Abbot Peter Engel, Second Period: 1906 to 1921

THE COLLEGE, 1905 – 1920

Father Albert Erkens, the son of Fred Erkens of the class of 1888, was born at Jordan, MN October 2, 1874.  He intended to become a member of the Franciscan Order and for that purpose studied at Quincy and Teutopolis, Illinois.  Eventually, however, he decided to be Benedictine and applied for admission to St. John’s Abbey in 1895.  He made profession August 15, 1893 and was ordained June 11, 1901.

Under his service as rector, there is a detailed specification, for the first time, of what the institution had to offer in the line of Physical Culture and Athletics.  The Annual for 1905 – 06 says: “All the students in the Theological, Commercial and Junior Halls, as also all the students up to the Third Academic in the Senior Hall, unless excused by physical disability, are required to attend the gymnasium classes, each student exercising twice weekly.” (p. 51)   Mr. Harry A. Comeau, of New London, Connecticut, was placed at the head of the department of Physical Culture and Athletics.  Intramural games were favored in preference to contests with outside teams.  Details of events will be found in the pages of the St. John’s Record.

In 1907 the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment and organization of St. John’s College was due.  It was marked by a large gathering of former students on June 26th, representing almost every school year since the birth of the institution.  A few weeks earlier the faculty of the College of Science, Literature and Arts of the University of Minnesota passed a resolution admitting the graduates of St. John’s to the University without examination until further notice.  This was regarded as a valuable recognition of the scholastic status of the school. (Record, 1907, p. 362.)

Few improvements were as enthusiastically hailed as the preparation of a new campus, for the time-honored playground at the front door of the institution, in use for forty years, had proved to be too small for the various new recreational activities of the student body.  It was decided by the faculty to provide a new, better and larger field for sports, for which purpose the cranberry swamp north of the older campus was drained.  The new campus (athletic field) was 800 feet long and 240 wide.  Work began in May 1908 by a large crew directed by contractor Thomas Barrett of St. Cloud.

In the fourth year of his administration, Father Albert’s health was so poor that he was obliged to withdraw from work.  Feeling that the constant strain imposed upon him by the varied duties of his position, was breaking him down, he asked to be relieved in June 1909.

With the spring of 1909 a new era in the church life of the College was inaugurated by the introduction of the chant enjoined by Pope Pius X.  Preparations had to some extent been made the year before.  Rev. Gregory Huegle, OSB of Conception Abbey had delivered several lectures on the Vatican choral.  Now the necessary books had been procured and a choir had been trained.  “The Vatican choral (Plain Chant) is now a reality at St. John’s”, says the Record of March 1909, (p. 151).   “The college choir made the first attempt at it on the first Friday of the month.  We hardly think (says the fastidious reporter) the angels were attracted unless it was by the good will shown in conformity with the Pope’s wishes.  However, the choir has made considerable progress since and renders the Ordinary of the Mass edifyingly.  A “Schola” selected from among the seminarians has already gained our hearts for the Sunday “Propers” which they sing at the students’ Mass.  To the monastic choir thus far belongs the palm for excellent rendition; to listen to it, conveys some idea of the possibilities in art and devotion contained in the Vatican choral.”

After the fifty-second commencement, June 17, 1909, Father Albert left for the West, where he subsequently became a member of St. Martin’s Abbey, at Lacey, Washington.  His physicians advised him to relinquish school work; accordingly he received pastoral charges in different parts of Seattle.

Father Bernard Kevenhoerster was succeeded  in the office of Rector of the theological seminary in the fall of 1907 by Father Alcuin Deutsch.  The ecclesiastical course, strictly so called, at one time covered five years: two of Philosophy, with Church History, Patrology, Hebrew, Introduction to Holy Scripture, and three of Theology with Church History, Scripture, Canon Law, Sacred Liturgy and Chant.

Statistics for 1906 – 09:  Total enrollment 1906: 314; 1907: 304; 1908: 282, and 1909, 328.  During 1909 there were 38 students in the Seminary, of whom one half were Benedictines, the others were candidates for the diocesan clergy of various dioceses.

Father Alcuin, (the future fifth Abbot of St. John’s Abbey) was made Rector of the University on August 11, 1909 and retained direction of the Seminary, which was under the direct charge of Father Severin Gertken with the title of Prefect.  The new head of the school was aware of the needs of the institution, as he had not only been a student there himself six years, but had for several years been in touch with the administration both as a professor and a disciplinarian.  At this time the ecclesiastical course was extended to six years: two of Philosophy and four of Theology.  

During the first year of his incumbency in the office of Rector, Father Alcuin planned the erection of a separate building for the laboratories and classes in physical sciences, the realization of a wish of Abbot Peter Engel, his superior.  “The building,” says the St. John’s Record will be fire-proof and up-to-date construction.  Its dimensions are 60 by 100 feet, and it will be three stories high, besides the basement.  In the basement spacious rooms are assigned to mechanical and electrical engineering.  Besides, it contains a workshop and a lathe room, storage battery and store rooms.  On the first floor the physical and biological departments will be located, the space being divided into several laboratories, library and professors’ rooms.  The second floor is given over to chemistry, where laboratories for general and special work will be provided.  Two spacious lecture rooms are likewise located on this floor, and a room for geological purposes.  The third floor contains a large lecture room and quarters for the drafting department.”   In the main, this plan was carried out and the arrangement continues to the present day, except that the large lecture room on the third floor has been converted into a museum.  In the turret a meteorological station was set up and a radio outfit found room on the first floor.  The cost of the building was about $40,000. [This science building was later called Engel Hall. In 1999 it was re-named Simons Hall in honor of the donors who helped fund the renovation of the campus’ science facilities. That, in turn, led to the re-naming of the 1965 Breuer-designed science center as the Peter Engel Science Center in 2000.]

The annals of the school record the fact that on May 25, 1911, two students arrived from Manila, Philippine Islands, to familiarize themselves with the use of the English language.  There were both Benedictines from the ancient Spanish monastery of Montserrat in Catalonia, and were members of the staff of the College of St. Bede in the city of Manila.  At intervals, since that time, a few other Benedictines connected with the same school, came to St. John’s for the same purpose.  Incidentally, their presence stimulated a momentary enthusiasm for the study of the Spanish language here and several members of the faculty took a lively interest in the study.

Hardly was the Science Hall finished, when a 1914 extension of 110 feet by 60 feet was added to the western extremity of the main building to house the kitchen and study halls.  It is built of brick throughout, and is in every way a modern edifice.  (This building is known as St. Luke Hall.)

Few features in the immediate area are as much admired as the Lourdes grotto and the unique park which forms its setting.  Work had been begun on it in 1910, but it was not completed till the summer of 1912.  The statue of the Blessed Virgin is placed in a niche built of rubble stone, and faces the lake.  A small fountain graces the lawn below the statue.  A row of lawn tiers rises gradually from the lake shore to the level of the old campus, and an oval-shaped walk of cement encircles the shrine.

“First Things” are always matters of interest in any community.  The year 1912 will be remembered for several things.  In the fall of that year came the first automobile, as has already been mentioned; it was for private use only.  And in December Mr. Davidson of St. Cloud entertained the students and faculty with the first moving picture, which consisted of scenes from the life of the Savior.  Since that time the “movie” has been a familiar form of instruction and entertainment.

Father Michael Ott, who had been Director of Studies for all departments since 1895, received a successor in office August 29, 1913 in the person of Father Benedict Schmitt.  In October of the same year Father Alcuin withdrew from the vice-presidency and rector-ship after four years of strenuous efforts to develop the institution in every direction.  The immediate reason of his retirement was poor health.  For the next three years he was engaged in parochial work; we shall see how he was recalled after the decease of Father Francis Mershman to take the chair of Moral Theology.  “In his four years of office,” says the Record, Fr. Alcuin had endeared himself to the students.  His kindness towards all and the tact he displayed in handling the many cases submitted to his judgment, merit for him much honor and gratitude.  He was ever a kind disciplinarian, not exacting too much, but firm in his demands; a kind and willing adviser, ever ready with a helping hand for all that consulted him.” (St. John’s Record, 1913, p.41)

Official announcement of the appointment of Father Kilian Heid to succeed Father Alcuin as vice-president and director was made October 26, 1913, and he entered upon office at once, resolved to give the school a business-like administration, for he had been principal and teacher in the Commercial Department for many years.  A native of Stearns County, he was born within 20 miles of the institution and had been raised and educated within the borders of that county.  Like his predecessor in office he had always moved in an academic atmosphere and was no stranger to the questions agitating student circles and not unfamiliar with the manifold problems confronting the manager of a large boarding school in the twentieth century.  It was his task to direct in large measure the destinies of the school during the World War which, although the din of arms resounded in another land, stirred souls whenever human hearts were beating either in sympathy with or in hostility to one or the other of the conflicting nations.

For some years there had been discussion regarding affiliation of the College with the University of Minnesota.  In spring 1915 two representatives of the latter personally acquainted themselves with the working of the school.  From the summer of 1915 dates the entrance of the institution into the field of wireless telegraphy, since known as radio.  Aerials were erected under the supervision of Father Hilary Doerfler north of the Science Hall and the necessary apparatus was installed in that building.

On Good Friday 1917 Congress declared that a state of war existed between the United States and Germany.  Two days later it was reported that six students had voluntarily enlisted in the army; seven weeks later the Record (p. 417) states that “thirty seven students responded to President Wilson’s proclamation and offered their services to our country by registering in the local precinct.  Former students take up war activities and are scattered over the Continent:  A. Krampff, ’16, is sent to Honolulu preparatory to going over to France with an aviation corps; Dr. Phillip Stangle, ’02, joins the Medical Reserve Corps at Fort Riley, and Roman Schaefer, ’16, enlisted in the Navy, while a good number apply for entry into the Officers’ Reserve Corps.”

Occasionally the students were called upon to contribute to the War Fund for one or the other purpose.  Thus the fall 1917 they collected $75 as a contribution towards a Literary Fund for the boys in the Army, and on the fourth anniversary of the Rev. Rector’s installation they presented him with a Liberty Bond and a bust of Abraham Lincoln.  From this time forward, the St. John’s University Record contains many interesting items concerning the War; also lists of former students in the service of the country during the great struggle.

One of the bright features of the winter of 1917 – 1918 was the launching of a University extension course with lectures by three of the most prominent professors, delivered in the St. Cloud Institute by request of Bishop Joseph F. Busch.  Universal interest was, however, centered on the various phases of the War and in consequence the enterprise never attained to full bloom.

The sixty-first annual commencement was exceedingly simple.  On June 7th 1918 there was a little music, and then the Rev. Rector, who never wearied his audiences by lengthy oratory, before dismissing the students, reminded them of the new responsibilities laid upon them at this time.  “He concluded by stating that in accordance with the wishes of the Government and of the donors of gold medals, the money customarily expended for prizes would this year be donated to War charities.  The announcement was greeted with universal applause.”  (Record 1919, p. 410)  Accordingly the names of the students entitled to medals were read and published, but no medal were actually conferred.

Fall of 1918 will be remembered for the influenza epidemic that wrought havoc even worse than war in this country as well as in other parts of the world.  While the Angel of Death was scourging the lands in which peace still reigned, the last scenes in the World War were being enacted.  Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, was enthusiastically and thankfully greeted and celebrated, as well as Thanksgiving Day.

School closed on June 18, 1919; a week later a large number of former Alumni gathered for a joyful reunion after so many gloomy days.  A special feature of the event was the dedication of a memorial tablet in bronze placed in the Memorial Garden on the hill near the reservoir.  “Reclining on the left slope of the hill that forms the background of the garden lies a huge granite boulder, on which is imbedded a large bronze tablet containing the roster of 486 Alumni of St. John’s who had served in the late war.  The dedication of this monument was the great event of this day’s program.  A large United States flag covered the boulder.  When the crowd had spread itself out in front of the garden and on the opposite embankment, Mr. Frank Gross, 1889, president of the Alumni Association delivered an address” (Record 1919, p. 355), after which Carl Ladner, 1911, who had served in the army in France, unveiled the tablet, on which a star marks those who died in service.

The dedication of this memorial was the last event in Father Kilian’s career as Rector; he was succeeded at the opening of the new school year by Father Charles Cannon, a native of Wisconsin, who was ordained in 1896, since which time he had served both in the College and in parishes in this State and in Washington.  He was stationed at Detroit Lakes, Minn. When he was summoned to the rector-ship of the College, a position for which his character and scholarly attainments eminently qualified him,  he had in a short time, by his kindliness and  the sincere interest he evinced in the welfare of the student body, won a place in the heart of every student in the College.  (Record, Oct. 1919)

But in the spring of 1920 came another spell of influenza, so violent that it carried off six of the students within three weeks.  Nevertheless routine was not seriously interfered with; class work and amusements went on as ever.  All the world was suffering a similar or worse affliction and gloomy faces would not, after all, have caused a change for the better.

One of the new rector’s ambitions (Father Charles Cannon) was to change in 1915 the curriculum of the preparatory course, which, while at an earlier day it had been a real accommodation to students in northern Minnesota, was now considered a drawback and no longer in keeping with the character of an institution such as St. John’s aimed to be.  The faculty met to discuss the situation and decided to discontinue the preparatory courses in order to gain accommodations for more High School and College students.  Accordingly, only such applicants who had finished the Eighth Grade would be admitted,  “This changed was rendered necessary by the increased registration in the high school and college departments and the growing demand for specialized and advanced courses.”  At the same time it was announced that a limited number of private rooms would be at the disposal of college students.

St. John’s was and still is a boarding school with very few day scholars.  Provision of suitable accommodations to meet the need and demands of a new generation of students was connected with considerable expense; for this reason, too, it was expedient to eliminate courses which young men might pursue at less cost in schools nearer their homes.

For the accommodation of College students desiring to have private rooms, the Rev. Rector had planned an extension to the wing in which the old study halls were located.  This matter was engrossing the attention of the faculty when Father Charles Cannon asked to be relieved from duty as Rector as the strain was too heavy for his delicate constitution.  His successor was Father Alphonse Sausen, who presided from 1920 – 1924, when he was sent to Oklahoma as administrator of Sacred Heart Abbey.

Statistics for 1910 – 1920: total enrollment in 1910: 359; in 1911: 391; in 1912: 435; in 1913: 415; in 1914: 431; in 1915: 380; in 1916: 421; in 1917: 442; in 1918: 439; in 1919: 398, and in 1920: 486.

The catalogue for 1920 is more explicit than its predecessors in outlining the courses offered in the several departments.

I.          The School of Theology had courses in Dogmatic Theology covering four years; Moral Theology also four years; Sacred Scripture (Introduction and Exegesis), church History, Patrology, Canon Law, two years; Sacred Liturgy, Homiletics, Pastoral Theology, Sacred Art and Archaeology; Pedagogy, Hebrew and Modern Languages, Bookkeeping, Gregorian Chant.  The student attended on an average 22 lectures a week. 

II.        The College.  In addition to the regular College course a two year pre-law and a two year pre-medical course were designed for students preparing for law or medicine and were so arranged as to meet the entrance requirements of the State University of Minnesota.  A successful completion of this course would enable students to begin the study of law or medicine in any of the recognized schools which exact two years of college work (p 35). 

Courses: Evidences of Religion; 2 years; Philosophy, 10 courses, Pedagogy, 2 courses; ethics, 2 courses; Latin, 4 years; English, 14 courses; Greek, 4 courses; History, 2 courses; Mathematics, 7 courses; Elocution; Biology, 2 courses; Chemistry, 4 courses; Physics, 3 courses; Psychology, 1 course; Astronomy, 1 course; Geology, 2 courses; Public Speaking; Manual Training Shop Work, 3 courses.  Modern languages:  German, 8 courses; French, 3 courses; Spanish, 2 courses; Italian, 3 courses; Scientific German, 2 courses. 

III.       High School, or Academic Department.  The following courses were offered:

Christian Doctrine, 4 courses; Latin 4: English 4; History 3, Mathematics 5, Elocution 3, Biology  2, Physics 1, Chemistry 1, Physiography 1, Shorthand and Typewriting, Civics, Public Speaking, Political Economy, Business Law and Arithmetic, Commercial Geography, Bookkeeping, History of Commerce. 

IV.        Commercial Department: Courses in Christian Doctrine, English, Arithmetic, Bookkeeping, Correspondence, Commercial Geography, Commercial Law, Civil Government, Political Economy, Parliamentary Law, Public Speaking and Penmanship. 

V.         Special Departments:  1) Shorthand, Typewriting and Office Training, 2) Music: Piano, Violin, Voice Culture, Harmony,  Counterpoint and History of Music, 3) Drawing: Mechanical, Technical and Engineering Drawing,  Architectural Sketching and Drafting, Descriptive Geometry, Elementary Machine Drawing and Design, Kinematics, Surveying, Topographical Drawing, Elements of Architecture, Perspective, Shades and Shadows, Graphic Statistics, Stereotomy, Freehand Drawing, Decorative Design, Show Card Writing, Specifications and Working Drawings. 4) Department of Physical Culture and Athletics.

At the time of Father Charles Cannon’s withdrawal from the rector-ship he was supported in the administration of the school by Father Benedict Schmitt as Prefect of Studies, while Father Alcuin Deutsch was chaplain and spiritual director.  A committee consisting of the Very Rev. Prior Alcuin Deutsch and Fathers Kilian Heid, Severin Gertken and Virgil Michel was in charge of the Branches of Study and Father Daniel Bangart and Father David Yuenger constituted a committee on Lectures and Entertainments.  The institution of these committees were a new feature in the management of the College, the matters handled by them having hitherto been under the control of the Director or Vice-President.

Professors and Assistants:  The number of professors in the Seminary and College was 20; in the High School and Preparatory Departments, 40; in the Commercial Department, 16; in that of Music, 10.  Many of the instructors worked in two or even more departments.

At the annual Commencement June 17, 1920, the following degrees were conferred: Masters of Arts (M.A.) 8;    Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) 6; Certificate for two years college work 11; Certificate of Graduation from High School 22; Certificate of Graduation in Commercial Department 15; Certificate in Shorthand and Typewriting 23.

Four medals were awarded to prize winners in contests, 8 for class honors and 5 for excellence in athletics.

In order to increase the proficiency of the staff of instructors, many of the younger members of the community have for the last forty years have been sent to other places for higher studies.  A beginning was made in 1893 when the international Benedictine University known as the Anselmianum or College of St. Anselm in Rome, was re-opened on the Aventine Hill in that city.

Father Michael Ott, a cleric in minor orders, was sent out in 1893 and returned two years later with the degree of Doctor in Philosophy, to which he did honor by teaching Philosophy in St. John’s for twenty-four years up to the time when he was made abbot of St. Peter’s in Saskatchewan in 1919.  Next, Father Bruno Doerfler was sent over to take an advanced course in Theology and Canon Law; he returned four years later, in 1899.  Father Alcuin Deutsch entered the College of St. Anselm in 1897, studied Theology and Philosophy and returned with the degree of Doctor in Sacred Theology in 1903;  Father Bede Mayenberger was sent to Rome in 1905, but unfortunately his constitution was not equal to the demands made upon it and he returned two years later.  In 1909 Father Alphonse Sausen and in 1910 Father Ulric Beste were sent to Rome: the former returned in 1912, the later in 1915 with the degree of Doctor in Canon Law.  Father Otto Weisser studied organ and ecclesiastical music at Regensburg and at Metten in Bavaria from 1895 – 1897.   Father Anselm Ortmann took special scientific courses at John Hopkins University in Baltimore.  Father Polycarp Hansen studied higher mathematics at Columbia College in New York 1910-11; Father Virgil Michel was sent to the Catholic University in Washington, D.C. in 1918 and took the degree of Ph.D. in 1918; six years later he heard lectures in Scholastic Philosophy in Rome and at Louvain in Belgium.  During the period of the World War no students were sent abroad.  With the return of peace, Father Basil Stegmann in 1918 entered on a course of studies in Sacred Scripture, graduating in 1921 and supplementing his work with special courses in Rome.  Father Cuthbert Goeb attended lectures in History at the Catholic University at Washington, D.C. 1921-1922.  In addition, a number of professors frequented the University of Minnesota and other universities in this country for special courses.  Father Celestine Kapsner attended Catholic University of America 1925-26 with an M.A. in theology.