The Rt. Rev. Denis O. Strittmatter, O.S.B., D.D., sixth Archabbot of St.
The following is taken from the published obituary of Archabbot Denis O. Strittmatter, O.S.B.:
Archabbot Strittmatter entered the Benedictine Order at St. Vincent
Archabbey in 1916 and was solemnly professed as a Benedictine monk July 1,
1920. He was ordained to the priesthood in the Archabbey church by the late
Bishop Hugh C. Boyle of Pittsburgh June 24, 1923. For the next three years
he served congregations in Youngstown, Ligonier and Wilpen, and in 1927 was
made assistant pastor of St. Mary’s Church, Pittsburgh. A year later he was
transferred to Sacred Heart Church, Jeannette.
Military School Director
In 1929 when the Benedictine monks of St. Vincent Archabbey took over the
administration of St. Emma’s Military School (a school for Negro boys in
Rock Castle, Va.), Archabbot Strittmatter was appointed its assistant
director. He held this post until 1944 when he became director of the
military school. In 1947 he returned to St. Vincent to become maintenance director.
On Sept. 8, 1949, he was elected Coadjutor Archabbot of St. Vincent
Archabbey, succeeding retired Rt. Rev. Alfred Koch, O.S.B., S.T.D. His
election was confirmed by the Holy See September 14 of the same year. The
Most Rev. John F. Dearden, Pittsburgh, conferred the Abbatial Blessing upon
the new archabbot at services in the St. Vincent Archabbey Church Nov. 25,
In 1953, he was elected president of the American Cassinese Congregation of
the Benedictine Order for a six-year term and was re-elected in 1959. As
superior of the Benedictine monastery of St. Vincent, Archabbot Strittmatter
was instrumental in founding the American Benedictine Academy, and as
president of the American Cassinese Congregation he represented the 1,800
monks of that congregation at Vatican Council II from 1962 to 1965. From
1953 to 1963 he served as one of the four advisors to the Abbot Primate of
the Benedictine Order.
In June of 1963 he retired as archabbot of St. Vincent.
During Archabbot Strittmatter’s administration, an extensive building
program was inaugurated at St. Vincent. Three dormitories, a classroom
building, an activities building housing a gymnasium and an auditorium, a
library, and a student center were constructed or begun before his
retirement in 1963. Shortly before relinquishing his post as administrator,
Archabbot Strittmatter began formulation of plans for the reconstruction of a
monastic and college building destroyed in a multi-million dollar fire which
struck the Benedictine Community earlier that year.
From 1953 until 1959 I had enjoyed a good relationship with Archabbot Denis. According to the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict the abbot took the place of Christ in the monastery, he was like a father to the community. I do not believe that anyone enjoyed a close relationship with Archabbot Denis, he did not have a warm personality and rarely smiled. Perhaps his rather austere and unapproachable personality had been formed, or malformed, during the period from 1929 until 1947 when he was running the military school, Saint Emma’s, for black boys. After just three years back at Saint Vincent Abbey he was elected its Archabbot. During those three years he was in charge of maintenance. I imagine that what the monks saw in him as a possible candidate for the office of Archabbot was his stern demeanor that spoke of discipline.
There is no question that both the College and the Monastery needed a building program. The College needed new dormitories and the Monastery needed a new building to accommodate the increase in the number of monks. Perhaps the community saw in Father Denis Strittmatter the talent needed for the construction of those new buildings. In any event, Archabbot Denis set about planning the new dormitories. He hired a commercial builder in Pittsburgh to design and build the dormitories.
There are two things wrong with that approach. First, the hiring of a construction firm to both design and build the buildings meant that there would be no competitive bidding for their construction. That is not good. On a project costing over a million dollars it is best to have competitive bidding in order for the owner to be sure he is paying a fair price for the construction of the project. Secondly, when the construction firm uses an ‘in-house architect’ to design the buildings there is a conflict of interest from the start. The contractor’s architect is not independent, he is subject to the pressures and orders of his employer to design the buildings using systems, elements and materials that are in the contractor’s best interest, not the owner’s. On a project of the size of the dormitories it is best for the owner to engage an independent architect, a member of the American Institute of Architects, who acts as an arbiter between the owner and the contractor during the construction of the project. During the design of the project the architect must follow, within reason, the wishes of the owner with regard to materials used in the construction of the project. I, of course was totally incapable of designing and supervising the awarding of contracts and construction of such a large project. I lacked the staff to undertake it and so the Archabbot was justified in going outside of the monastery for the dormitory project, but he should have hired an independent architect not a construction firm.
Business affairs of a monastery are conducted by the abbbot in consultation with his Little Chapter, consisting of the Prior, the Sub-Prior, and two monks elected by the General Chapter of the monastery which consists of all monks in solemn vows. There are financial limits on how much the Abbot with the Little Chapter can spend, beyond those limits the abbot must seek the approval of the General Chapter.
When it came time for Archabbot Denis to submit his plans and the contract for the construction of the college dormitories to the General Chapter, the Archabbot placed the plans for the dormitories in the chapter room of the monastery for several days in advance of the meeting of the General Chapter in order to give the monks the opportunity to study the project. Naturally, I, being a monk in solemn vows, examined the plans. I was shocked to see that the system of construction was more residential than institutional and that it would require much more maintenance and upkeep over the years to keep it in good condition. It seemed to me that it was possible the in-house architect of the contractor could have been influenced by his employer, the contractor, to use materials either that the contractor already had in his warehouse or could obtain at a favorable discount from his suppliers.
Now I was faced with a dilemna. I knew that if, as an architect, I spoke unfavorably about the project at the chapter meeting it could influence the community to vote down the project. I knew that that would infuriate Archabbot Denis and I had no idea as to how he would react. On the other hand, there were enough monks in the community with experience with building, some of them were, or had been, pastors of parishes under the care of the Archabbey and had themselves had to work with architects and contractors, and so I could hope that the monks would not need my opinion expressed in Chapter and so I resolved to ‘play it by ear.’
At the chapter meeting to vote on the dormitory project, as I had hoped, there were enough monks with experience in planning and building buildings who expressed doubts, reservations and even opposition to the Archabbot’s proposal for the construction of the college dormitories that I kept my silence. However, as the meeting was drawing to a close and we approached the time to vote on the project, one of the monks said, “Well we have not heard from Frater Rene and with his background and experience surely he has an opinion on this project, we should hear from him.”
My heart sank within me for I realized that this was a moment of truth that I could not escape. So I stood up and said basically the same things I have written above. The community listened and then remained silent. After what seemed like an eternity the Archabbot called for the vote. The motion to grant permission for the construction of the project failed. The Archabbot, red faced, adjourned the chapter meeting and left the room.
I did not sleep well that night. I knew that the dormitories project represented a considerable investment of time, money and prestige on the part of the Archabbot. It was obvious the way he ended the Chapter meeting that he was unhappy. Just how unhappy he was I would find out the next morning.
The next morning, after Matins, Prime, Lauds, conventual Mass and breakfast, the secretary of the Archabbot came to my room and said that the Archabbot wanted to see me. With dread filling all my being I went to his office, knocked and entered. The Archabbot, seated behind his desk, looked at me and said, “Frater Rene you can forget about being ordained a priest!” That was it. No preliminary words leading up to his death sentence. That was it: “You can forget about being ordained a priest.” Stunned, I must have stood there speechless for several minutes. Then I stammered, “But Father Archabbot, there is no proportionality between your dormitories project and the priesthood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He glared at me and then said, “I repeat, Frater Rene, you can forget about being ordained a priest, that is all, you can go.” With that I left his office and went straight to the Archabbey Church to pray; I was devastated.
At the time, I and the other members of my novitiate class, having professed both simple and solemn vows and having completed five years of theology and having been ordained transitional deacons were scheduled to be ordained in a few months to the priesthood in Greensburg Cathedral. The Archabbot, lacking the power to ordain priests had to follow the canonical process of issuing dimissorial letters to Bishop Lamb, the Bishop of Greensburg authorizing and delegating him to ordain his monks. Normally the monks of Saint Vincent were ordained in the Archabbey Church in the presence of the community, however relations between Bishop Lamb and Archabbot Denis were reportedly strained and so Bishop Lamb decided that we would be ordained in his cathedral.
Saint Vincent Archabbey was scheduled later that month to have its triennial apostolic visitation by two abbots from our American Cassinese Federation of abbeys. I decided to not immediately appeal to the Holy See the Archabbot’s decision to withhold a dimisorial letter authorizing my ordination to the priesthood until after the visitation. During the visitation each monk of the monastery has the right to be interviewed by the Abbot Visitators. When my turn came I told the whole sad story of the Chapter meeting on the dormitories and the subsequent punishment inflicted on me by Archabbot Denis for exercising my canonical right to express my opinion during the meeting. The two Abbot Visitators were visibly shocked by what I told them and they explained that as a transitional deacon I had a right to be advanced to the presbyteral order in the absence of any serious moral delict or impediment. Since I had not acquired either, they said that they would speak with Archabbot Denis and tell him that he must issue the dimissorial letter.
Evidently the Abbot Visistators were successful in persuading Archabbot Denis that he had acted wrongly because in due time he issued my dimissorial letter to Bishop Lamb along with the letters for my classmates and on May 23, 1959 I was ordained a priest in Blessed Sacrament Cathedral by Bishop Hugh Lamb, the Bishop of Greensburg, Pennsylvania.
The next two years were happy years for me in many ways: I began to teach theology to freshmen in Saint Vincent College, I went on weekends to parishes in the lower Monongahela River Valley south east of Pittsburgh, principally in the little coal-mining town of Clarksville. I loved doing both. It was a joy to relate to the people of a small congregation of 150 people and I enjoyed teaching. I also was able to do architectural projects for the Archabbey, the College and some of the parishes under the care of monks from the Archabbey. What was missing in my spiritual life, however, was a good relationship with my Archabbot. He would not speak with me, he would not acknowledge that I even existed. For a Benedictine monk that is intolerable. I began to think about transferring my vows to another Benedictine abbey. I discretely inquired of the Abbot of Holy Cross Abbey in Colorado if he would accept me and he immediately indicated that he would.
In the Spring 1960 I went to Archabbot Denis and told him that I would like to transfer my vows to Holy Cross Abbey in Colorado. To effect the transfer I needed the permission of the Abbot of Holy Cross, I needed the permission of the Archabbot of Saint Vincent and I needed the permission of the President of the American Cassinese Confederation. Without hesitation Archabbot Denis replied that he would not give the necessary permission. That ended it because he was also the President of the American Cassinese Confederation so I had not recourse of appeal. I then told him that it was obvious to me that he did not want me to remain at Saint Vincent Archabbey and so I asked him what he wanted of me. He replied curtly, “Leave the Order!”
For the second time Archabbot Denis literally took my breath away, I was shocked. When I regained my composure I told him that I would have to think and pray about that.