Oregon's Abbey & the Swiss monk
May 24, 2015
Adelhelm Odermatt is not, of course, an Irish name. And the portly, jovial Swiss monk who bore it had not a drop of Irish blood in him, so far as he knew.
But he had come to visit this group of Irish Catholics to make his pitch for a donation to help save his monastery from an untimely foreclosure after a loan had been called in. And when in Rome, one did as the Romans did, right? So when he stepped up to speak, Father Odermatt tried his best to look Celtic as he introduced himself — as “Father O’Dermatt.”
It’s a story you’ll hear occasionally if you have occasion to spend time with the Benedictine monks and brothers of Mount Angel Abbey and Seminary today, and it may very well have been completely made up by one of the more witty seminarians there. But if so, it was completely in keeping with the spirit of Father Odermatt. He was exactly the kind of fellow you’d expect to deploy a line like that — not as a deception, but as a joke to break the ice: “My name is Odermatt. But, you can call me O’Dermatt.”
Odermatt is not much heard about today. But most Oregonians know about Mount Angel Abbey and Seminary, with its magnificent hilltop campus that looks out over the heart of the Willamette Valley from atop a lone cinder-cone butte, just outside the town of Mt. Angel.
That abbey and seminary owe their existence to Odermatt — who, despite his honorary title of Titular Abbot, never actually did hold the top job there.
Odermatt was born in 1844 in the German-speaking Swiss town of Ennetmoos, on Lake Lucerne, and took orders as a monk in the Engelberg Abbey in Switzerland at the age of 21. From very early in his career as a Benedictine monk, he showed a level of gregariousness and joviality mixed with a seemingly limitless energy and zeal.
So it wasn’t a big surprise when he volunteered to join an older monk in a journey to Missouri to found a new satellite priory there. And, a few years later — chafing under the staid and unimaginative (as he saw it) leadership of his partner — it again wasn’t a surprise when he volunteered to lead an expedition to the West Coast to help slake the spiritual thirst of German and Irish immigrants there, at the invitation of Oregon’s new archbishop, in 1881.
Eventually Odermatt set his sights on a lovely 200-foot-high hill jutting out of the valley floor, overlooking miles of fertile farmlands and drenched in quiet pastoral beauty, close by a village called Fillmore (which was later renamed Mt. Angel).
The only problem was, unlike some of the less picturesque locations they’d looked over, the church didn’t own or have a claim on any of it.
No problem. Odermatt went into full fundraising and dealmaking mode — and not for the last time, either. He’d sounded out the owners of the hill and surrounding farms, and all had been amenable to having the monks buy their land; now it was time to call in those markers. Operating primarily with funds borrowed from the mother abbey in Switzerland, Odermatt started buying land.
This was where Odermatt distinguished himself from other monks playing similar roles. He was a natural salesman — genial and affable and able to make friends easily, but also a shrewd dealmaker, and by no means a pushover. On the other hand, his enthusiasm made it virtually a foregone conclusion that he would financially overextend himself — a characteristic that would nearly bring everything to ruin several times, but which the abbey he founded still reaps the many benefits of today.
The first financial crisis came just a year later, in 1883. To make the deal work, Odermatt had borrowed money from California lenders who had not realized they’d be on the hook for property taxes on the land they were lending against. When they learned this, they called in the loan — at least, that’s the reason they gave for calling in the loan. (Since it was collateralized on all the farmland, it seems at least possible that they were trying to force Odermatt to default on it, giving them clear title to the entire 1,500-acre property in lieu of the $56,000 they’d lent on it — leaving the monks on the hook for the $80,000 or so that they’d advanced to Odermatt.)
In a frenzy of fundraising and deal-making, Odermatt — with plenty of help — pulled the money together in time.
The monks weren’t out of the woods yet. There was much more still to do. Operating, as usual, at the outer limits of what was financially possible, Odermatt led a building program that resulted in a lovely pastoral campus at the foot of the hill, with priory, seminary and the newly chartered Mount Angel College, which opened in 1889. The college quickly developed a great reputation. Everything appeared rosy.
But then, in 1892, a chimney fire in the kitchen spread and took the whole works down to foundation walls: monastery, college, seminary and most of the outbuildings — all gone.
Odermatt sprang back into action. He resigned his position as prior to devote himself full-time to raising funds. With a hefty supply of St. Benedict medals to give with blessings as thank-you premiums, he barnstormed from Catholic community to Catholic community, all over the country, soliciting and getting contributions to rebuild the monastery and college.
The mother abbey in Switzerland, Engelberg, dug deep as well.
The result was that in 1899, construction started on a new campus. This time, it was built in stone, and this time, it was built at the very top of the butte.
By 1903, all was ready, and the monks, nuns, seminarians and students moved into their new facilities. And the following year, 1904, the priory was made fully independent of its mother abbey, and became Mount Angel Abbey.
Adelhelm Odermatt, the man who had saved the abbey from near-certain disaster three times, might have been a natural choice as its first abbot. But as beloved as Odermatt was, many of the monks knew he tended toward financial recklessness. And in any case, he’d shown a clear preference for pastoral work — for meeting parishioners, talking to people — over the contemplative life of a cloistered monk.
And so it was that Thomas Meienhofer became the first abbot, in 1904. And the ever-gregarious Odermatt, to all appearances perfectly happy with the decision, went off to a parish in Portland to continue working with people. He died in 1920, the victim of a stroke, at age 76.
(Sources: Steckler, Gerard G. “The Founding of Mount Angel Abbey,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, December 1969; McCrank, Lawrence J. Mt. Angel Abbey: A Centennial History. Wilmington: Scholarly Resources, 1983)
Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. For details, see http://finnjohn.com. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.The hilltop campus of Image above: Oregon Encyclopedia. The abbey grounds as it appeared just before the 1892 fire: the college, seminary and church, all situated at the foot of the butte atop which the abbey now stands.
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