ASSUMPTION ABBEY

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RICHARDTON, ND 58652


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Fr. Vincent Wehrle as a cleric at Einsiedeln Abbey, about 1880.

THE BEGINNINGS


Fr. Vincent Wehrle as a cleric at Einsiedeln Abbey, about 1880.  


After the anti-Catholic activity of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s rule, the Catholic Church in Europe took a missionary turn in the mid-19th c. The result: the revival of the Order of St. Benedict in Europe.


Soon, these revived monasteries established communities in the United States, beginning in Pennsylvania in 1846. The foundation of the Assumption Abbey community of monks traces its roots to this Benedictine movement in the 19th c. Its founder is a Swiss monk, Fr. Vincent Wehrle, OSB.


Bitten early in life by the missionary bug, Wehrle began studies for the priesthood in a Swiss diocesan minor seminary. When an anti-clerical state government closed it down, he moved to another Swiss seminary, this one at Our Lady of Einsiedein Abbey. Two years later he joined the Benedictines there and continued theology studies. Immediately after ordination in 1882, he volunteered for work in America.


Following three years as a missionary in Arkansas and two as an assistant pastor in Indiana, Wehrle was sent to Dakota Territory to work with Bishop Martin Marty, OSB, who had also come from Einsiedein Abbey and was now abbot of St. Meinrad Abbey in Indiana.


After a year working with the Indians in southern Dakota Territory, Bishop Marty assigned Father Vincent to the parish at Devils Lake, in the northeastern part of the Territory. This parish extended along the recently constructed Great Northern Railroad from Devils Lake to the Montana Territory border. Wehrle ministered to a flock of scattered Catholics who lived along the 250 miles of railway line, traveling not only by rail, but also by buggy, by horseback, and on foot. The overworked missionary dreamed of establishing a monastery at Devils Lake so he would have assistance in his pastoral work.


In 1889, Dakota Territory became the states of North Dakota and South Dakota. At the same time Rome divided the Vicariate of Dakota into two dioceses: the Diocese of Sioux Falls (SD) and the Diocese of Jamestown (ND). Marty was named the Bishop of Sioux Falls, and Fr. John Shanley of St. Paul was named Bishop of Jamestown (though within a short time he moved the bishop's residence to Fargo)


BENEDICTINE MONASTERY IN NORTH DAKOTA


Shanley admired Wehrle’s missionary zeal and approved the establishment of a monastery in 1893. Candidates from Switzerland and Benedictine priests from other monasteries were recruited and took up residence on the shores of the lake several miles south of the city. Rome sanctioned the community in 1894 as St. Gall's Priory. In 1895, the first Benedictine professions took place; three years later Shanley ordained two priests at St. Gall's. In fall 1895, a small school, St. Gall's College, had opened its doors. Wehrle's dream was taking shape.


During the 1880s, Germans from Russia came to Dakota Territory in sizable numbers; their settlements fell within Shanley’s diocese in 1889. Since, however, the few priests in ND were from American, Irish, or French backgrounds, these Catholics were under-served. A few German priests from Conception Abbey working at Standing Rock Indian Reservation and from St. John's Abbey (working out of Mandan, Glen Ullin, and Dickinson) did what they could for the scattered German-Russian settlements.


Already in 1893, Shanley asked Wehrle to visit those settlements to instruct them in German and to administer the sacraments. So began Wehrle’s work with the German-Russians. Soon Shanley encouraged Wehrle to establish a monastery in the western part of the state to care for these immigrants. In June 1899, Wehrle and a handful of monks from St. Gall's began monastic life at Richardton (75 miles west of Bismarck). These ministered to Catholics in the entire West River country. A building was hastily constructed for the monks. The new monastery was called St.Mary's Priory.


By September 1900 Shanley was on hand to bless a monastery-college building and St. Mary's College classes for boys and men from high school through theology began.


The College educated both lay and seminarians. It offered a classical high school course, a commercial course with evening business classes, a pre-theology college course, and a four-year theology program.


NEW ABBEY AND RAPID CONSTRUCTION


In 1903, the community was raised to the rank of an abbey and Prior Vincent Wehrle was named Abbot of St. Mary's Abbey. Wehrle was blessed in May 1904; delegations from the parishes the monks served made pilgrimage to Richardton for the festivities. Abbot Vincent was embraced as “Apostle of the German-Russians and German-Hungarians." With further professions and ordinations, new parishes were established to serve these people


Six years of construction followed to complete a monastery quadrangle: brick facing added to the first residence (east wing); a school addition (north wing); the abbey church (west wing); a south wing to close the quadrangle. In addition, the physical plant included a utility building (shops, laundry, print, shop, dormitory) and a powerhouse-water plant building (with space for presses of Der Volkesfreund, a German-language weekly newspaper which the monks began in 1907). All these were built with brick fired in the monastery’s own kilns.


Christmas Eve, 1908, saw the first use of the Abbey Church. Its construction, however, went from 1906-1910.


In addition to staffing the abbey, a farm, a college, and a dozen parishes, some monks were assigned to homestead land in the hope that income from farming and cattle-sheep operations would pay off building debts. Meanwhile in Devils Lake, St. Gall's College closed in 1903, though monks remained for some time to attend to pastoral needs.


When in July 1909 Bishop Shanley died, Rome created the Diocese of Bismarck (west half of ND). In April 1910, Abbot Vincent was named the Bishop of Bismarck. Bishop Wehrle set out to create an administration; establish schools, hospitals, and parishes; and find priests to serve the growing parishes. Yet he also felt an obligation to reduce the debt he had incurred at Richardton. Thus, claiming no monk was ready to succeed him as abbot, he petitioned Rome to remain as abbot.


After a few years, however, it became evident to the monks and then to church authorities, that being both bishop and abbot was too much for Wehrle. Furthermore, poor crops meant the financial situation had worsened. He resigned as abbot in July 1915.


Fr. Placid Hoenerbach was elected second Abbot of St. Mary's. Hoenerbach was saddled with growing debts and accumulating interest. After three years of little headway toward debt satisfaction he turned to "visionary" projects and investments while the debts continued to mount.


THE BANKRUPTCY AND DISPERSEMENT


Meanwhile, the college improved, as did the farm and the press. The monastic community soon numbered 30 ordained and 20 non-ordained (7 of these seminarians); five priests and one brother from other Benedictine monasteries were also working with the Richardton monks. In spring 1924 eight college students were ready to enter the novitiate. But financially the community was floundering. Wehrle’s antagonism toward Hoenerbach compounded the situation.


Church authorities, who had received reports about the insolvency of St. Mary's Abbey for several years, relieved Abbot Placid of the temporal and spiritual administration in April 1924. Another community member, Fr. Edward Lippert, was named Apostolic Administrator of the abbey and forbidden to allow monks to make final profession of vows or to receive the eight candidates into the novitiate. In mid-May, Lippert had the rector notify students that St. Mary's College was suspending operations in June 1924 and would not be opening in September.


Without financial resources, Lippert could do little with the dispirited community. In the fall, several smaller creditors, afraid that tile larger creditors would work out a deal with the abbey, went to court. Involuntary Bankruptcy proceedings were initiated against the Abbey. The court appointed receivers, and all assets and property of the abbey were seized in October.


Before that, most of the ordained monks at the abbey had moved to parishes or found bishops; the monks in formation and the non-ordained went to other abbeys or left. The eight candidates entered the novitiate at St. John's Abbey in Minnesota at the invitation of Abbot Alcuin Deutsch; Deutsch also invited students to St. John's University; around twenty St. Mary's College students began their fall semester at the Minnesota Benedictine school.


By late fall, two pastors, the prior, the farm manager, and several brothers were all that remained in the monastery buildings. The brothers took care of what remained of the farm; two of the priests traveled to nearby parishes on weekends. Consultations among church authorities and Benedictine abbots yielded no solutions. The Richardton monastic community was in limbo—but not suppressed.


A PHOENIX FROM THE ASHES


In 1926, by Roman decree, Deutsch was named superior of those who wished to revive the Richardton community, though provisions were included for those monks who did not wish to return. Under Deutsch’s tutelage monastic life re-commenced at St. Mary's in September 1928, with his secretary, Fr. Cuthbert Goeb, as prior for the revived community. Goeb and the handful of monks (which included several from St. John's Abbey) prepared the buildings to reopen a school immediately. The name of the monastery was changed to Assumption Abbey.


Thirteen of the 30 priests who belonged to St. Mary's in 1924 chose not to rejoin the community; twelve became diocesan priests and one transferred to another abbey. Of the 14 non-ordained who belonged to St. Mary's in 1924, 7 returned to Richardton, 4 transferred to other abbeys, and 3 left religious life. Five of the eight 1924 St. Mary's candidates who made their novitiate at St. John’s chose to return to Richardton.


The first years were very difficult for the reopened monastery which was struggling to buy back the buildings from the primary mortgage holder. The Depression of 1929 and the Great Plains Drought—the “dirty thirties”—soon hit. However, the reopened school grew. By 1931, the Richardton community petitioned Rome for restoration of independent, abbey status, with Goeb as abbot. Rome granted their request and Abbot Cuthbert was blessed as the third abbot of Assumption Abbey in April 1932.


Goeb, who enjoyed the favor of Bishop Wehrle as Hoenerbach had not, built up the community with determination. With the educational work resumed, students from the school presented themselves as candidates for the monastery, and dozens of professions followed. By the late 1940s the entire debt had been paid off and the buildings fixed up. The decades of hard work, however, took their toll on Goeb.


Upon Goeb’s resignation in 1954, Fr. Ignatius Hunkler was elected abbot. A dedicated schoolman, Hunkler separated the school into Abbey Prep School and Assumption College; the two-year liberal arts college program was accredited and opened to lay students, women and men. He also saw to the remodeling of dormitories and the construction of a high school building, a college residence hall, and a student union / dining hall / kitchen building.


During his administration, the abbey made a monastic foundation in Bogotá, Colombia—Monasterio Benedictino de Tibatí. Four monks were sent in I960 to open a bilingual school for boys, a school which soon acquired a national reputation; Colegio San Carlos today has over 1200 students in grades 1-12.


A NEW CHAPTER: MONASTIC LIVING ON THE PRAIRIE


Hunkler resigned in late 1966, and in early 1967 Fr. Robert West was elected abbot. Vatican Council II had ended shortly before West’s administration, and the change in religious life and the world in general had great ramifications. It was a time of upheaval. Some monks left Benedictine life. The demographics of rural North Dakota caught up with the Abbey schools: the community closed its three educational branches within four years: the seminary in 1967, the high school in 1968, and the junior college in 1971, the latter despite a last-ditch effort fund-raising and intensive recruiting.


For the first time in 60 years, the monastery was without a school on its campus. Some of the monk-teachers went to other colleges to teach. For some years, the local school district rented the former high school building for a grade school; the college residence hall and the student union / dining hall were utilized by the abbey for hosting groups. Hospitality, long a Benedictine specialty, become a core work at the monastery.


West resigned in 1979, and Fr. Lawrence Wagner was elected abbot. Wagner vigorously undertook the work of remodeling monastery living areas begun under his predecessor and the development of home industries the abbey press, the woodcrafts shop, and the pottery, which complemented the hospitality work and the farm, which has been around since the community’s founding. As one of the founders of the Monastery and school in Bogotá he set a sound financial foundation in the post-school era. He left Bogotá in 1975.


Fr. Patrick Moore was elected Abbot of Assumption Abbey in 1988. Under Moore, a long-discussed renovation and renewal of the abbey church was undertaken. After a successful fund-raising campaign, work on the church's interior began in November 2000. Fourteen months later the monks moved back into the renovated space.


On May 28th, 2004 Fr. Brian Wangler was elected eighth abbot. The Assumption Abbey community numbers 60 members in 2006. Thirty-five live and work at the Abbey, involved in a vital life of liturgy and self-sustaining work on the Abbey ranch, garden, orchard, apiary, kitchen, carpentry, garage, offices, gift shoppe and wine cellar, and in receiving guests and hosting retreat groups. Some priest-monks engage in weekend parish work. Eighteen monks are stationed outside the Abbey as teachers, pastors, and chaplains. Twelve monks create the community of Tibatí in Bogotá.

St. Gall's College was a part of the Priory that Vincent Wehrle founded at Devils Lake.

St. Mary's Monastery in the early 1900s. The monastery and parish church occupied most of the first floor of the building. This building was veneered with brick in 1905 and is the east wing of the present quadrangle.

The interior of the east wing when it was also used as a church by the monks and by St. Mary's parish.

St. Mary's Abbey and College in 1905, was constructed with bricks made on the campus. The school, to the left of the monastery, and is the north wing of the present quadrangle.

Building St. Mary's Abbey Church 1907 or 1908. Bricks from the Abbey kilns (in front of the church) were used for the north wing, the east wing veneer, and the interior walls of the church. The church was faced with bricks from the Hebron Brick Company.

Monk homesteaders at Dry Lake, forty-five miles south of Richardton, about 1906 or 07. Tentative identifications, left to right: Fr. Lawrence Wiedmann, Br. Paul Tetzel, Fr. Francis Weinmann, Fr. Bonaventure Goebel, Fr. Basil Thum, and Fr. Ildephonse Peche; seated in front: Candidate Ulrich Koller.

The east tower probably in 1907, is just being finished, and the south wing has not yet been constructed.

While this picture probably dates from the 1940s, the Abbey powerhouse provided electricity to the Abbey and to the city of Richardton through the opening years of the 1920s. It continued to generate power for the Abbey and its schools into the 1950s.

This photo dates form the early 1920s, before the bankruptcy. The south wing is completed, and "science" building has been constructed.

The white convent (present guesthouse) places this photo just after 1935. The convent was built for seven Benedictine Sisters from Yankton in 1935, and was expanded in 1954 when a larger contingent of sisters from Mexico took over the kitchen duties for the schools. The middle white residence was the home of Magdalena Schmidt, who followed the monks from Devils Lake and did the monastic laundry. This photo was taken from the roof of St. Mary's School.

This photo of monastery and church was printed in the 1937 yearbook Twin Towers.

The Library Building, built in the early 1940s in the 1954 yearbook.

The machine shed (right front) was moved in 1959 from its former location upon the ridge where Schnell Hall stands by the novitiate class that included Frs Patrick and Odo. The horse barn (left front) was removed shortly afterwards.

With Schnell Hall in the background this photo from 1967 features one of last high school classes at Abbey Prep. Assumption College closed in 1971.

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