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“See What Charlie Says About It”

John Nepomucene Jaeger, First Abbot of St. Procopius Abbey

by Fr. James Flint, OSB

This article first appeared in the Fall 2023 edition of The Clerestory

One hundred years ago, on February 27, 1924, the monks of St. Procopius Abbey gathered in the southeastern corner of the building, in the Abbot’s quarters on the first floor. There lay dying the first leader of the community, John Nepomucene Jaeger, just three days past his eightieth birthday. Those present prayed the Rosary. At its conclusion, they sang the “Salve Regina.” About 2:35 p.m., as one of the senior monks, Father Valerian Havlovic, was imparting the Papal Blessing, the founding abbot died. 

More than seventy years before, the Jaeger family crossed the Atlantic, as the old Abbot’s great collaborator, Procopius Neuzil, relates in a 1935 appreciation: 

The Jaeger Family in the year 1853 became one of the first Czech families to settle in New York. At first they belonged to the German parish of the Most Holy Redeemer, on Third East Street, under the direction of the Redemptorist Fathers. Little Charles Jaeger [born 1844] attended parochial school there, so that his early education in school was German-English, and, as it seems, the English language at that time was still a secondary subject in school. In later years, several times Father Jaeger remarked that he [learned only] street English, because in school German was usually used. Even though also in church German was the language usually used in sermons; nevertheless, the Czechs settled in New York remained members of the congregation, for one, because many of them knew German, and also because among the priests attached to Most Holy Redeemer, was also Father Urbancik, whom the Czechs generally called Father Urban. [The] Czechs called him their own priest, and he worked among them with great success. 
This priest had a particularly beneficial influence on the perceptive mind of Charles Jaeger, for he was attached to him with devout love and respect.…Under the direction of this priest, reputed for his strictness, the young Jaeger prospered [both in school and as a violinist]…. [The Jaeger house was]a kind of center of the Czech immigrant life in the city, and their home was the first station where the immigrants, debarking from the ship, took refuge. 

In Bohemia, the father of the family had been successful enough as a tailor, but he seems to have struggled to make ends meet in the circumstances of the New World. The young Charles, a talented musician (especially on the violin) who by the age of ten was employed by a traveling Italian orchestra, ended up playing a leading role in family affairs. Not only did his income do much to support the family, but the seriousness and maturity with which he approached life gave him an outsized role in decision-making. Prior Procopius continues: 

Without “Charlie” no domestic plans would be made. If he was not at home, but on a concert tour, the final decision in the family used to be, “Wait to see what Charlie says about it.”…[The] knowledge that his parents and brothers depended chiefly on his earnings, made of him a young man very temperate and very serious, who allowed himself no useless expenditures even though he may have been tempted and urged to do so by his companions and musical colleagues. 

The orchestra toured throughout the northeastern United States, venturing as far as the Twin Cities in Minnesota, and so Charles was away from home a good deal. But he retained both his family’s piety and his own relationship with Father Urbancik (who had been a confrere and close associate of his fellow-Redemptorist, St. John Neumann, Bishop of Philadelphia). As Charles entered his twenties and his two younger brothers became wage-earners who could take over the support of the family, he and his spiritual adviser began to think of Charles’ future. Father Urbancik finally told him: “You are not for the world. You are called to the religious life. Apply to a monastery and see if they will admit you.” The sequel: 

Father Urban advised him to seek admission as a lay brother in the Benedictine monastery near Latrobe, Pennsylvania. When he received a favorable reply to his request, his spiritual director ordered him now to ask whether he would be able to study for the priesthood, the answer came: “If you wish to be a good monk, come.” That is what the young Jaeger wanted to be, and he came. Since in those days he was traveling more of the time than he was at home, his departure from home did not arouse any surprise, for he did not tell anyone, neither his parents, nor his brothers, where he was going. He only left an address at home, so that they would know where to write.

Why the secrecy? According to Prior Procopius, among many of the Czech immigrants was to be found a prejudice against monastic life, a notion that it was a relic from the Middle Ages, and that the inhabitants of monasteries were useless drones contributing nothing to society. Had word spread among the Czechs of New York that the youngster was off to an abbey, he and his family would have faced both questions and criticisms that Father Urbancik thought it better to spare them. Time enough for all that if Charles persevered at St. Vincent Abbey. 

How did the Jaeger family found out about Charles’ new home? Quite by accident. Another youthful Czech immigrant, Charles Kocarnik, was both a close friend of the Jaegers and was also under the spiritual direction of Father Urbancik. Kocarnik too was advised to try his vocation at Latrobe. Prior Procopius tells what happened next: 

When [Kocarnik] was assured of being accepted, before he left for the monastery he visited the Jaegers to bid them farewell and to ask them for Charlie’s [address]. But he was very much surprised when he got the address and realized that it was the address of the same place to which he himself was now going. Only then did the Jaegers learn from Kocarnik that their Charlie was to be found in a monastery. 

How was Charlie faring at the Pennsylvania monastery? He had been obliged by his lack of any training in Latin to begin at a very low scholastic level, but this he had expected. In another respect, he continued to excel: 

His musical talents were soon recognized at St. Vincent’s, and he was appointed to teach violin. He became the best member of the monastery orchestra, a singing teacher, and the director of the choir. 

In later years, before being sent to Illinois, he would have a role in the introduction of Gregorian chant for the community. But for now, the young man continued his academic studies until he was ready to be accepted into novitiate, receiving the name of John Nepomucene. He was twenty-seven when he professed his monastic vows on July 11, 1871. Four years later, he was ordained to the priesthood. 

By this time, the venerable Abbot of St. Vincent, Boniface Wimmer, began pondering how to go about setting up a monastery devoted to preserving the Faith among Czech immigrants. In 1877, Father John Nepomucene’s friend, now Father Wenceslaus Kocarnik, was sent to look after Czech Catholics in the Omaha, Nebraska, diocese. He would be laying the foundations, Abbot Boniface hoped, for a monastery in that state. Father “Nepomuk” Jaeger meanwhile had much to do still in Pennsylvania, as Prior Procopius explains: 

In the years after 1875, many Slavs began immigrating to America, and very many of these settled in the state of Pennsylvania, where they were able to find employment immediately in the coal mines. This was the time when the “Pennsylvania Dutch” began to move and make room for Slav— Slovaks, Poles, Croatians, Slovenes—also for Hungarians and Italians. These last usually found some priest at St. Vincent’s who had studied in Rome, with whom they could speak; whereas all the others were referred to the missionary. For the Hungarian, Croatian, and Slovene confessions, Father Nepomuk used his “Confessional Mirror,” a list of sins which he had written in their language and in the English language; and the Slovak and Polish confessions he could hear without difficulty because with his knowledge of Czech he could speak with them. 
The day on which the missionary was to come used to be announced ahead of time, not only to the coalminers, but also to the officials of the coalmining company, because on that day was no work in the mines, because most of the miners were Catholics, and when these did not work it was not easy to continue operations in the mines. At such a time, the “camp” served also as a church, but a rather strange one. An altar was set up at one end. In front of the altar, the missionary sat on a chair and heard confessions, while the others knelt around the altar and prayed from prayer books and made their preparations for confession.… Holy Mass usually began around one o’clock in the afternoon. After Holy Mass, during which the “boys” received Holy Communion, there was a sermon in some Slav language depending on the language that was heard most often during the time of confessions. Thus, generally at two-thirty or three o’clock, the missionary got his breakfast. 

Into the mid-1880s Father Nepomuk continued these missionary ventures, though in 1882 he became pastor of St. Wenceslaus Parish in Allegheny City. He also taught Czech to several students from Czech background who knew little of the language, all this as part of Abbot Boniface’s plans to form a cadre of members for the future Czech monastery. One of those he tutored would be his eventual successor in Lisle, the future Abbot Valentine Kohlbeck. 

In Nebraska, meanwhile, Father Wenceslaus’ labors, though considerable, had the unintended effect of persuading Abbot Boniface that an area of many small farming communities with severe winters was a poor location for a monastery. A city with a concentrated population of Czechs would be a far more suitable spot for the new community. And so it happened that when there came an opportunity to take over the staffing of the largest Czech parish in the United States, St. Procopius in Chicago, Abbot Boniface terminated the Nebraska project and (with the Archbishop of Chicago’s permission) named Father Nepomuk both pastor and prior of the fledgling community of Czech Benedictines (March 2, 1885). 

It did not take long for Prior Nepomuk and the Benedictine monks to become fixtures of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, notwithstanding opposition from anti-clerical Czechs calling themselves “Freethinkers” and regarding Catholicism as an aspect of the “old country” that was best left behind. In Czech Benedictines in America, Father Peter Mizera speaks of one encounter in which Abbot Nepomuk (the community advanced to the rank of Abbey in 1894) peacefully faced down unruly opponents:

On the Sunday afternoon when a group of Freethinkers planned to break all the stained glass windows of St. Procopius church, the Abbot, without telling anyone, immediately after Vespers went to meet the group, that was gathered in a saloon.… As he turned into Centre Ave. from 18th Street one of the group saw him. The entire group came out hurriedly on the street, with stones and clubs in their hands. Abbot Jaeger steadily, with eyes fixed on them, advanced towards the group. When he was in talking distance, he spoke kindly to the group and appealed to them not to carry out their destructive plan. One by one the stones and clubs fell to the ground, and the entire group re-entered the saloon. During the evening recreation on that same Sunday, the Abbot narrated this experience to his astonished [monastic] community. 

The respect with which the Abbot was regarded in the neighborhood once saved a local bank, as Father Peter explains: 

The people of [the] Pilsen district panicked and made a run upon Kasper State Bank.… Mr. Kasper sent a message to Abbot Jaeger, the Abbot collected all the money he had on hand into a pouch, came to the bank’s receiving teller window and said aloud: “Here Mr. Kasper, deposit this for St. Procopius.” On hearing and seeing this the people stopped and the run was over. From that day on, no amount was too large that Abbot Jaeger could receive in loan from Kasper State Bank, and that without collateral or interest, such was his credit. 

The Abbot’s good heart also extended to youngsters, such as Father Peter had been in June 1909, when graduation exercises for the school established by Abbot Nepomuk were held at the new campus in rural Lisle: 

During a conversation he learned that I must give up further studies because I could no longer increase the debt I owed.…“Do you wish to continue your studies?” he asked. Yes, Father Abbot. “Come back next fall to school, and tell the rector he should send me all your present and future bills.” This generosity made it possible for me to complete my studies. It will never be known to how many students he extended his generosity, for it seems that no record of his benefactions was kept. 

Abbot Nepomuk sharply distinguished, however, between compassion towards the Czech people the monastery existed to serve and what was expected of the monks within the community. After Father Peter joined the monastery, he heard tales of the superior’s thrift during the early years in Chicago: 

He personally taught the young members of the community to avoid unnecessary expenses as much as possible. Whenever…they had to travel by streetcar to any place, he would give them this instruction: “Here are 15 cents: 5 cents for getting to the place, 5 cents for your return and 5 cents for emergency. When you return safely, be sure to return the remaining 5 cents! 

As the community grew, so did its capacity to help the Czech Catholics retain their religious heritage. As noted, a school was established, first at the parish in Chicago, then from 1901 in Lisle. There was a press, allowing publications to reach Czechs throughout the United States and beyond. The Abbot’s own blood-sister, Mother Nepomuka Jaeger, and other dedicated women established a Czech convent that had its own school for girls. An orphanage made its appearance. New Czech parishes were set up in Chicago and Berwyn. When the community celebrated its silver anniversary in 1910, a visiting abbot declared: 

The world often slanders the monks that they are the lazy, good-for-nothing drones of society, but in the lives of these Fathers you can see with your own eyes how unfounded the accusation is. I venture to say that there is no body of men in the city of Chicago that works harder than the Bohemian Benedictine Fathers of St. Procopius. 

In all his labors, Abbot Nepomuk had an indispensable helper in Father Procopius Neuzil, in many respects the dynamo powering the monastery from his arrival in 1886 until his death six decades years later. This was a man who could be trusted to be both selfless and forceful in the monastery’s interests, and the Abbot more and more came to rely on him. In 1899, Father Procopius was named Prior. 

By 1914, when Abbot Nepomuk moved to newly constructed monastery quarters in Lisle, he was, though only seventy, visibly failing both in mind and in body. Prior Procopius more and more assumed the total direction of the community, leaving Abbot Nepomuk leisure for walks around the campus as long as he could, trimming the fruit trees on occasion. When the time came that he needed a wheelchair, he enjoyed the cheerful companionship Brothers Gottfried Stibr and Paul Pesko. 

In those days, Benedictine superiors were elected for life, but at last the old Abbot agreed to request the election of a coadjutor (helper) abbot. In 1919, Father Valentine Kohlbeck was chosen by the community for this role, and Abbot Nepomuk’s responsibility for community government became only nominal. As his legs grew weaker, rheumatism and asthma ever more troubled him, and he spent most of his time in prayer. As noted above, he died amidst his confreres in February 1924. 

Decades earlier, as a young priest at St. Vincent Abbey, he had heard a visitor comment, “St. Vincent’s is nothing but a heap of bricks.” To which Father Nepomuk replied, “Yes, but you can save your soul there.” Other “heaps of bricks” assembled in Chicago and Lisle, Illinois, would, thanks to the leadership of “Charlie Jaeger,” became places of prayer, study, and we may hope salvation, for innumerable Czech and Catholics of other nationalities during the century after his death.


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