On September 7th we celebrated the feast of St. Cloud, both in the universal Church and in the diocese of St. Cloud, where Saint John’s Abbey is located. These days there aren’t many 6th-century saints who can stir up widespread enthusiasm, and St. Cloud certainly is not among the select few who can. In fact, in most parts of the country his feast day goes largely unnoticed. But not so in the diocese of St. Cloud, MN. Here his feast is still a big deal — sort of.
If the truth be told, St. Cloud has had to struggle for every bit of respect he could get in our area. For one thing, it did not help that he is the patron of nail-makers and the patron against carbuncles. But there were other reasons why he’s had a tough time endearing himself to the locals, and a little history is in order to appreciate that. First of all, St. Cloud was a 6th-century priest who lived and preached outside of Paris. Paris wasn’t much back then, but today an entire suburb of the city bears his name. Given that our county of Stearns was 99% Catholic in the 19th century, you’d expect the local settlers would welcome their new patron with great fanfare. From his perch in St. Cloud, St. Cloud would preside over the see city, situated on the banks overlooking the Mississippi River. Who could possibly object to naming a town after such a holy man? And who could possibly take issue with naming the main street Saint Germain, after the famous boulevard on the left bank in Paris?
The founders of St. Cloud should have used a focus group to test their ideas. Had they done so, they would have learned early on that French saints just weren’t going to cut it in Stearns County. The population of the county certianly was 99% Catholic, but 95% of the people were German. Virtually no one in the county spoke a word of French, and the reaction of a typical German farmer had to be something along the lines of “gross” — meaning “great,” or, alternatively, “gross.”
I’m sure there was a reason why the city founders named the place St. Cloud, but if their goal was to attract mobs of French settlers to a left bank on the Mississippi, it didn’t work. The French weren’t fooled by the false advertising, and they stayed away in droves. St. Cloud never did become a French enclave, while the other (i.e.: German) immigrants flooded into towns with more familiar German saints’ names. So it is that within a few miles of Saint John’s there are the towns of Saint Anna, Saint Stephen, Saint Wendel, Saint Nicholas, Saint Augusta, Saint Joseph and Saint Martin. But just to make things crystal clear to prospective settlers, there was also New Munich.
At Saint John’s of course we have always been open-minded about Saint Cloud, and in the abbey church there is a side altar in the crypt dedicated to the French saint, complete with statue. On his feast day we haul him upstairs, and on that one day each year he presides solemnly in the sanctuary. For twenty-four hours he stands there, presenting in his arms a carving of the cathedral in St. Cloud, as if to remind us that this is the mother-church of the diocese.
Of course it is the mother-church, but there’s more to the story than that, as new monks at Saint John’s eventually learn. The cathedral actually is named in honor of Saint Mary, and it was never built to be the cathedral. For decades the monks of Saint John’s staffed the parish, and it was they who presided over the building of the stately romanesque structure. In the meantime the real cathedral was a bit of an also-ran, and when fire destroyed it one day, the bishop had an idea. So it was that a few months later the abbot woke to the news that the bishop had prevailed on friends in Rome to name Saint Mary’s the cathedral of the diocese. At minimal cost the bishop had a superb cathedral, and the monks had to pack up and clear out. So the statue in our sanctuary is a reminder of that little act of larceny.
That event is long past now, and though the monks resented the bishop for a while, we got over it ages ago. Ironically, in the last fifty years the abbey has relinquished to various dioceses some thirty churches that we once staffed. Long before the changing vocational climate decided the issue, the abbey planned to concentrate its monks at home. Still, there was a bit of silent satisfaction in returning some churches to the local bishop — more churches than he had really ever wanted.
So last week at least I celebrated the feast of St. Cloud with a mixture of veneration for the saint and a little mirth at the twists and turns that local history has taken. That’s the value of knowing the history of the Church, and that’s the importance of not taking things too personally. And in hindsight, had we known how things were going to turn out, we might have given the bishop all the churches he wanted, when he really only wanted one.
+Besides celebrating the feast of St. Cloud on September 7th, we monks also celebrated Labor Day. Weather-wise it was the beginning of a perfect week, and that day we had a picnic lunch in the monastery garden.
+On September 11th I participated in the longest traffic jam I’ve ever experienced in the Twin Cities. Maple Grove is the choke point for all traffic from our area into the Cities, and we calculate our trips through that zone according to the rush hours. This time it was awful, however. And a stretch that normally takes about twelve minutes took two hours. On the plus side, everyone was well-behaved and polite.
+On September 13th I presided at the Mass in the abbey church, and you can access my sermon for the day, Putting Character First, through this link. It was Family Weekend at Saint John’s University, and so the congregation in the church was much larger than usual. Following the Mass I drove to St. Cloud, where I blessed the new home of some friends.
+The first photo in today’s post is the statue of St. Cloud, holding the model of the cathedral of Saint Mary in St. Cloud. The statue is housed in the abbey church. The other photos illustrate the abbey of Saint Germain des Pres, on the Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris. This is not to be confused with anything on Saint Germain Street in St. Cloud, MN.