Local Religious life

As it was in the beginning

Benedictine monks end a year’s worth of events celebrating the 150th anniversary of the abbey’s founding, with a simple outdoor service

by Dan Madden

DONIPHAN — The ruts in the roads still held water from the previous days’ rain as a small caravan of monks from St. Benedict’s Abbey drove the gravel road from Atchison through the Missouri River flood-plain to Doniphan April 26.

Abbot Barnabas Senecal carried with him a brief homily and the text of Psalm 84:

“Happy are those who trust in you, Lord God of hosts!

As they go through the Bitter Valley, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rain covers it with blessings.

They walk with ever-growing strength; they will see the God of gods in Zion.”

When they arrived at Doniphan, the monks climbed a hill and followed a path through a stand of evergreens, eventually coming to a clearing distinguished by a monument of mortared stone.

Inscribed on the monument were the words: “St. John the Baptist Church, July 1856; Founded By Henry Lemcke (sic), O.S.B.; Origin of St. Benedict’s Abbey U.I.O.G.D.”

There the monks erected a crude altar constructed from four handhewn fence posts and three old boards. Built by abbey handyman Jim Carter and Brother Anthony Vorwerk, OSB, it was a replica of the altar constructed by Father Casimir Seitz, the youngest of the three founding monks of St. Benedict’s Abbey.

It was on that original makeshift altar that Father Casimir, the first man ordained to the priesthood in the Kansas Territory, would celebrate his first Mass exactly 151 years earlier, after which he treated himself to a breakfast of bacon and black coffee. Replete, the homesick young monk decided that at that moment he felt better than at any time since his arrival in Kansas.

Just a week before this simple, modern-day outdoor Mass by Abbot Barnabas and the monks of St. Benedict’s Abbey had capped off their year of public sesquicentennial observances with a Mass that packed the newly renovated abbey church to capacity.

But the year of celebrations actually concluded here in this clearing, in the same manner as that first Mass began — with a spring breeze, birdsong and an open Kansas sky.

“Psalm 84 evokes some of the real sentiments of the earliest Kansas monks,” said Abbot Barnabas in his homily at the small outdoor Mass. “There was bitterness with shortages of money and manpower, with frustrations that the abbot of St. Vincent showed favor to the Minnesota foundation and not to Kansas, with longing for the homeland.

“But, the monks adjusted, made it a place of springs. Soon blessings came. They walked miles — ever growing in strength.”

The day after Father Casimir’s ordination Mass in the clearing, he and his fellow missionaries — Fathers Peter Henry Lemke and Augustine Wirth — made the long trek from Leavenworth to Doniphan to establish the first monastic community in Kansas.

The early days were brutal.

“The creditors were satisfied, and the constables kept off our necks,” Father Augustine later wrote of the first two weeks in Doniphan. “The windows were fitted with glass, the church received a floor, bedsteads and a table arrived from St. Joseph, the sacks we had brought along were filled with prairie grass and shavings.

“With six bricks we built a fireplace for cooking, praised God’s providence for his children, gave a toast to monastic poverty, and hoped for better times.”

Better times, said the abbot, were certainly seen in the 150 years since. But in many ways, those first brave missionaries’ story is still being written.

“Our beginnings were in Bavaria and in Pennsylvania. Our beginnings were in the faithful families who gave us birth and nurtured a vision of life that stressed service to others rather than accumulation for self,” he said. “Our individual beginnings were in the companionship we experienced in a simple way of life that involved hard work, a desire to learn, and a desire to live in community.

“To all who have brought us to this day . . . we give thanks and continue to walk with ever-growing strength.”


About the author

The Leaven

The Leaven is the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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