News & Features
Benedictine Fathers continue rich, historic tradition
archived from: 2002-07-25
by: Chuck Moody
The following is one in a series of stories about
diocesan religious communities that are appearing in
the Pittsburgh Catholic every other week throughout
Members of the diocese probably are most familiar with
the Benedictine Fathers as a result of their operation of
St. Vincent College and Seminary in Latrobe, Pa.
Many of the priests who serve in parishes in the
diocese have been educated at the seminary.
“Originally, St. Vincent was in the Diocese of
Pittsburgh,” said Archabbot Douglas Nowicki of St.
Vincent Archabbey, the oldest Benedictine monastery in
the United States. “It was only in 1951 that the diocese
was divided. But originally we used to have parishes all
over the Diocese of Pittsburgh.”
The only current parish in the diocese staffed by
Benedictines is St. Peter on Pittsburgh’s North Side.
“I feel privileged that those of us who are stationed here
that we’re still maintaining the Benedictine presence in
the Diocese of Pittsburgh,” said Father Ben Walker,
pastor of St. Peter. “This is very, very important because
we’ve had a long history between the St. Vincent
Archabbey and the diocese.
“It’s an opportunity for us to share our Benedictine
spirituality with the people of Pittsburgh. We welcome
the chance to be on the fringes of the inner-city. It kind
of fits our charism to deal with those who are down on
their luck a little bit sometimes plus the folks who live
here and are not down on their luck.”
Benedictine Fathers Ralph Tajak and Richard Ulam are
parochial vicars at St. Peter.
The Benedictines are one of the oldest religious orders
in history, dating to the fifth century with the founding of
the order by St. Benedict.
“He was a young man from Norcia, Italy,” Archabbot
Nowicki said. “In 480, he had been a student in Rome,
and Rome was in a state of moral, and political and
social collapse. He fled Rome and went off to a cave in
Subiaco to flee the ravages of the decline and really the
decline of western civilization.
“People began to be attracted because he was fairly
wise, and people would come to him for counseling
and for spiritual advice. A group gathered around him,
and then they asked if he would be their abbot and he
agreed to that. After a while, they decided that they didn’t
like his advice and tried to get rid of him. He went off to
Monte Casino, which then became really one of the
great Benedictine centers of monasticism in the world.”
Pope Paul VI in 1967 proclaimed St. Benedict the
patron of western civilization and western monasticism
because of the tremendous influence he had on
western civilization, the archabbot said.
“If you look at the history of Europe, you’ll find that many
of the cities originally were monasteries, and the
monasteries would be established in the countries,” he
said. “Eventually, the farmers would begin asking the
monks if they would educate their children. Around the
monasteries little towns began to build up, and
eventually those little towns became large cities.
“It was about another 1,000 years before the next
religious community began to appear. One of the
reasons for that is that the monks were the ones who
had the books. They had their scriptoriums and they
transcribed the writings, and so they became centers of
learning. The monks had the first libraries. It was really
a way of passing on knowledge.”
The major ministries of the Benedictines today
continue to be education as well as pastoral and
missionary work, Archabbot Nowicki said.
The Benedictines of St. Vincent operate the college and
seminary, and they minister in other apostolates on
campus, in parishes in western Pennsylvania,
Baltimore, Virginia Beach, Va., Benedictine Military
School in Savannah, Ga., Wimmer Priory in Taipei,
Taiwan and at St. Benedict Priory in Vinhedo, Brazil.
There are about 10,000 Benedictine Fathers worldwide,
Archabbot Nowicki said. There are 45 other abbeys in
the United States.
St. Vincent was established by Benedictine Father
Boniface Wimmer at the invitation of Bishop Michael
O’Connor, the first bishop of Pittsburgh.
Three Pittsburgh bishops were graduates of St.
Vincent: J.F. Regis Canevin, Hugh Boyle and Vincent
Leonard. Bishop Donald Wuerl currently is a member
of the St. Vincent Seminary board of regents.
St. Vincent has always been one of the major sources
of training for seminarians from the Pittsburgh Diocese.
“When I send a seminarian from the Pittsburgh
Diocese to St. Vincent Seminary, I know that he will
receive excellent academic, personal, spiritual and
pastoral preparation,” Bishop Wuerl said. “Upon his
return, I know I am getting a priest who is well-trained to
perform his duties in the diocese.”