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A Memorable Centennial

And the Founding of St. Andrew Svorad Abbey

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2023 edition of the Clerestory.

The Chronicle that Father Procopius Neuzil maintained for our community contains the following entries for 1922:

[The Chapter] also decided to accept the proffered Slovak parish of St. Andrew in Cleveland with the intention that, after a time, a Slovak Benedictine Monastery would be founded there. [January 9]

Rev. Father Stanislaus Gmuca, O.S.B., our capitular and up till now, assistant in St. Michael’s Parish in Chicago, was sent to Cleveland, where on Sunday, in the Church of St. Andrew Svorad, he formally announced the taking over of the parish for the purpose of founding a Slovak Monastery. [February 19]

So began a further development of the vision of Archabbot Boniface Wimmer, one that had first taken root in western Pennsylvania three-quarters of a century earlier: the strengths of Benedictine monasticism would be recruited to preserve the Catholic Faith among immigrants to these shores.

Just before Wimmer’s death in 1887, the Holy See approved his request that to the German-American monasteries he had already founded around the country would be added the Czech house of St. Procopius in Chicago. In 1922, then, several Slovak monks who had joined St. Procopius Abbey began the venture that in time would bring about the Slovak monastery of St. Andrew Svorad in Cleveland.

The year of grace 2022, therefore, marks the hundredth anniversary of this community, and Abbot Gary Hoover approached Abbot Austin more than a year ago with the proposal that the Cleveland monks “return” to Lisle in June 1922 for a joint retreat with the St. Procopius monks. We were very happy to agree—though our ongoing construction project posed real challenges in finding room for the sixteen St. Andrew monks who would make the journey to Illinois. Space was located, and with monks all over the house, some of the Procopian monks remarked that it was like old times when there were many more monks around. They even brought with them picture books from their archives and other historical artifacts. We spent a fine week together as our retreat was preached by Fr. Joel Rippinger (Marmion Abbey), whose profound knowledge of American monastic history permitted him to include reflections upon our histories. In the middle of the week, the St. Andrew’s monks found time to visit the St. Procopius Abbey Cemetery located on the grounds of Benedictine University. There they visited the grave of Abbot Valentine Kohlbeck who was abbot at the time of their founding.

Three months later, on Sunday, September 18, there took place the main celebration of St. Andrew’s centennial. Two days earlier, Abbot Austin, Prior Guy, Br. Kevin and I drove to Cleveland to participate in the event. On Saturday morning, Fr. Finbar Ramsak provided a tour of the both the Abbey building and that of Benedictine High School, which has an enrollment of about 270 young men. In the afternoon, Fr. Gerard Gonda drove Abbot President Jonathan Licari and the four of us to see various important sites from the century that St. Andrew Abbey has ministered to the Catholics of Cleveland.

We were especially happy to visit the monastic cemetery and the graves of such as Frs. Gregory Vaniscak (who had provided the primary impetus for the foundation of St. Andrew Abbey, but who could not move to Cleveland in 1922 because the Church in Chicago much needed the leadership he was providing St. Michael the Archangel Parish) and Fr. Stanislaus Gmuca (who in 1934 became the first Abbot of the new monastery).

Many hundreds were to attend the Centennial Mass on Sunday afternoon, which because of space was celebrated at Assumption Parish in Broadview Heights, which the monks have staffed since 1977. Bishop Edward Malesic of Cleveland presided, and a fine historical presentation of the challenges of the Abbey’s first century was provided in the homily by retired Auxiliary Bishop of Cleveland Roger Gries, who had served as the Abbot of St. Andrew from 1981 to 2001. As well as Abbot President Jonathan and Abbot Austin, the Abbots of Belmont (North Carolina), St. Gregory’s (Oklahoma), and Newark (New Jersey) concelebrated.

A banquet for about 470 guests followed at the Embassy Suites Hotel, and the many speakers made clear the good done by the Benedictines in Cleveland over the last hundred years and the continuing relationship of the monks with the local community. The impact made by St. Andrew Abbey has long gone beyond the Slovak community to embrace the entire metropolitan area, though the remarks from several Slovak fraternal associations demonstrated the ongoing impact of the monks upon the ethnic community of their foundation.

When Fr. Gerard, Fr. Michael Brunovsky, and Br. Gregory Coyne visited Lisle in 2021 to present Abbot Gary’s suggestion, they did so also to see documents from our archives on their community’s beginnings. Amidst our discussions, they informed me that their house’s legends recall that our Fr. Procopius told their founders, “What we have done for the Czechs, you must do for the Slovaks.” I had not been aware of this, but the generous evangelical spirit manifested by these words perfectly accords with everything I have learned about the man who provided dynamism and leadership to our community from almost its earliest days. May God bless the monks of St. Andrew Abbey, and may the present generation of both our houses exhibit the vision and courage that so marked the lives of our founders!

Abbot Austin’s Remarks at St. Andrew Abbey Centenary

I am very happy to be here on behalf of St. Procopius Abbey, the mother house of St. Andrew Abbey. Also here from St. Procopius are Prior Guy Jelinek, Subprior James Flint, and Br. Kevin Coffey. With them and all the monks of St. Procopius Abbey back in Illinois, I extend to the monks of St. Andrew Abbey our heartfelt congratulations on your centenary. We are very happy for you and proud of you.

I think it was Cardinal Ratzinger, before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, who noted that faith does not exist apart from a culture. You cannot find the Catholic faith just floating out there apart from a particular culture, such as an ethnic culture. We see that in our congregation of Benedictine monasteries. With the first monastery of our congregation, St. Vincent Archabbey, the faith existed in the Bavarian culture. With St. Procopius, it existed in the Czech culture. And in the case of St. Andrew Abbey, we find the Catholic faith rooted in the Slovak culture. And it is impressive how you have kept that heritage alive.

Now, if the faith only exists in a culture, then it follows that it only spreads by moving from one culture into another. We see this in the history of our Catholic faith: the Catholic faith spread from the Jewish culture, to the Greek culture and to the Roman culture, and then into other cultures, such as the Slavic culture.

Every ethnic group’s culture has good elements in it and what the faith does is bring those elements out more fully. It takes the good elements and amplifies them. Yes, it is also the case that every culture also has bad elements, but the faith purifies them over time.

The Catholic faith for centuries has found a home in the Slovak culture and St. Andrew Abbey has been a part of this important history. Of course, St. Andrew does not only serve Slovaks, but people from other cultures. So, my prayer for St. Andrew Abbey, as you continue in your history, is that the Catholic faith that has found a home in your Slovak heritage may continue to spread into the other cultures that you serve, and indeed, into our broader American culture. May the faith that is alive in your monastery bring out what is good in our American culture, even while purifying it from bad elements.

So, again, congratulations to St. Andrew Abbey and may God continue to use you as instruments of evangelization.

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