Mount St. Scholastica's French Refugees:
In Search Of Liberty
Junior Essay Winner
Antonia Ryan, O.S.B.
"A monk--what does he do for a living? Nothing, except to bind himself by an inviolable oath to be a slave and a fool and to live at the expense of other people."1
Voltaire's comment was an exaggeration--but did not stray far from general opinion at the dawn of the French Revolution. The great wealth and land holdings of many monastic houses complicated the revolutionary ideal of equality. Monastic vows seemed to be "a renunciation of the sacred principle of Liberty."2 The new order took action against a structure that, to them, smacked of the ancien régime.
The earliest years of the twentieth century saw yet another wave of government action against religious. In 1904 and 1906, Mount St. Scholastica, in Atchison, Kansas, received a group of eight French Benedictine sisters who sought refuge after being expelled from their home. Their experience has become part of our own community history.
The eight sisters came from the Abbaye de Saint Eustase in Flavigny-sur-Moselle, Lorraine, France. Sisters Mary Agnes Miessler, Mary Jane Weckerlin,3 St. John Toussaint, and Walburg Veser (choir sisters); Julia Miller, Francesca Schneider, Mecthilde Schmuker, and Odelia Schenk (lay sisters) made vows between 1886 and 1899.
The roots of the Flavigny community extended back to 966, when a new community was established in the village of Vergaville, diocese of Metz, in honor of Mary and all saints.4 Early in their history, the Vergaville sisters acquired the relics of Saint Eustase (d. 625),5 for whom the abbey was re-named. The nuns were forced out during the Revolution. Their abbess, Madame de la Marche, was on a cart headed toward execution until a friend recognized her and told the cart driver, "Why bother about an old woman who can not harm the Republic?"6
When the atmosphere had stabilized, the abbess and her surviving sisters opened a boarding school in Ménil, then moved it to Saint-Dié. In 1824, they installed themselves in the seventh-century abbey of Flavigny-sur-Moselle. They brought with them the relics of St. Eustase and a cherished statue of Notre Dame de Vergaville.
Most of the nineteenth century was a peaceful, prosperous time for the Flavigny community. In addition to their boarding school, the sisters ran a farm and a pastry business, and made vestments. Sister Jane Frances McAtee tells us: "At exhibitions, the vestments and the pastries from St. Eustase practically always won gold medals. In fact, the renown which their products gained them really was instrumental in the Sisters' ruin."7
The Expulsion Looms
In 1901, the French government re-examined the laws against priests and religious. The years of 1902 and 1903 saw closings of numerous religious houses. By the spring of 1904, it was clear that the nuns of St. Eustace were slated for evacuation. Sister Mary Jane's journal entry for "January and the following months," 1904, reads: "We were employed by Madame the Abbess [Ida Adam], in light of the events, to take prudent measures. All superfluous, useless things were sold. [Buyers] flooded in. We could not help seeing a singular Providence on the community."
She also notes that they could not keep the library, as it was not of the most absolute necessity.8 In July, evaluators came to look over the property.
A Sister of the Monastery of Notre Dame du Prieuré, also facing expulsion in 1904, expressed what nuns all over the country must have been feeling. "Hitherto we have given up our well-loved and respected parents, our brothers and sisters, our families, our welfare, in fine our all, to devote ourselves to prayer. In a little time . . .we must bid farewell--an agonizing farewell --to all that we have chosen. Why must it be?"9
In July 1904, Mother Aloysia Northman, prioress of Mount St. Scholastica, received a letter from Abbot Felix DeGrasse of Shawnee, Oklahoma. Abbot Felix was a native of Lorraine, and had already helped several French sisters to America.
On my return from Europe about 4 weeks ago, when I went to see you at Atchison you gave me to read the application which Madame the Abbess had written to you asking you to receive some of her Sisters. I told you my opinion which is to receive them without fear because I know them. They will never give you any trouble. On the contrary they will be greatly useful to your community.10
Mother Aloysia accepted their application. On October 19, the Mount St. Scholastica Academy catalogue remarks: "Five11 Benedictine Sisters, exiled from France, arrived at the Convent to-day. . . . The French Government has for the past few years been expelling religious from their convents and confiscating their property. . . . It seems cruel that such things must be; but frequently they are only the means for fulfilling God's designs."12
The choir sisters had departed France less than a month before the expulsion.
The expulsion day
At around eight in the morning, on November 11, 1904, soldiers entered the town of Flavigny. Sister Julia recalled:
Every day we expected them to come, but we had no idea when they were coming. We had all our exercises as usual, and each day after Mass we stripped the altar and put everything away in a neighbor's house. . . . [When the soldiers were sighted], I secured the gate and the house door and then I hurried and told Reverend Mother. Reverend Mother had me ring the bell for all the sisters to assemble in the Chapel. [Two sisters] were told to go up into the bell tower and ring the bell so that the townspeople would know what was happening.13
The soldiers gave a summons. When the nuns did not emerge, the soldiers broke through the locked doors, invaded the cloister, and found the thirty remaining nuns in the chapel, grouped around their abbess, chanting the Parce Domine. The head soldier stepped forward. "I can see him yet, as he stood there wearing his official cape," Julia remembered. "He read us a long formal accusation, as if we were criminals."14
Only when the chant was finished did the abbess speak. "We cannot willingly accept a judgment which strikes a blow at our property rights and our liberty," she reportedly told the soldiers. "But we declare that we, through and above all, will remain faithfully attached to our God and our promises, at the end to merit a favorable sentence from the Sovereign and Just Judge."15
As the nuns were escorted out of the abbey, the assembled townspeople gave cries of "Long Live the Sisters! Long Live Liberty!" (though one fellow in a nearby café shouted "down with the priesthood!" instead).16
That very day, November 11, 1904, was the 41st anniversary of the founding of Mount St. Scholastica.
After the expulsion, Sister Julia lived with a pious schoolteacher in a nearby village. Sister Francesca lived in Vezelise, in a hospital run by Franciscan nuns; Sisters Odelia and Mecthilde found refuge with lay people; and other sisters were sent to Holland, Germany, and Italy. Mother Aloysia received a letter from France in January, 1906, in which the writer lamented that the government had taken over churches for Masonic meeting houses, Mass was said in private homes, and priests discovered saying Mass were sent to the guillotine.17
On May 29, 1906, the four lay sisters arrived in Atchison, having paid their way to New York with money from friends and relatives. Abbess Ida Adam wrote to Mother Aloysia a month later, giving thanks for "your charity in receiving our sisters" and telling her "how impressed I was by the cordial welcome they received in your beautiful monastery."18
A New Home
As Abbot Felix had predicted, the Flavigny sisters became useful members of the Atchison community. Three were involved in Mount St. Scholastica Academy. Sister Mary Jane taught French and Music in the Academy "with much success."19 She was an "accomplished pianist," composed music, made rosaries, and "decorated confectionery like a professional."20
Sister Mary Agnes was in charge of teaching "fancy work" to the Academy girls. Sister St. John, Academy infirmarian, assisted her with this instruction. At the end of the year, both of them arranged exhibits of the girls' work. Sister Mary Agnes also made "intricate and rich-looking" vestments, assisted again by Sister St. John.
These two, who had entered Flavigny together, continued together until death. According to Sister Jane Frances, "After Sister St. John became bed-ridden, Sister Mary Agnes assumed under obedience almost the entire care of her, and her [devotion] to Sister St. John was unflagging up to the very end."21
Sister Odelia had many jobs. She made altar breads, served as guest mistress, took care of the rose garden, washed and waxed the terazzo floors in the college building (built 1923) during summer vacation, and served breakfast to the chaplains. Sister Odelia was apparently much concerned about an operation she faced in her later years. In a letter dated December 10, 1940, Abbot Martin Veth (of St. Benedict's Abbey, Atchison) reassured her that "Now-a-days an operation is not such [a] serious matter and I trust that you will soon be home again, waiting on the priests' table."22
Sister Odelia died in 1943. An obituary notice predicted that she would "be remembered by many as the solicitous attendant of guests who visited at the Mount."23 (Her niece, Sister Antonia Schenk, was also a member of the Mount community. She died in 1988. Like her aunt, Sister Antonia is remembered for her hospitality as guest mistress.)
Sister Francesca took care of the greenhouse and the flowers, and made bouquets for the altars. According to Sister Jane Frances, she "was outdoors whenever there was the least necessity or opportunity."24 The three others were involved in sewing ministries: Sister Walburg knit stockings on a machine brought over from France; "[h]er last obedience was to help with the community mending."25 Sister Mecthilde worked in the tailor shop, and Sister Julia mended for the priests at the abbey.
Sister Julia is also remembered for her unique way of expressing herself. One "classic" Sister Julia story tells about the time she said of Father Timothy Fry, "Oh, he is such a fine young priest, but he is getting so stupid." (She meant to say "stooped.") Some sisters remember that she wore a ring with the inscription: "Jesus--Julia."
Sisters Julia and Mary Agnes were still alive when Sister Jane Frances prepared her paper about the French sisters. The three of them signed the paper on March 29, 1947, the Feast of St. Eustase. Sister Mary Agnes was the last one to die, at age eighty-eight, in 1952. In her effects is a short note expressing thanks for the notification of her death, from Abbess Marie de Goué, Abbaye Saint Eustase, Poyanne, Landes, France.
During the next forty years, the Atchison and the St. Eustase sisters apparently lost touch. Then, in 1991, the archivist at Mount St. Scholastica, Sister Marie Louise Krenner, heard from a certain Madame Delpit, who was inquiring on behalf of the St. Eustase community. Sister Marie Louise sent a letter to France, including photos and information about the refugees.
In return, she received notes of thanks from Abbess Marie de Goué and from Sister Christine Amsler, subprioress. Included with the letters was a pamphlet giving the complete history of the St. Eustase community.
The pamphlet says that in 1921, many of the expelled sisters living in Italy re-grouped and installed themselves in the diocese of Saint-Dié, France. They went to Poyanne in 1935; in 1966 they celebrated the millenium of their founding. In 1985, they transferred to their present monastery, the Abbaye Notre-Dame Saint-Eustase in Eyres Moncube, Landes.
Sister Christine explained that they had often heard of the sisters who went to Atchison when they read their necrology aloud in the refectory--but did not know whether "Atchison" still existed. In 1990, after they discovered Atchison in a catalogue of Benedictine monasteries, they appealed to their friend Madame Delpit, who lived in America. And voilà, contact was made.
Sister Christine ended her letter: "With joy we give your community a great MERCI!"
One of the great treasures in our archives is a book given to Sister Mary Jane by her uncle, Viktor Wekerlin, when she entered the abbey at Flavigny in 1887. Fleures du Desert was hand-lettered and illuminated by uncle Viktor; in its beautiful pages are stories (and pictures) of Antony, Syncletica, Benedict, and many other desert dwellers, famous and obscure.
The monastic stream has flowed from Antony . . . to Benedict and Scholastica . . . to Columbanus and Eustase . . . to Flavigny. For the French sisters, "liberty" was the right to remain within their tradition. The stream brought them to Atchison, where, at last, they could be secure in following the motto that appeared on the Flavigny stationery, below a picture of the Virgin: "Elles m'ont choisie pour leur mère": They have chosen me as their Mother.
3Mount St. Scholastica Archives (hereafter MSSA).It was hard to find a consistent spelling for most of the sisters' names. Many of their names were Americanized ("Julia Miller" instead of "Julia Müller"; "Mary Jane" instead of "Marie Jeanne," and so on). I chose the spelling used most consistently for each in our archival records. return