By Very Rev. Godfrey Mullen
Special to The Message
On September 1, 1912, Benedictine Father Martin Hoppenjans left his work teaching high school and assisting on weekends in parishes in Jasper and Ireland and came to Evansville. To nothing but a bishop’s dream. And from that poverty, as a guest of the Poor Clare nuns, the parish that would be named St. Benedict came about. With the help of devoted parishioners and the Benedictine Sisters of Ferdinand, buildings started to spring up and parish life developed. And surely there were some who wondered just what a Benedictine monk was doing outside his monastery, leading a parish. Benedictines profess vows of obedience, stability and fidelity to the monastic way of life. And while the monks of Saint Meinrad, in particular, have been known for their work in forming priests, and then later lay ministers and deacons, their parish work is actually older. But men destined for a communal, contemplative life becoming pastors: that’s a challenge to understand.
A view through the life story of all 13 men who have been named pastor of Evansville’s St. Benedict Parish proves one point: many were not particularly prepared for parish ministry. Serving our nation as a military chaplain, teaching in the Jasper Academy (trade school), teaching seminarians English, Sociology, Liturgy, French, Latin, Greek or philosophy at Saint Meinrad, all 13 had promising qualities; and some had administrative experience, but their preparation for being a pastor was centered more on St. Benedict’s Rule and the communal monastic life lived at Saint Meinrad. Considering what is best for another instead of himself, bearing one another’s burdens of body or behavior, and running with hearts expanding on the path to the heavenly kingdom: this manner of living would guide these monk-priests in serving a parish.
Because of the strong educational background of so many of the monks, opportunities for adult formation in the faith took off at St. Ben’s much earlier than in most parishes. Because of almost no fiscal experience, all would rely on qualified lay people to navigate the financial responsibilities in the parish. For decades, six monks lived in the rectory full-time, while monks who were studying for priesthood would typically spend the summers, sometimes sleeping on cots in the attic of the rectory.
For many, St. Benedict would not be the final stop in ministry. For some, other pastoral or administrative assignments or further work in seminary formation followed. For two, Father Gilbert Hess and Father Gabriel Verkamp, election to the office of abbot followed – for Father Gilbert at Blue Cloud Abbey in South Dakota, and for Father Gabriel at Saint Meinrad Archabbey.
Surely, the long line of St. Benedict pastors would rejoice in the Benedictine charism as it’s been lived out in Evansville. As the Benedictine medal depicted in the center of the ceiling of the renovated cathedral reminds: true peace is found in resisting evil and embracing the power of Christ. In this parish, the prolific creation of groups for particular work is admirable and impressive, all while the prayer of the parish remains at the center of all that is done. Through growth and decline, peace and challenge, tranquility and turmoil in the world around us – that monastic rhythm of life is continued with confidence because Christ is the one who sustains and directs it all. Seeking God is often used as the short-hand explanation of the monk’s vocation. And it is the description of the parishioner’s vocation as well.
In the end, the monks of Saint Meinrad have served St. Benedict Cathedral Parish with hearts set on one goal: the final line of Chapter 72 of the Rule of St. Benedict: Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may He bring us all together to everlasting life.
Since 2013, Father Godfrey has served as Rector of St. Benedict Cathedral.