The History of the Pageant by Mariella Gable, O.S.B.

See also 1936: First performance of the CSB Pageant and 1965: Last performance of the CSB Pageant.

Note: Photos of the Pageant can be seen by searching for the keyword pageant in the Saint Benedict Monastery Archives digital collection.

Short videos (without sound) of the Pageant and Pageant practice are also available. 

[This is an edited transcript of a January 5, 1978 recording of S. Mariella Gable, OSB, relating the history of the CSB Pageant.]

The pageant was presented on our south campus for precisely thirty consecutive years, beginning in 1935 and ending in 1965. There are one or two exceptions, and I will take those up as I go down the line. (pause) As we developed it and got it to be the kind of thing we wanted it to be, many persons who were intellectually able truly to judge it came as guests. And I have on hand some of their comments. Now, Sister Grace [McDonald] was head of our History Department, and she knew Dr. Cray very well, who was head of the History Department in the University of Minnesota, and she invited him to come up and watch the pageant. And this is what he wrote back: “I found the pageant for the initiation of your new students as thrilling as a football game, and much more edifying”; and a good deal more, but that is essential.

I knew Dr. Martin Rude very well, who was in the English department at the University of Minnesota, and he heard us talk so much about the pageant, and he said, “How about inviting me and Mrs. Rude up to see it?” And we said, “Oh, by all means come, come over the weekend and stay for Sunday night and see it.” And he wrote back: “an unforgettably impressive induction into a Benedictine school, at once an education and a delight.”

And then in our own backyard we have the St. Cloud Times. Just at the time we were doing it rather well, in our own judgment. Cliff Sakry, who was a reporter and a journalist and a critic of the sort, wrote quite a long commentary on the pageant. I won’t read it all to you, just the kernel of what he had to say. “It is no exaggeration to say that St. Benedict’s annual pageants are marvelous spectacles to behold and must rank high among dramatic undertakings of this kind. There is a faultless precision of sound and movement, together with unusually striking originality of theme. Artistically, these pageants are nothing short of superb.” Now, I could go on with that kind of thing, but I am just trying to say that persons who had a right to have judgments made favorable judgments.

How did this all get started? It began in the year 1932-33. I was given the whole year free to attend Columbia University in New York City. Now, it wasn’t my first experience at Columbia, I had many kinfolk in New York State. And my superiors were generous in giving me permission to visit these people, but I found that to spend a whole summer visiting was something that I couldn’t endure. And so I would get permission to visit a week or two weeks and then go down to Columbia and do a summer school, and then come back and visit a little bit more, and come home.

And so by that time I began to know the professors. From the very first I loved Columbia. And I discovered what every able student discovers, that you don’t pick courses, you pick teachers. And just by gossiping about with other students, you find out who are the great teachers. Whether you think you need that course or not, you go and register for something he’s teaching. Now one of these great men was William Witherly Lawrence, and he was teaching that year a course in medieval literature. And I found that he was simply a thrilling teacher, not because of any external monkey shines with which he entertained us, but because he was so knowledgeable, so reverent about things that deserved reverence. He did the most superb piece of work in teaching Saint Augustine. And then the course moved along and sometime in early December he remarked very dryly at the end of a period, “I shall spend the next three class meetings in describing the work of the Benedictines.” And my heart sort of sank, you know that was coming very close to home, and I did wonder very much what he would be about to say, though I had the greatest confidence that it would be correct, and it would be helpful. But, I had no idea at all (pause) how the Benedictines had truly saved the culture of Rome at its best, and of Greece at its best, and passed it on to Europe of the Middle Ages.

Now Benedict came so early that shortly following his period we have something we call the Dark Ages in Europe. And what were the Dark Ages? They were the ages that followed the invasion of the barbarians. It’s a very curious thing that just as Rome began to become decadent, Benedict was a drop-out and left his home to go and live in a cave, because he couldn’t endure the kind of decadent life that lay all around him in Rome. And he stayed in that cave for some time. And then decided, no, the solitary life wasn’t best. He believed in family life, people living together. And he believed in taking in practically everybody. He says at the end of his rule that “this is just for beginners.” You know, this isn’t for the very developed contemplatives. You could develop as a contemplative, but you could also be, what should we say, an average monk and get along.

But, the monks were kept within an enclosure, and in that enclosure they learned the best methods for farming. They learned the best methods for weaving. They spent a great deal of time copying the manuscripts of the great Greeks and Romans, who had produced classics long before their time. You see, there was no printing press, and if somebody wanted a copy, he had to have a written copy. So, they had what they called the Scriptorium, the  place where you did the copying of these great classics, and if you found it a little boring just to write, you decorated with all kinds of pictures, sometimes very humorous ones, and used very brilliant colors– entertained yourself in this process of copying.

Well, here were the barbarians from the North, overrunning Rome. There was a great deal of burning, looting, thievery, all sorts of destruction, and yet those barbarians were smart. They saw the difference between themselves and the people they conquered. The people they conquered were literate. They could read. They had a culture that could be handed on through the copied page. And so one of the first things they did, because the Benedictines provided for taking in children and teaching them, was to take their little barbarian boys and put them in monasteries to be educated. Well, what happened was, so many of them said, “We want to be baptized.” Some of them said, “We want to be monks, take us in.” And it didn’t all happen in one generation, sometimes in two and three generations. Here were these monks whose ancestors were barbarians, going back to the North and carrying Christianity back to their communities from which the barbarians had come. To me, that’s one of the most exciting things, that these children should have been converted and carried that faith back.

And when Augustine went to England and converted the British people, and then sent people like Boniface and Alcuin back to Germany and to the North, well, what was this? The thing coming full circle. And he showed, in unmistakable terms, that if it had not been for the monks, with their skill in all kinds of manual labor, and their copying of the great classics of the past, the culture of Greece and Rome would have been lost to Europe. He was able to demonstrate that. And I sat there truly thrilled at this spectacle of what the Benedictines had done.

I was also very sad. I thought, I came to Saint Benedict’s, a girl of fifteen, and entered their high school. It was a very good high school. And at the end of high school I entered the convent; at the age of seventeen, I was a novice. And, after my novitiate, during which time I had become eighteen, old enough to make my first vows, I was sent to Bismarck, North Dakota to teach all the subjects in the high school, for three years. Then I came back and made perpetual vows and was on the staff in the college…and also taking college courses. They were very lenient those days. While you were studying, you were also teaching. (pause) It is almost incredible, but that was the way it was done.

And I was always thirsty for learning, I loved it. Any class that I took was a joy to me. But, I thought, here I have been, from the age of fifteen to the age of thirty-three, in a Benedictine institution. I have become a member. I have never once heard anything of this tremendous contribution made by the Benedictines to the culture of Europe. Europe would not have known any of the great Latin essayists or any of the great Greek dramatists if the Benedictines had not done the copying. It is just a simple fact.

I was so hurt, so disappointed with what I had gone through. And I made a very deep resolution that when I had finished my work for my doctorate and got back to the college, this would never, never, never happen again. I would find a way to dramatize the facts, to capture the imagination of the students, so that they would know what their past was like.

When I got back in 1934, I was very much exhausted, for I had worked extremely hard. And we had a dean, Sister Claire, who was a wonderful dean. She did more for the college than any other single person, by way of getting it on its feet. And here we were with a magnificent high school beginning to teach college classes. But, the college needed all sorts of good administration in order to make it a real college. And Sister Claire could do that. She drove herself very hard, and she drove all of us very hard. She was a slave driver. But she did it very casually. She passed me one day in the hall and she said, “I just meant to tell you that from now on you’re head of the English department.” And I kind of caught my breath and I wanted to say, “What does that mean, what do I do?” But she was gone before I could ask her.

In the back of my mind was the pageant, what I wanted to do. Now, I knew we couldn’t present it that first year; that was 1934-35. But I knew we could do a lot of planning. And Sister Marcine was teaching freshman English. And in those days we had a good solid course in [the] history of English literature, beginning with medieval times, and coming on up to the present. We persuaded Sister Marcine to help us the following year. The idea was to pick out one of the great persons who represented the Benedictines and let the students concentrate on that. The first person we picked was Alcuin, a great educator. And that was for the fall of 1935. Now, there was a traditional pageant form, a form I’ve always hated, but it was the only form I knew. If you were going to do Alcuin, you’d look up his life, and you’d pick the characters who were relevant. And you presented one scene and a second scene and a third scene and a fourth, and ultimately people kind of knew what Alcuin stood for. And we thought it would be very well to have the students do that studying and write the script, which took us well up into the early part of November.

So, one chilly afternoon in November, we had this series of events portrayed in costume with speaking. It was kind of a windy afternoon and nobody could understand very much what anybody was saying. And I thought, “It’s pretty awful.” But (pause), what we did from the very beginning was to have ambitious programs printed. This was no play business, we meant business. And this was the very first program, 1935 (shows program). And I have to thank Sister Alfreda for the care with which she hoarded every single program. And we know who did what for every single one.

Well, I wasn’t happy, I don’t know how the others felt. But, the next year, 1936, we picked Saint Bede. And we went through that same kind of, you know, one scene, another scene, another scene, and presented the story of Bede. Now, Bede is very great and it is pretty hard to ruin the impression you get from looking at his life. When it was over I found my way up to the faculty room, and all the main people were there: Miss Constance Zierden, who helped us enormously from the beginning, and Sister Marcine was there; a number of others. And as I entered the faculty room they turned around to me and they said, “Well, what do you think of your pageant?” I said, “It is terrible. We will never have anything like this again. I’m going to have it at night, with electric lights. I’m going to have a bonfire. I’m going to do the whole thing in dancing and pageantry. It’s going to be a spectacle from beginning to end. We’re going to have music from start to finish. And no matter where you look at it you are going to say, “This is beautiful and I cannot tear myself away from it.” Well, they said, “You are just nuts.” (laughter) “You’re just nuts. How do you think you are going to get electric lights? How do you think you are going to get music? How do you think you are going to do that?” “Well,” I said, “I will show you.”

And so I began then, working very hard. And the curious thing was, that the next year I was able to do that. And we got the men interested in our problems of lighting. And they assumed that they were a part of the pageant. They found electric outlets in what is now our dining room section. Ultimately, they discovered there was not enough power for all the electricity we wanted. And they negotiated with Northern States Power to lead in a line from Northern States Power for the pageant, so we could have a light on everything. I didn’t know what to do for music. But I found that at State College in St. Cloud they did have a small orchestra. We gave them the music and we persuaded them to come out and play for us. So that, by the next year, that is, by 1937, we had the beginnings of the pageant as it came to be. And we had, I had said in my explosion in the faculty room, “We’re going to have horses, on which the princes will come in riding.” And of course, no matter what I said, they said, “You’re nuts, you’re nuts, you’re nuts.” (laughter) But, ultimately we did all that. We did all that.

It was [a] tremendous challenge, and a tremendous thing to do it. Ultimately – and I can’t find out from these programs, all of which are here – we found it impossible. We had to move a piano outdoors for practice and have someone play the piano, and you can imagine if you are having six great dances how often you have to go over that same music, and go over it and go over it. There was nothing to do but to have somebody at the piano. And, God bless Sister Fermin, because for years she wore out her fingers playing the practice pieces for the pageant, for the various dances. And I thought, well, I’ve got to face that problem.

I was in charge of our college magazine. And it was a magazine with a very good reputation. Many of its articles were being used by national magazines. We had money coming in, hand over fist, through our advertising. And I took $1200 of that money and bought an electric organ. (pages turning) And so there we had, you see, the variety, the kind of music that we needed and wanted. (pages turning) And the organ was out there for all of practice. And Sister Fermin, God love her, she realized you couldn’t have that expensive organ exposed to the damp of the evening air, so she had blankets and quilts and rugs. And part of her chore every evening was to cover the organ, and to keep it in good condition, so that the next day it would operate properly.

So we overcame, point by point, the difficulties that were in front of us. And we didn’t solve all of them right away. Somewhere in the middle of those thirty years, we added a second half to the pageant. The first part showed St. Benedict with all the beautiful choral readers on each side and the frieze of work and prayer featuring people who were doing manual work, people who were reciting office. We had St. Benedict come down from his high station in the middle of the choral readers. And, the Angel of Work and Prayer come over. And, he took a light from both the Angel of Work and the Angel of Prayer and walked straight ahead to a bonfire that had been carefully laid, and lit it. And around it, you couldn’t see them, were the flame dancers in the most brilliant red, yellow, and blue costumes. But, they were wrapped up in the black capes that the sisters wore. They were kneeling there, but not to be seen. And, just at the psychological moment, as he lit the fires, somebody lifted all those capes, and they began a very beautiful dance. And I want to give Ms. Zierden all credit, she did all the choreography for us, and it was superb.

We would sit down together, and I would explain what I wanted that dance to represent: the spread of the light. But before that we had another dance, the dance of the barbarians who wore outrageous costumes, as they should, and came in dancing a very barbarous dance. And chanted their chant, “We are the Huns and the Teutons, we are the Picts and the terrible Gauls,” and so forth. At the fire the fourteen torches were lit, and passed out to persons representing each of the fourteen centuries of Benedictine history. And these were very carefully chosen, beginning with St. Scholastica, the twin sister of St. Benedict.

Then the bishop – [who] had for years had the job of giving out caps and gowns. And he was very jealous of his prerogative, and we realized we couldn’t alienate his good will by saying, “Bishop, you don’t need to do that anymore, you know, St. Benedict should do that, give the girls their caps and gowns.” So, we just let that drift. He’d march up with his Capa Magna trailing thirty feet behind him, and made a great splash and color, and gave each girl a cap and gown. And they came back and marched up in rows of fourteen to receive those torches. And that’s as far as we went, at first. That’s only the beginning of the pageant.

Then somewhere in between we decided we should show what these barbarians became after that light had been lit and passed out to the saints. And we decided there were three levels of society we could show. We could show the peasants, who were very important. The scholars were very important, but in a pageant it’s awfully hard to show a scholar being a scholar. You know, what are you going to have them do? He carries a scroll and he writes and that is about all you can do.  Then, over all these people there was a prince. And we had a good neighbor to the west who would lend us two horses. And we would practice with them, and the prince would come riding in on horseback, welcomed by the peasants and the scholars. Then there would be revelry. Finally, they would hear the chapel bell. That was a sign they all chanted a short form of compline. The idea that laymen monks, everybody together, sang the prayer of the church. And then only did they march up in rows of fourteen.

She goes up, turns slowly, and that whole row of lights moved with tremendous unity forward, so that you saw it first here, then given into the hands of the next row, and then the next, and so on. And, when the lights had come up to the front row, all together the student body sang a pledge of loyalty. Every program carried a synopsis of the pageant. I wanted to read it for you because it is the best way to see what we are trying to do. The symbolism of the pageant is as follows:

First, the dance of the barbarians, which indicates the uncivilized state of Europe in the fifth century of the coming of St. Benedict.

Second, the two friezes, Ora et Labora, the Benedictine model “prayer and work,” the double light by which St. Benedict and his followers achieved their work. See, it’s a double light.

Third, St. Benedict lights the fire, and as he lit it everybody chanted together, “That in all things God may be glorified.”  

The fire starting to burn:  the flames, very slowly, while they were still kneeling, began this swaying motion, which imitated the rise of the fire; you could see that fire begin to become a great roaring mass of flame. But the girls were dancing that, at the same time, and they circled round and round; they leaped. It was a very striking moment. The dance of the flames meant the spreading of the gospel and culture through the effort of great Benedictines, the civilizing of the barbarians.

Fifth, the procession of the saints, Benedictine leaders of fourteenth century.

Sixth, the lighting of the torches at the central fire, the continuity of the work. And the flames, one by one, carried the torches out and presented them to the saints: the idea that these fourteen saints had done great work, but from this central fire.

And then, when the pageant was about [the] beginning of 1940, we added a new part. And it was Miss Zierden who absolutely gets credit for this, because when she mentioned it to me at first I said, “Oh, no, let’s not tamper with it, we’ve got a good thing going. Let’s not make it hard for ourselves.” And she said, “You sit down.” And I sat there. And she said, “You know, we’ve got to show that this was not an instantaneous change in those barbarians. The barbarians came back as peasants, as scholars, as princes. And she said, “That was not instantaneous. That was a big struggle.” She said, “I want to show, in dancing, the struggle between the barbarians and the flames.” And that turned out to be one of the most beautiful parts of the pageant.

You could see the barbarians viciously coming toward the flames, and the flames backing up and then moving towards the barbarians. And finally, the barbarians meekly went and knelt around that central fire and bowed their heads. They had given in, but only after a long and beautiful struggle. And then the little flames went up, and each one lifted up one of the barbarians and left the central stage with him. I think this point of the struggle was marvelously worked out, but that’s all to the credit of Connie Zierden.

We wanted the peasants to be featured very colorfully. Most of you don’t know what sheaves of grain are, but your grandparents do: a whole collection of barley, or wheat, or whatever, tied in the center. Sister Linnea came from a farm and knew how it was done, so we gave her charge of teaching these girls who were peasants each to come in, they come in line carrying a sheaf of grain, and how to build a shock–so that on each side of the stage we have a shock of grain. During the revelry some of them lounged around the shock, and some of them danced a polka, and altogether we made the peasant life look very attractive.

To have the prince come in on horseback was really an astonishing thing for many people and we were able to handle that very well. Scholars I would say we did the least with, because how can you show someone schooling? You know, there isn’t enough drama there. Then they recite compline all together showing all classes are bound together as one in the liturgy of the church. Then, the formal presentation of the caps and gowns to the freshmen by the Bishop of Saint Cloud. When I get far enough down on the programs I see caps and gowns presented by Saint Benedict. So we know the precise moment at which that change was achieved. Then the presentation of the torches to the freshmen which indicates the obligation of students in a Benedictine school to carry on the work of education and culture.

Around 1959 or 1960 there were a number of sisters who became very cantankerous about the pageant. It was too much work. They had up to that time been marvelously cooperative. I made a great mistake myself when I had approached Sister “X”. I had known her ten years before when she had come as a freshman, a brilliant girl. She was from Cathedral High School where she had been sort of hyper religious in what I thought was an unbalanced way. For instance, she was with a group like herself. When Easter came and they came to that part of the Gospel where Christ said, “Can you not watch one hour with me?” That gang said, “Can we watch one hour? We’re going over to church and stay there all night.” Which they did. They would do wildly excessive religious things and I had known that girl when she was like that and I said to her, “Would you mind taking charge of teaching the freshmen to march this year?” That was very hard to do because we had three hundred freshmen. And to teach three hundred freshmen in groups of fourteen to march in an orderly way, I knew what a hard thing that would be. After a couple of days she said, “They don’t want to march. I’m not going to work with them.” Well, we had no one else to turn it over to at that time. So I would say she succeeded perfectly in wrecking the end of the pageant.

There were people who could be persuaded by that kind of recalcitrance to take a stand against. So that, when I was absent for four years teaching English in St. Louis, what happened was, there was a general spread of discontent. Instead of the ambitious programs that we once had, this was the kind of little slip that would come out with the names of only the freshmen on it. I could hear all around me that the sisters – not the students, the students never complained, the students loved it – but I could hear this rumbling of discontent among the sisters.  And so one day in the faculty room, when the rumbling was going on, I said, “You know you don’t have to have a pageant.” “Don’t we?” I said, “No, if you don’t want it, you don’t have to have it.” “Oh, goody, goody, goody!” And the seculars who heard it were simply horrified. But I think that ultimately we have had overwhelming regret from every conceivable source that it was discontinued. Now this, I think, that with our great increase in enrollment and with the various connections with Saint John’s, that it would take very vigorous reconsideration of just exactly how the thing could be presented. I think it could be revived. I think it could be redone.

I heard one of our English teachers criticizing its poetry. Now, when I wrote it for the students, I realized that the only thing I needed to worry about was that people would understand what was being said. And I relied much on repetition, such as you find it in the psalms and some of the antiquarianism which you find in Milton’s Comus. What was done in that script was done because it had to be done. At that time I think there were loudspeakers; I think there were microphones; but they weren’t here. There was no way to do it except through choral reading. I think the time came when that could have been changed, but I would say that I, myself, for the love of community unity, gave the final word for the cessation of the pageant, because I could not endure the spectacle of a divided faculty. It seemed to me if the pageant said anything it said something about unity, and we should respect it.