Deepening Union: A Benedictine Commitment
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Advanced studies in Europe
The Auguste-Victoria stopped at Cherbourg, France. "A little French [boat] came out to meet us, and take us into land, and while our Dutch band played the 'Marseillaise' and other French national hymns, we were transferred from the steamer to the [smaller boat]." While approaching shore, Oestreich admired the harbor's fortifications, "the grandest I've ever seen."22 Father Thomas is not known to have traveled prior to 1897, but he adapted readily. His letters reflect both admiration and wonder, especially as he neared sites he had studied as a fledgling historian.
Once cleared through the customhouse, Fr. Thomas, bound for Paris, transferred to a rail passage. In transit between Cherbourg and Paris, the Norman scenery especially impressed Oestreich. "I will never forget it", wrote Fr. Thomas. "It is certainly a most magnificent country--not one spot left uncultivated. I was at once in love with France." He finally reached Paris. It proved exhilarating. Fr. Thomas embraced the city, and seized every opportunity to experience its culture and historical sites. In particular, he took pleasure in the Louvre, the Luxembourg Palace, and the Eiffel Tower. As for the French people, however, Oestreich did not care for them. "I certainly do not like the French type of faces," he said. "I didn't see a good-looking Frenchman all the while I was in Paris. They had a cold, strange, unfamiliar look about them, which rather repels."23 On a Sunday evening, October 24, 1897, Fr. Thomas left Paris for Rome, arriving there on Tuesday morning, October 26. At the train depot, he met Fr. Bruno Doerfler, a Benedictine from Minnesota. He escorted him to Sant' Anselmo. This was to be the locus of Fr. Thomas' academic and monastic life for the next three years. Despite its distance from North Carolina, however, the young monk remained persistently and indomitably focused upon Sant' Anselmo's role in preparing him, especially for the Belmont Benedictines' life and work.
Soon after beginning his Roman studies, Oestreich sent Leo Haid a letter requesting permission to pursue doctoral studies. His initial course of study, Fr. Thomas explained, would not be hindered by this addendum. In fact, "those studies [Church History and Scripture] were in the [doctoral] courses at any rate, and I would not be taught in special courses . . . I could, without much extra labor, be able to make the Doctorate."24 Leo Haid agreed to Oestreich's proposal, conceivably persuaded by the contention that it would be unwise not to seize the opportunity it presented.
For the next three years, Oestreich followed a demanding curriculum. His major course of study was ecclesiastical history, specializing in the reform movement under Hildebrand (Gregory VII). This was to be a focus of Fr. Thomas' erudition throughout his adult life. His research culminated in his 1931 study on the Hildebrandian Reform, notable for its analysis of the analytical research of historian Augustin Fliche (1884-1951).25 Regarding Pope Gregory, Oestreich concluded that, "Though a great saint, he [Hildebrand] was yet no great diplomatist. The source of his success and strength lay in his supernatural confidence and conviction, not in his political skill."26 This was a typical Oestreich evaluation. He was not one to lose the distinction between the character of the man and the character of his work.27
While in Rome, Oestreich remained attentive to his home abbey and the welfare of Saint Mary's College. In particular, he addressed collection development at the library at Belmont. In this he was acting on one of the crucial elements in Abbot Leo's educational vision. Indeed, the abbey's literary investment had been the first area that Haid, in 1885, had sought to improve at St. Mary's College. Now, a decade and a half later, it became a principal interest of Thomas Oestreich's. "Knowing the needs of our Library only too well,"28 as he put it,Fr. Thomas began purchasing standard scholarly and reference works for use in Belmont. To reduce expenses, Oestreich would buy these books prior to binding. He then shipped them to America, where, once bound, they were accessioned in the college's library.29
24AAM, B22 Thomas Oestreich, #1 RP, letter from Fr. Thomas Oestreich to Abbot Leo Haid October 30, 1897. Oestreich was the first monk of Belmont to earn a doctoral degree. Oestreich did not take his degree until 1922. Present officials at Sant'Anselmo did not succeed at confirming the reason for the delay. return
27Among other works of Fr. Thomas' scholarship are Early Christianity in Britain and A General Introduction to the Books of the Bible (in four parts). The archives of Belmont Abbey have attempted to collect all known works of Fr. Thomas Oestreich. Cf. AAM. return
29Many of Fr. Oestreich's purchases still serve at the college today. Because of his efforts, Saint Mary's became an important repository of valuable materials and resources. The importance, quality, and character of this collection are detailed in Donoghue, "Thomas," pp. 33-34. return