More on St. Alphonsus: Olden Days Parish from Hell

This weekend, over at Half Price Books, I saw that they still had that Volume II of the history of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood; and this time I realized that I’d be an idiot not to buy a rare-ish book like that. Volume I presumably covered the history of Mother Brunner, her large brood of kids who mostly became priests and nuns, her own founding of a lay adoration group which became a sisterhood of teachers and housekeepers, and her son Francis’ involvement with the Precious Blood movement and founding of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood. Volume II begins with said son already in America with a bunch of cohorts, setting up shop in the Ohio wilderness that would eventually become known as “God’s Country” for its many churches, and serving the German-speaking immigrants there. They would soon be joined by a large chunk of the Precious Blood sisters, who proceeded to grow like nobody’s business.

But first, they had to survive… St. Alphonsus Parish! (Dun dun dunnnnn.)

St. Alphonsus Parish was founded by the same pious group of German settlers who founded Peru, Ohio, and in the same place. (Btw, the parish was originally named “St. Michael”. Later on, it was changed to St. Alphonsus, probably referring to St. Alfonso Turibio Mongrovejo, bishop of Lima in Peru. But I’ll call it St. Alphonsus here.) The catalyst for the parish was the “Waldschwester”, Sr. Francisca Bauer, once a Sister of Holy Providence but who left and went to America with her brother and his family. She continued to live like a sister, in a log cabin hermitage, and was certainly hard-working, charitable, and devout. Like the Ohio sisters who would follow her, she was skilled with axe, hoe, and gun as well as rosary and asceticism. She helped many people and donated the land for the church, and many felt that she died in sanctity.

But man, do you get the impression that she was a pain in the butt to live with. She helpfully designated herself cook and housekeeper to the Redemptorist priests; but apparently felt she had the right to be parish administrator, too, since after all she’d got the thing going. She apparently also felt that when Sister was fasting or performing austerities, so should the priests….

She and her fussing and feuding community did not drive off young Father John Neumann, who was made of sterner stuff (and would eventually become Bishop of Philadelphia, die far too young, and in 1977 be declared a saint). But after Neumann’s term of duty was done, the next priest apparently got sick of the whole thing and pleaded to be sent somewhere else.

Just at that point, the Bishop of Cincinnati was presented with fresh missionary meat. Since the new Precious Blood priests were yet fully trained, Brunner wanted them to stick together in community for a while. So the entire American wing of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood ended up in St. Alphonsus, the Parish from Hell.

And since the Precious Blood Sisters weren’t in America yet, guess who acted as cook and housekeeper? Why, the Waldschwester, of course!

There was tons of other stuff going on, too — feuds with English-speaking Catholic priests, feuds with priests or schoolteachers wandering around from parish to parish making trouble,  internal tensions in the orders, cholera epidemics…. Ohio went from being all Cincinnati to adding the Cleveland diocese (at the poor Cincinnati bishop’s request), and the Missionaries of the Precious Blood incorporated in Ohio!

All in all, it was very enlightening reading. We never learned about any of this stuff either in Ohio history or in parochial school. If people realized that the Church always had a lot of challenges (and infighting), and that it’s not just us who are specially unholy, I think they’d feel encouraged.


Filed under Church, History

10 responses to “More on St. Alphonsus: Olden Days Parish from Hell

  1. *grin* Maybe it’s a little misanthropic, but I’ve always thought a good sized chunk of *any* trouble was people-based.

  2. 3fairfield

    How timely to read your interesting post about the Precious Blood missionary work in Ohio. Just last night I was reading “Liwwat Boke” (The Minster Historical Society, 1987), an edited compilation of early Ohio frontier daily life written and illustrated by an exceptional Catholic German-born pioneer woman who settled in St. John (aka Maria Stein) Mercer county in 1837 or so. Her journal writing elaborates a little bit more on the work of the early Catholic missionaries in Ohio.

    Boke mentions Father Brenner and his work among the German settlers and in a not so favorable light either. Referring to the Society of the Precious Blood’s approach to their Ohio mission parishes she says the CPPS “came, saw, and took”, referring, I think, to the priests garnering material possessions and real estate from the economically strapped settlers. Boke goes on to call Brunner an “irascible womanizer” and an eccentric, and goes so far as to say a Sister Albrecht was an ‘irregular’ mate of Brunner. This last assertion probably explains why the bishops visited the CPPS seminary and convent and reorganized them into separate entities in the mid 1800’s (according to the Catholic Encyclopedia entries)…

    One more thing to add about the area’s early settlers and the CPPS. I think it’s interesting to note that the Emlen Institute, a quaker related school and settlement for freed blacks, was founded in the area prior to the CPPS foundation there. According to some reports the Emlen Institute and surrounding settlement (comprised of up to 30,000 acres) was a component of the Underground Railroad system, however, the settlement did not succeed and was moved to Pennsylvania. Some say the failure of the settlement was due to the inhospitableness of the white settlers in the area.

    I found “Liwwat Boke” a fascinating source for learning more about Ohio pioneer life in the early 1800’s. She was an incredible journalist and observer of the German settler society and I think a unique woman for the area and times.

    It’s amazing, too, that I read her book right before I came upon your interesting blog entry! Thanks for posting it!

  3. Maureen

    Um… not to underrate the potential accuracy of gossip… but considering that the Brunner dude’s relatives were also in the Precious Blood orders and in America, and further considering that the priests lived all together in the same house, it seems somehow unlikely that he’d have anybody on the side.

    Also, it seems unlikely that he’d have the time, given the daily schedules of work, study, teaching, and prayer given in the Precious Blood history. I suppose one _could_ eke out five or ten minutes with a paramour, but you’d have to be an organizational geeeeeenius.

    The impression I got was that mostly people disliked Brunner because he had endless energy despite his health problems, so he expected everyone else to want to work every minute of every day also. He also had a tendency to show up right at the moment they were trying to cut themselves some slack.

  4. Maureen

    My other impression is that I would never want to be in a feud between stubborn German farmers and stubborn Swiss/German/French priests. Nope.

  5. Pingback: St. John Neumann: Ohio Saint! « Aliens in This World

  6. Gloria Bauer Ishida

    Well, “Sister” Francisca Bauer was the sister of my ggg grnadfather but I only know what I’ve read. By the way, they were from Lorraine, France but German in language and culture. My interpretation is that it took this tough woman to handle all those darn fool men. St. Alphonsus may not have come into being without her. And even after she retired to the background, the guys all continued to make it a “parish from hell” for a long time. And by the way, she never was a habited nun, just educated in a convent. She reportedly was fluent in three languages as well as competent in using the ax, literally as well as figuratively. Love that woman!.

    • Heh! I can see that feistiness runs in the family! Thanks so much for the inside info on Sr. Bauer. We have a great Catholic heritage in this country, and I know I sure don’t know enough about it!

  7. Gloria Bauer Ishida

    Thanks for that. I get it form both sides of my family, paternal and maternal (that side Protestant – smile).

  8. Valerie Newsome

    Sr. Francisca probably was a pain a pain in the butt to live with since her brother is my direct ancestor. lol

  9. Apparently “waldschwester” and “waldbruder” were medieval German terms for hermits or other religious recluses, who were not necessarily formal members of religious orders, and who therefore were not necessarily bound to normal religious vows or regulations.

    So. Francesca Bauer really was doing something perfectly normal… And since the townspeople called her the Waldschwester, they understood what she was doing. But not everyone got it, and that was where some of the friction arose.

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