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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Tales from the Homeland: Mt. Angel

“On July 16, 1882, His Holiness Pope Leo XII had granted permission to ‘found a house of the regulars of the Order of St. Benedict of the Monastery of Engelberg in Switzerland, at the mission named Sts. Gervase and Protase, as well as permission to found in the same place a house of nuns of the same Order, who are free for the education of girls.’”

Alberta Dieker, OSB

Just a few miles down the road from the family farm here in Oregon’s Willamette Valley is a small Swiss-American community of around 3,000 souls called Mt. Angel.

Founded in the 19th century by Swiss-Germans, Mt. Angel in 2013 is a small but healthy community.  A quick walk around the town reveals that it has retained much of the national characteristics of the original settlers, not the least of which is the German language.  Many shop signs, for example, are still in English and German.

We’ve visited Mt. Angel three times since our arrival.  The first visit was a family tradition - dinner at a local restaurant called the Glockenspiel;  an eatery with great food, a casual dress code and a family-friendly atmosphere (never a problem seating 10 people for dinner).   Until I ate there for the first time many years ago I had never realized how good German food was;  it was here I learned to love spätzle.

Our second trip into town was to visit the Queen of Angels Monastery.  This Benedictine community was founded in the late 19th century by sisters from the Maria-Rickenbach Benedictine convent in Switzerland.  The story of how these European sisters came to the United States (the far far West) and built convents, schools and churches is brilliantly told in the book A Tree Rooted in Faith written by Alberta Dieker.  More than just a dry recital of the facts, Dieker explores the historical context and the motivations of these unlikely pioneers.
“The sisters who came from Switzerland to Oregon by way of Missouri were part of what historians today consider a mass migration of peoples from Europe to the Americas.  The Land of Opportunity beckoned all kinds of Europeans for many reasons.  The reasons that inspired a particular group of sisters to emigrate to the United States and to make a permanent settlement in Oregon are important to our story.”
It was certainly not about “making it rich.”  The first years of settlement were hard - some sisters even died of disease caused by overwork and exhaustion.  The convent was often in debt and had to ask for funds and personnel from the mother house.  During World War I, the German sisters who were not U.S. citizens were required to register and many worried about anti-German sentiment (and a fair amount of anti-Catholicism as well). 

For those of us who are following the culture wars over the veil in France, it is interesting to note that the state of Oregon had similar ideas 90 years ago but directed primarily against Catholics, not Muslims.  

In 1923 the state legislature (regional parliament) passed The Garb Bill which forbid public school teachers from wearing any clothing thought to be religious. "This bill was aimed squarely at five or six small local school districts in communities with a predominantly Catholic population."

Since many nuns taught in the Oregon public schools as salaried employees, they had a choice to make:  cast off their habits or leave the public school system.  Since the communities they taught in were Catholic, the locals urged the nuns to comply; but they refused and instead chose to focus their efforts and use their teaching skills in private Catholic institutions.  Another law passed in the 1920’s would have made it a requirement that all children in Oregon attend public schools.  This, of course, would have shut down all the Catholic and other private schools in that state.  However, the law was fiercely contested and declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme court in 1922.

A modest suggestion for those who support restrictions on religious apparel in public spaces (which for some reason seems to be mostly about what women are wearing - are we not old enough to dress ourselves?) or the rabid insistence on the exclusive use of the national language.  Things look very different when it is your culture or religion that is considered "foreign" and when your migrants and their descendants are being accused of a "refusal to assimilate."  I personally am delighted to see that German survives here and that the nuns can continue to wear their habits in public and that the Mennonites can wear their long skirts and cover their hair.  It makes for an interesting community.  And, believe me, it is no less a community as a result of these things.

Habit by Dior
For our third trip and last trip into town my mother and I got up at the crack of dawn this morning to go to Mass at the Mt. Angel parish church, St. Mary’s.  From the outside it is a rather sober structure made of brick.  The inside is another story.  The nave is airy and light and there are many statues - some to Mary and others of Benedictine nuns and monks.  As we reached the high point of the Mass (liturgy of the Eucharist) the sun began to shine through the stained glass windows on both sides of the altar.  Magnificent.

For an early early Sunday morning Mass the church was surprisingly full.  Many farm families with well-behaved children. The church parking lot was filled with huge trucks and many wore jeans and looked ready to get right back to work once services were over.  Perhaps it is my imagination but I had the thought that these parishioners would not have looked a bit out of place in a parish in Germany or Switzerland.  

As for us we came back to the farm and no sooner had we made coffee then it began to rain which put a halt to our various projects.  A good day to stay inside, make pies, read books and just be with family.

Bon dimanche, everyone.

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