a large icon of Mary and St. Maurice to her right. The icon is the work of Br. Claude, a monk of Mount Angel.

Back in the Midwest

I returned to Saint Meinrad on Jan. 4 (thanks to seminarian Peter Bucalo, who picked me up at the Louisville airport), just a day before the January interterm classes began. During this two-week period, students focus on one subject only. I did an insightful independent study on spiritual direction.

Before the spring semester started, I had the opportunity to spend a weekend at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. It was a good experience of another type of Benedictine monasticism—stricter, more silent, and contemplative. The monks there, wearing a white habit with a black scapular, rise to pray Vigils at 3:15 a.m. every day.

I also have had the privilege to witness the professions of two Saint Meinrad monks. On Jan. 20, Novice Michael made his temporary vows and received the name Br. Elijah. And finally, on Jan. 25, I was a guest of honor when Br. Francis promised stability, obedience, and conversatio morum. I was happy to get to know his mother and family at that occasion.

Now, we are about three weeks into the spring semester. Again, I am taking very interesting classes, and am grateful to have the opportunity to gain such sound pastoral formation. I am enrolled in the following courses: Homiletics, Introduction to Pastoral Care and Counseling, Priesthood and Spirituality, Liturgical Practicum, Crisis Ministry, Spanish, English, and Greek. I have already celebrated my first “practice” Mass and delivered my first “practice” homily. On Wednesday evenings, I continue to teach religious education to high school students at Saints Peter and Paul Parish in Haubstadt, IN.
--Br. Mauritius

SOME FINAL NOTES: In a few months, we will have other visitors from our mother Abbey of Einsieldeln. Abbot Martin plans to visit in May, when he will speak at Commencement in the school. He will be accompanied by Br. Alexander. In addition, just as Br. Mauritius is doing now, Br. Thomas will join us next fall to study at the school here.

In the continued effort to strengthen our ties, one of our junior monks, Br. Luke, will be visiting Einsiedeln this coming summer just as I did last year.

Incidentally, we have another Swiss monk here visiting with us for a few days, though not from Einsiedeln. He is Fr. Armin Russi from Mariastein Abbey, who is the guestmaster there and spending several months in the United States on sabbatical (mostly in Wisconsin). So, Br. Mauritius has someone to speak Swiss German with!

During a weekend in early April, Br. Mauritius and I plan to travel to my hometown of Findlay, Ohio. We will stay with my mother, and I will show him the sights in Findlay, Toledo, and the surrounding area where I lived, worked, and prayed for many years. If there's time, on the way we may stop in Maria Stein, Ohio, which is named for Mariastein in Switzerland (the name means St. Mary in the Rock). The area is heavily German Catholic, and a number of churches were established in the region in the mid-19th Century by a Swiss missionary priest by the name of Francis de Sales Brunner (same patron saint as mine!). The town is noted for its Shrine of the Holy Relics. Hopefully, we will get a chance to make a brief stop.

I am still working up an itineray of sorts, but there are two musts--Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Cathedral in Toledo, and Dietsch Ice Cream and Candy in Findlay (but of course!).
-- Br. Francis


Anonymous said...

Very nice Blog!

Many greatings from Switzerland,

your Arbnor.

Br. Francis de Sales Wagner said...

Hello, Arbnor!

Hope all is well. Are you a monk yet?

All the best from Saint Meinrad!

Br. Francis

Anonymous said...

Hello Brother Francis!

haha this joke was good, not yet monk maybe in many years... so god will :-)

PAX from Switzerland!