Deepening Union: A Benedictine Commitment
Junior Essay Winner
Brother Boniface Hamilton, O.S.B.
There are certain qualities that are characteristic of a monastic leader. An abbey's monks, living in close proximity to one another, will recognize the candidate's caliber and potential, but they also will test those presumptions daily. The trials that accompany adherence to a monastic community, and the struggles of its cloistered life, are unremitting. Yet while these observances can be a highly subjective test, they also can allow a monk to distinguish himself early, exemplifying all the attributes that can gain the affections of his confreres and command the admiration of all.
At Belmont Abbey, Father Thomas Oestreich (1872-1943) is often mentioned as a man whose potential was recognized early. In particular, his rise in the full extent of his abbey's life--monastic, academic, pastoral, religious, scholarly--is still recognized. This paper is an assessment of what the Belmont monastery appreciated in Oestreich, qualities recognized still today.
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
On June 24, 1892, just two weeks after graduation, the twenty-year-old Oestreich entered the novitiate of Maryhelp Abbey. When he had announced his aspiration to become a Benedictine, the boy's mother sent a letter to Leo Haid, saying, "Willie Oestreich belongsto you. If God gave him a vocation he must stay with you. . . . [We] give him to God and trustthat God's Providence will provide for [him], as has been the case in the past."16 The monastic community promptly received Oestreich. Evidence suggests that Abbot Leo Haid recognized the young man's promise and the prospects that his character and intellect contributed to his vocation.17 In response, there arose in Frater (Brother) Thomas the first stirrings of his life-long personal fidelity to Leo Haid, and to Haid's Benedictine vision. Three decades later, Oestreich articulated the qualities that he found so appealing in his abbot:
he [Leo Haid] devoted himself with characteristic energy to the upbuilding of his vicariate. He gave special care to the education of priests for North Carolina, with untiring activity promoted the erection of churches, schools and charitable institutions in all parts of the state and elsewhere in the South.18
For Oestreich, these activities--each given unreservedly and without holding back-- gave substance to the calling he and Haid shared.
After professing his simple vows on June 30, 1893,19 Frater Thomas immediately began priesthood studies in Belmont's seminary. Haid and Hintemeyer were the leading professors for the clerics at that time. During this period, it appears that these three men formed a close bond and a shared respect that would enrich both them and Maryhelp from that time onward.20
On June 13, 1897, Frater Thomas was ordained a priest. Then, in early October, Abbot Haid sent Oestreich to Rome for advanced studies. It was the first time a monk of Belmont had been sent to a Roman athenaeum. Setting sail on the Auguste-Victoria, a passenger ship of the Hamburg-American Line,21 Oestreich was on his way to experiencing an undertaking that was consequential for him and for his abbey and its college.
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
In early July 1899, Oestreich traveled to England, the first leg of his return passage. Fr. Thomas was going home. On July 14, Oestreich sailed from Southampton to New York on the First Bismarck.30 Before returning to Maryhelp, Oestreich, with permission of Leo Haid, visited his mother in Reading. Typically, Fr. Thomas was quick to express his gratitude. Oestreich wrote his abbot, "My dear mother did not see much of me when I was home last time, and so I intend making up for it this time. I wish to thank you with all my heart for your great kindness."31
On returning to Maryhelp, Oestreich enrolled in the full expanse of his monastery and college's work. Such diversity would mark Fr. Thomas' labor thenceforth. One particularly important appointment was Oestreich's assignment as abbatial secretary. Although this office initially was not very challenging, its scope broadened progressively. At first, Fr. Thomas emphasized clerical duties only. But before long, Oestreich was enlisting his own Roman contacts on behalf of Haid's causes. Then, the abbot's agents grew in their regard for Oestreich's abilities. As a result, Fr. Thomas was able to expand his service by taking greater initiative when executing the tasks that fell to him. In the college and seminary, Fr. Thomas also accepted an increasingly prominent role. For example, during the school year of 1899-1900, he served as professor of Church History, Second Latin, First Greek, French, Italian, English, Sacred Scripture, Modern History, and Civil Government, all in the Classical Course. Oestreich also served as the college's librarian.32
In 1909, while maintaining his responsibilities as abbatial secretary, librarian, and professor, Oestreich was nominated to be Rector of the College and Seminary,33 their highest administrative office. Sharing his abbot's vision for the schools, Fr. Thomas devoted himself to this new chapter in Maryhelp's educational history. From the quiet familial institution of the earliest years, Haid and Oestreich began building up a strong liberal arts institution. In particular, they centered their attention on issues pertaining to each student's character and religion, not merely his intellect.34 Under Oestreich's guidance, between the years 1909-22,35 the seminary course of studies appears to not have had substantial changes. The college, however, was updated and restructured incrementally as its vision and philosophical foundation matured. Most significantly, in 1916 the curriculum and schools received a thorough and comprehensive re-organization. This charted the institution's improved scholarly integrity. It created three distinct departments: the Commercial, the Academic, and the Collegiate. Within this structure, the Commercial Department presented courses that gave students "a practical Business Education,"36 while the Academic Department supplied college-preparatory courses. The Collegiate Course was clearly established as the pinnacle of Belmont Abbey College's mission. It featured what Haid called "thorough" education, which he saw as the core of the Benedictine Order's academic vision. To encourage this educational objective, Oestreich devoted himself to providing "the breadth of studies and opportunities. . . so integral to good and thorough education."37
In 1921, the schools were reconstructed anew. Seeking an even more distinct definition, Oestreich devised a plan that advertised the seminary and college equally. Under his design, the school was divided into five discrete sections this time.38 This careful definition of academic life at Belmont also reflected Oestreich's resolute determination to raise scholastic standards and to ensure the intellectual integrity of the Belmont schools. The Haid and Oestreich's design for Belmont Abbey College won that institution its greatest merit and recognition to date.
In 1924, for the first time in Oestreich's experience, his ascendancy stalled. The problem began when, in June of that year, Hintemeyer sailed for Rome. Leo Haid, aged and ill by this time, had asked Father Felix to serve as proxy for the bishop's (overdue) visit ad limina. Hintemeyer debarked at Naples, intending to stay at Montecassino before traveling to Rome. This was to be but the first stop in a six-month journey across Europe, dedicated to advertising Haid's eminence and accomplishments. So Oestreich, still at Belmont, was unprepared for the news he received in early July. It came in a letter from Fr. Mauro Inguanez (1887-1955), Montecassino's guest master, dated July 1. Therein, Inguanez advised Fr. Thomas of Hintemeyer's death.39 It was only the first of the shocks to be suffered that month. Next, at about the same time, Oestreich's health broke, and his abbot wisely relieved him of the office of rector in the college. Then, before month's end, Haid, too, was dead. In a four-week period, Oestrich had lost his closest friend, lost the abbot whose vision he had taken as his own, and he had been required to relinquish his responsibility for guiding his monastery's educational venture. Three of the primary hallmarks in his life had been uprooted.
One can only imagine how these losses affected Fr. Thomas. He left no account of his experience. Knowing his allegiance to both men, however, and to his academic work, the transitions of 1924 were surely burdensome. For more than a quarter century, Haid, Hintemeyer, and Oestreich had been the defining coalition in Belmont's labors. Theirs was an unbreakable bond that had addressed all of the necessary components in their abbey's community life and identity. Now, life at Belmont--both the community's and Fr. Thomas' as the survivor--had entered a period of redefinition.
In the period after the deaths of Fr. Felix and Abbot Leo, Oestreich's disposition and constitution continued to weaken. Overwork aggravated his condition. Another factor in Fr. Thomas' decline arose with the election of Haid's successor. The selection of Belmont's second abbot produced unforeseen results. In August, Father Vincent Taylor (1877-1959) was named abbot-elect. Apparently, that choice struck Oestreich disagreeably. He grew increasingly unsettled in the aftermath, until around 1935 when he left Belmont for St. Leo's Abbey in Florida. Reasons for his departure remain unclear. St. Leo was a regular destination for Belmont monks in weak health; that might explain his departure, at least partially. Correspondence of the period suggests, however, that Fr. Thomas gave serious consideration to transferring stability to the younger abbey.40 In a letter written to Abbot Vincent, Abbot Francis Sadlier (1889-1962),41 Florida's superior, wrote, "The request that he [Fr. Thomas] should go back to Belmont upset him very much and caused him to feel very blue." Sadlier and Oestreich discussed the matter, though, allowing the younger man to be reconciled to the demands of his vocation to Belmont. Abbot Francis continued, "We talked the matter over and he realizes where the fault is and I am confident it will be all right and no furtherdevelopment. You may write him that everything is serene and he need not worry about'causing any trouble.'"42 Abbot Vincent, a man known for his pastoral skills, seems to have responded well. Returning to Belmont, and embarking on a new chapter of productive service, Fr. Thomas resumed teaching, again headed the seminary, and even served as Abbot Vincent's secretary.
As the 1930s progressed, Oestreich's health continued to decline. Although there is no evidence that he complained or sought exemptions, he seems to have begun suffering increasingly from the weight of his responsibilities and the resultant exhaustion. Finally, he was forced to renounce his several occupations at the abbey. Oestreich was sent to Saint Joseph Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. There, the Sisters of Mercy of Belmont nursed him while he, as the hospital's chaplain, ministered to the patients. In a half-century of priestly life, this was, strictly speaking, Oestreich's first parochial assignment. Finally, in his senior years, he could say that he had labored in every aspect of Belmont Abbey's mission, in monastic, educational, and pastoral service. In this new assignment, as in the ones of earlier years, Oestreich labored unreservedly and without complaint. He died in Asheville on November 15, 1943, and was returned to Belmont for burial in the abbey's cemetery.43
At Belmont Abbey, the leadership of Fr. Thomas Oestreich is acknowledged still, fifty-nine years after his passing. He was truly a championed leader, remembered more for his example than for any of the specific jobs he held. In particular, he gave himself fully to the vision of his abbot, enriching the schools with his teaching, and administrative skills. From the day he arrived at Saint Mary's College in 1888 to the day he was laid to rest in 1943, no aspect of his life can be told without mentioning the abbey and the Benedictines. They were at the center of his work; they were the principle that informed his scholarship, the breadth of his aspirations and love. They formed his life and built his character.
That is why Oestreich is still cited as an example at Belmont before students, faculty, monks, of us all, to this day. He led by the strength of his dedication and by his wise embrace of the full dimension of his Benedictine commitment. Fr. Thomas recognized, as his mother had said in 1891, that he belonged at Belmont, that "God gave him a vocation, and he must stay."
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
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
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
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
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
16AAM, letter from Father George Borbermann to Abbot Leo Haid, November 27,1891 (A1.0, #1. Correspondence 1884-1899). Because Mrs. Oestreich (an émigré) was probably not fluent in writing, Fr. George Borbermann wrote the letter for her. return
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
38AAM. Catalogue. Belmont Abbey College (Belmont, N.C.). 1921-1922, p. 20. The divisions are as follows:
- A School of Sacred Sciences (the seminary).
- The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (including degree courses in philosophical, scientific, classical, and literary studies).
- The Academy of Liberal Arts and Sciences (secondary school with focus on ancient and modern languages, English, mathematics, sciences, and history).
- A School of Commerce (offering accountancy, typewriting, commercial law, and social science).
- A preparatory course for students who lack the entrance requirements for the academy. return
39AAM, M59 Thomas Oestreich, #1. Letter from Mauro Inguanez, O.S.B. (Montecassino) to Fr. Thomas Oestreich, July 1, 1924. In this letter, Inguanez commented on his own affection for Hintemeyer, saying "The doctors did their best to save him . . . it seems to me that I lost one of my own family." return