Saint Vincent Archabbey is not just an abbey, it is comprised of four distinct institutions: The Archabbey Monastery where the Benedictine monks live, the Archabbey Basilica where the Divine Office is prayed and which also serves as the parish Church for Saint Vincent Parish, Saint Vincent Seminary which is beside the Archabbey and Saint Vincent College, a liberal arts college, which has close to two thousand students.
As one approaches Saint Vincent Archabbey, the most prominent feature of the area is the Saint Vincent Archabbey Basilica, The Basilica (so designated by the Holy See in 1955 and prior to that known as the Archabbey Church, was designed by and built by the Benedictine monks at the beginning of the twentieth century. Next to the Basilica is the Saint Vincent Parish Center, which provides for the offices of the parish, conference and meeting rooms, and the Basilica Gift Shop. A statue of Archabbot Boniface Wimmer, O.S.B., first archabbot of Saint Vincent stands in front of the Basilica.
Saint Vincent Abbey had its origin in the desire of Bishop O’Connor of Pittsburgh to have a minor seminary in western Pennsylvania in which young men could be educated and formed spiritually to be eventually ordained priests for the service of the Church in Pennsylvania and Ohio. In 1845 Bishop O’Connor learned about the impending arrival of Father Boniface Wimmer, O.S.B., and his band of eighteen followers to Pennsylvania. Father Boniface Wimmer, OSB would come to the United States from Metten Abbey in Bavaria with the expressed intent of transplanting the Benedictine Order from Europe to North America.
Father Wimmer would first go to Carrolltown, Pennsylvania, a town founded in 1840. Bishop O’Connor contacted Father Wimmer, had him come to Pittsburgh, and offered him properties in Westmoreland County. Furthermore, the parishioners of Saint Vincent Parish, at the suggestion of Bishop O’Connor, had also urged him to come. And so Father Wimmer arrived on October 18, 1846 at the site of the future Saint Vincent Archabbey and settled into the one room building that was known as Sportsman’s Hall and which served as the rectory of the already existing Saint Vincent Parish.
To understand the reasons why Saint Vincent Archabbey did not develop like most of the abbeys of Europe, places resembled the Cistercian abbeys as places primarily of prayer and contemplation, one must understand what Western Pennsylvania was like in the middle of the 19th Century. It was a primitive wilderness with widely scattered settlements of immigrants, mostly from Germany.
The story of Prince Demetrius Augustine Gallitizin’s heroic missionary activity in Western Pennsylvania is truly amazing. The son of the Russian Ambassador to the Hague, Gallitizin would eventually come to the United States, be ordained a priest by Archbishop Carroll of Baltimore, move to the area of Pennsylvania and undertake the pastoral care of the few immigrant families living there. Using his own money he bought thousands of acres of land and settled immigrants on homesteads. Within his lifetime the number of Catholics in Western Pennsylvania increased from a handful to more than 50,o00. Most of these immigrants were from German speaking areas of Europe. It was their need of education and pastoral care that brought Boniface Wimmer to Latrobe.
From the beginning Saint Vincent Archabbey was dedicated to the education of the sons of the immigrants; general education and the seminary education of young men for the dioceses west of the Allegheny mountains. In addition, unlike Cistercian and other monasteries, Saint Vincent responded to the pleas of bishops and sent its monks to staff parishes, not only in Pennsylvania but also in Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky and Illinois.
It was inevitable, therfore, that tensions would arise in the monastic life of the Saint Vincent community with its members being drawn in so many different directions and patterns of life. It is hard to reconcile the monastic vocation with 10 to 20 years spent as pastor of a parish hundreds of miles from Latrobe. Yet, by the grace of God many, even hundreds of monks over the years managed to do that through frequent visits to the monastery, retreats and visitations by the Archabbot.
For the monks living at the monastery life was pretty much the same as life in European monasteries. Even though drawn to duties in the College or Seminary every day, most monks were able to live a typical monastic life in the monastery. That life was a balance of private prayer, contemplation, reading, study and participation in the daily ordo or schedule of the monastery.
That schedule began with the tolling of the great bell in the bell tower in the center of the monastic complex. It would ring out every morning at 4:40 AM. After hearing that bell for ten years it became part of my very being and to this day I wake up every morning at 4:40 AM even though I am over a thousand miles away from that bell tower and cannot hear the bell. The monks then had twenty minutes to wash, get dressed in their habits, the simple habit on ordinary days or additionally the cuculla on feast days, and hasten to the monastic choir.
On reaching the choir each monk would go to his assigned choir-stall and spend some time in silent private prayer. When the whole community has assembled, the Archabbot would rap on his choir-stall, rise and begin the recitation or chanting of the Divine Office. On ordinary days the monks would recite the Office, on feasts and solemnities the monks would chant the office. With the help of a monk (a different monk was designated hebdomodarius for a week) and he would lead the choir in the recitation or chanting of the Office with the help of the Chant Master, who would keep the chant on tone, and cantors who would chant various parts of the Office.
After praying Matins, Prime and Lauds the monks would participate in the daily Conventual Mass and then go to breakfast. After breakfast each monk would go about performing their proper personal duties of private prayer or work. At noon the monks would reassemble in choir and pray Terce, Sext and Nones and then go to the refectory for lunch.
After lunch again the monks would scatter and go about their daily duties. At 4:00 PM the monks would assemble in the recreation room of the Abbey and participate in a German custom of haustis. Haustis was an hour of relaxation, conversation, socializing over a mug of beer and a sandwich. From the beginning Boniface Wimmer had extablished a monastic brewery and continued the Bavarian custom of brewing and consuming one mug of beer at haustis. In addition, the monks sold beer by the barrel to many of the German immigrant communities in Western Pennsylvania. Bishop O’Connor, Bishop of Pittsburgh, tried to stop Saint Vincent from selling its brewing and selling its beer, but the Archabbey appealed to the Holy See and won the right to continue such a long-standing German tradition.
At 5:00 PM the great bell would summon the monks back to choir where they would recite or chant vespers. Vespers was followed by dinner and dinner was followed by recreation, usually out doors if the weather allowed. At 8:00 PM the great bell would summon the monks back to choir where they would recite Compline (night prayer) receive the Archabbots blessing and retire for the night in silence. The great silence of the monastery was not as strick as in Cistercian and other monasteries, but it was observed.
For me the praying of the Divine Office in choir was the heart of monastic life. I had fallen in love with Gregorian Chant at an early age and to participate in the recitation or chanting of the Divine Office was the highlight of every day for me. Perhaps some monks used their responsibilities in the Seminary or College to justify their frequent absence from choir, but they were few in number. The great majority of the community were faithful in attendance in choir.
Every novice is given instruction in chant and every novice is tested to determine the quality of their singing voice. The best voices were then chosen to serve as cantors in the praying of the Divine Office. I had never thought of myself as having a particularly good singing voice and yet the Chant Master chose me on many occasions to be a cantor; I loved it and prayed to God that it would not be source of pride for me canceling out whatever merit I might otherwise derive from doing it. Non nobis Domine, non nobis, sed nomine tuo da gloriam!