Deepening Union: A Benedictine Commitment

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Childhood and education

Born William Henry Oestreich in Reading, Pennsylvania, on October 13, 1872, he was the only son of George and Catherine Oestreich, both German émigrés. 1 At an early age, he proved himself to be an exceptional student. Because of this, he ranked first in his class at the Stewart Academy,2 his preparatory school in Reading. Hence, young William would have been a promising candidate for admission to St. Mary's College (later named "Belmont Abbey College").3 Located in Garibaldi, North Carolina, (later Belmont, North Carolina),4 in an area that "undulatesgently, formingamostbeautiful succession of hills and valleys"5 St. Mary's College was associated with the Benedictine monastery there.6 Many of the monks taught at the college, emphasizing strict attention to the "moral and religious training of the students."7

In early September 1888, the sixteen-year-old Oestreich traveled to Belmont to begin his studies in the Classical Course.8 Although the school's curriculum proved challenging, Oestriech excelled, distinguishing himself all four years and graduating at the top of his class.9 He also excelled in the arts. Young Oestreich drew well, acted in plays, and became especially proficient in music, playing the violin well.10

Apparently highly self-disciplined and mature for his age, William was perceived as adapting agreeably to the rules of conduct prescribed by the institution. His temperament was cited by the college as "premium."11 Such qualities caused him to be distinguished among his classmates. Leo Haid, the North Carolina bishop, the abbot of Maryhelp, and the college's president, took notice. Young William Oestreich came to be recognized for his promise and gifts.

It was not, however, all academe for the young man from Pennsylvania. Every student participated in baseball and gymnastics,12 but Oestreich possessed greater interest and ability in matters of spirit and intellect. He found himself particularly congruent with four of the college's organizations: Sodality of the Most Holy Sacrament, Students' Altar Society, St. Mary's Debating Society, and St. Leo'sDramatic Association.13 He was known especially for his fidelity to the Blessed Sacrament, and his increasing regard and respect for the monks. One of his instructors, in particular Father Felix Hintemeyer,14 would become a valued friend, mentor, and colleague of his.15

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1Simon Donoghue, "Thomas Oestreich and the Founding of a Great Library," Catholic Library World 65:3 (January/February/March 1995) 33. return

2AAM (Archives of the Abbey of Maryhelp) B22, Thomas Oestreich, #2 RP, Certificates of Progress from the Stewart Academy, 1885, 1886 (2), 1887 (2). The Stewart Academy specialized in educating both boys and girls in English, Classical Studies, and Mathematics.return

3St. Mary's College was renamed "Belmont Abbey College" in 1913. On the college's name see Souvenir of the Alumni Reunion of Belmont Abbey College (Belmont, NC: Belmont Abbey Press 1913) 9-10.return

4"Garibaldi" was changed to "Belmont" in 1886, then formalized by incorporation in 1895. For further information see Paschal Baumstein, O.S.B., My Lord of Belmont (Charlotte, NC: Laney-Smith 1985; 1995) 77-80 and Minnie Stowe Puett, History of Gaston County (Charlotte, NC: Laney-Smith 1939; 1998) 191-98.return

5AAM, Catalogue, St. Mary's College (Belmont, NC) 1888-89, p. 7.return

6Monks from St. Vincent Abbey (later Archabbey), located in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, founded the college and monastery in 1876. For a complete history of St. Vincent Archabbey, refer to Jerome Oetgen, Mission to America: A History of Saint Vincent Archabbey, the First Benedictine Monastery in the United States (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press 2000). return

7AAM, Catalogue, Belmont Abbey College 1888-89, p. 7. return

8The Classical Course was geared for boys in pre-seminary studies. An entrance examination was required, each candidate needing sufficient competency in English, mathematics and geography. The Classical Course consisted of five grade levels. Oestreich started in the fourth, suggesting his level of preparation. return

9AAM, Catalogue, Belmont Abbey College 1891-92, p. 40. In 1892 Oestreich earned the Gold Medal, honoring him as the student with the highest grade point average within the Classical Division. The medal is housed in the archives of Belmont Abbey College.return

10AAM, Catalogue, Belmont Abbey College 1888-89, p. 47. return

11AAM, Catalogue, Belmont Abbey College 1891-92, p. 40.return

12Interview with Belmont Abbey's official historian, Fr. Paschal Baumstein, O.S.B., December 8, 2001.return

13AAM, Belmont Abbey College 1889-90. The society of the Sodality of the Most Holy Sacrament,"endeavors to foster and promote a tender devotion to JESUS [sic], in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, by daily visits and semi-monthly communions." Oestreich held the position of secretary for this society during his sophomore year. He was its monitor during his junior year. The Students' Altar Society, aimed to "inspire its members with a filial love for the Holy Catholic Church and its ministers, and to assist in adorning and beautifying the Altar in the Students' Chapel." Oestreich was sacristan of this society during his junior and senior years. The objective of the St. Leo's Dramatic Association was to "improve its members in the Elocutionary and Dramatic Art, [sic], by producing, during the Academic year, several plays." Oestreich was a member of this society for only one year (his junior year), during which time he was the society's secretary. According to archival records, Oestreich participated in seven plays during the whole of his college career. return

14Father Felix taught many subjects in the college, including Dogmatic Theology, Canon Law, Mental Philosophy, Liturgy, and Latin. He was also the Prior of Maryhelp Abbey under Abbot Leo Haid. AAM, Catalogue(s). St. Mary's College (Belmont, NC) 1888-92. return

15Evidence suggests that Fr. Felix and Fr. Thomas were very close friends. For example, their correspondence displays the depth and extent of their exchanges. As an example, see letter from Fr. Felix Hintemeyer to Fr. Thomas Oestreich, June 8, 1924 (AAM, M59 Thomas Oestreich #2). return

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