The unfinished letter, scrawled on plain stationery, read:
“Divine providence is urgently calling us to live and work in this mission field… We are being called whether we want to respond or not. So naturally, you see, we have no choice but to respond.”
The monk paused, sighed heavily, and closed his weary eyes. The desk groaned as he carefully shifted his weight forward. A candle flickered nearby, but went unseen.
After a while, the monk opened his eyes. Before him, hung upon the wall above his desk, a wooden cross adorned the otherwise bare room. The nascent flame danced to and fro, enlivening the image with its light. He sighed again and continued:
“How wonderful! I am staggered with dizziness. I am too glad to do it and would like to do even more for the salvation of souls, the honor of God, and the propagation of our holy Order. However, I am old, weak, and near death.”
The monk completed the letter, dated it, and signed his name: Boniface Wimmer, O.S.B.
“It is absolutely necessary,” said St. Vincent de Paul, “both for our advancement and the salvation of others to follow always and in all things the beautiful light of faith.” Father Boniface Wimmer, the great American Churchman of the mid-nineteenth century, followed the light of faith to the United States as a missionary and champion of Benedictine monasticism. Unfortunately, despite his renowned charity and generosity to the poor, this ardent apostle remains a widely unknown and forgotten hero.
In 1846, Father Boniface ventured across the Atlantic to the shores of Protestant America, intent on establishing Benedictine communities for the purpose of evangelization and service to the poor. During this era of mass immigration to the United States, especially from Eastern and Southern Europe, Catholics struggled to find constancy and security amid the challenges of a new land. Father Boniface, consumed by love for these wayward and oft forgotten Catholic immigrants, dedicated his life to the salvation of their souls and the propagation of his Order in America.
Originally a professed monk of Metten Abbey in Bavaria, Father Boniface entered the missions after having read a newspaper article which described the neglected conditions of German immigrants in the United States. Limited by manpower, material resources, and the difficulties of serving a far-flung flock, American bishops had appealed to Europe for missionary priests. So moved with compassion, Father Boniface volunteered for the missions in order to address the spiritual depravity of Catholic immigrants in the United States. He then made plans to ensure a future of growth and promise for the Catholic Church by transplanting Benedictine monasticism in the country.
By the end of his earthly sojourn, the missionary work of Father Boniface produced five abbeys, two priories, and over a hundred parishes and missions. He also lived to see a remarkable growth in vocations, which included hundreds to the priesthood and religious life. Generations of American Catholics have now received spiritual nourishment as a result of Father Boniface’s devotion and sacrifice in the cause of evangelization and in serving the poor. Much of his later correspondence reflected on this discipleship, its conditions, and its purpose (look no further than the letter cited above for an example).
When he founded the first monastery (and eventual abbey) of the Benedictine Order in the United States in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, he chose St. Vincent de Paul, the seventeenth-century French priest and Apostle of Charity, as the patron of what is today a flourishing archabbey, seminary, and college. Both Father Boniface Wimmer and St. Vincent de Paul, each in his own way and in his own time, preferred the service of the poor to everything else. Let us learn from such wisdom and subsequently follow the light of faith to wherever God wills.
Image by Jcs7708, St. Vincent Archabbey with Statue of Boniface Wimmer (CC BY-SA 3.0)