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Stiftung. That’s a great German word. It blends many English concepts into one: foundation, donation, endowment, charity and culture into one efficient word: Stiftung. In a real sense it means “Church” in its structural reality represented by the wax seals that went to ratifying its noble purpose.   The word sticks to my mind, not only because of my own Austrian heritage has Stiftung stitched into it but also I have a wonderful recollection of that great and astounding Baroque Stift Melk  in Austria or Ottobeuren in Bavaria.

The word Stift has a root in the endowment of nobility and the education of men and women in a boarding school or internat with liberal arts, letters and architecture and it is something conveyed in a sense by Hermann Hesse in his novel Magister Ludi.  The Benedictine Stift and the heritage of education is evident in great foundations that reflect the glory of Melk and the Benedictine Order that dedicated themselves to education.

We are in Cullman, Alabama and you may rightly ask, what does Cullman have to do with Stiftung. Well, there is a lot of Catholic foundation here. As we’ve just come through Baptist mission territory where the Catholic experience is built on concealment or concession in a heritage that at times has been hostile to it. The Cullman Catholic experience is solid.  The Catholic community here is part of the diverse expressions of the multiethnic Catholic Church in American history. By ethnic I mean an immigrant Church that has its culture and foundation not just as a theoretical agency of identity but as represented in an almost existential adherence and it involves bringing in that foundation or Stiftung into a transplanted Catholic life and building. Catholic culture begins with a traveling triptych that teaches what ought to be taught and ends in a Cathedral.

Sacred Heart Church in Cullman

Cullman is in the Diocese of Birmingham, in the hills or highlands to the north of Birmingham and south of the Tennessee River. As an armchair historian with an interest in the various convergent currents that form the American Catholic Church, I did not realize how the revolutionary period of Europe in 1848 brought about persecution of those that participated in those anti-European establishment institutions and precipitated a great deal of emigration to America. Some of those revolutionary forces of that period implicated Catholics who were later persecuted by the governments in place (such as the Prussian or Austrian). The American Church was a natural place for the emigration of these persons. Col. Joseph Cullmann, who founded the town of Cullman (Die Deustsche Kolonie von Nord Alabama or the German Colony of North Alabama) in 1873 was such a person Although not Catholic he was from Bavaria/Palatinate which had considerably large Catholic populations. He had a vision of bringing in Germans in to this area of Alabama. And presumably many of those Germans were Bavarian transplants and were evidently Catholic. They quickly brought in their concept of Stiftung to the area and established the Sacred Heart Church, St. Bernard Abbey and ultimately (this would require further research) perhaps in this current were part of the 5 anonymous benefactors that donated the 400 acres of land for Mother Angelica’s Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament and the convent of the Poor Claires in Hanceville which is just a few miles south of Cullman. Cullman/Hanceville is a definite pilgrim spot to understand the German Catholic Church and its extension into the broader faith-culture and picture of American Catholicism.

Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama

In term of vocations, there is an absolutely delightful attraction at the St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman called the Ave Mario Grotto. . It is a fantastic creation of a wonderful Benedictine brother named Brother Joseph Zoettel who was from Bavaria who settled for the consecrated life at the St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman; a clear personal representation of that Stiftung force that harkens to Metten, Germany. After touring the Grotto and seeing his life’s work and the simplicity of his expression of consecrated life even within its marvelous complexity, there was a paradox of his creativity and vocation. I realized that Brother Zoettel had provided me with greater insight to the male consecrated life outside of Holy Orders. The consecrated life under the evangelical counsels (vows of poverty, chastity and obedience) is an alternative expression of life that we sorely need today. It is a very powerful antidote to the confusion heaped upon young men these days. A religious rule of life is a wonderful alternative to the alternate life with no rules. A religious rule of life serves to quiet the soul, and this was evident from Brother Zoettel.

Miniature recreation of St. Peter’s Basilica in Ave Maria Grotto created by Brother Zoettel

 If you are young with disposition toward nobility of heart and greater simplicity you might consider a rule. When you see the work of Brother Zoettel you realize that there is an excellent expression of that alternative life so rich with charity and yet wonderfully complex and complete. We need brothers out there who like Brother Zoettel recenter our values into a stone reality of experience which leads to creativity. Not every desire or movement in the heart that appears spiritual actually appeals spiritual. Not every stirring in the heart finds an end in ordination. In some sense, it is a simpler response to the incipient stirring and closer to the blessed poverty of spirit recognized in the Beatitudes. Consecrated brothers are part of the Stiftung in the most material sense. They are the bulwark and building Stoff der Stiftung and without them, the ligaments that bind the stone institution; without them, all its grandeur disassociates. I think there are an awful lot of brothers out there that have become inured to their calling by the counterculture that is dark and looks on consecration with cynicism. But there is a means to escape from the cynical life and religious resentment into a glorious community life where you create or build or provide life to that community without external material pursuit but become yourself the internal material pursuit that is used to build Stiftung.

Now all this is personal conjecture. But conjecture is not a bad word if said thoughtfully or better said prayerfully.

Let’s look at vocations then as a rule of life that settles the soul has its end in happiness and not necessarily in ordination. In Spanish it is the difference between estar and ser. It may be true that many are called, and few are chosen to be priests, but many are still called nonetheless. In Luke, in the feeding of the 5,000 the Lord instructs his disciples to organize the crowd in groups of 50. The disciples represent the ones chosen to feed the groups of 50 as proto communities. The consecrated life is a way to find this community that beckons one to happiness, the intersection of community and hierarchy. I think there are many out there that might find a professed life much more rewarding than a professional life. Just like Brother Zoettel.  

If you have never participated in the common prayer of the monks or shared a meal in silence with the monks then you really have not adequately considered life’s options. It is a travesty that so many Catholics have never spent a week in a silent retreat with monks.     

I include a word association below of mottos of religious orders where you might consider becoming a brother.

EnglishLatinReligious order
Pray and workOra et laboraBenedictines
Peace and goodPax et bonnumFranciscans
To the greater glory of GodAd majorem Dei gloriamJesuits
The cross is steady while the world turnsStat crux dum volvitur orbisCarthusians
One soul and one heart in GodAnima una et cor unum in DeumAugustinian
Praise, bless and preachLaudare, Benedicere, PraedicareDominican
With zeal have I been zealous for the Lord God of HostsZelo zelatus sum pro Domino Deo exercituumCarmelite
Give me souls, take away the restDa mihi animas caetera tolleSalesians
Praise God in chorusLaus Dei in ChorusNorbertine (there are various)
Hail the cross, only hopeAve Crux spex unicaHoly Cross
Glory to you O Trinity and liberty to the captivesGloria Tibi Trinitas et captivis libertasTrinitarians
The love of God inspires usCaritas Christi urget nosBarnabites
To do and teachFacere et docereChristian Brothers
He has sent me to proclaim the good news to the poorEvangelizare pauperibus misit meVincentians
Ardor and shineArdere et LucereCistercians
Piety and lettersPietas et LitteraePiarists
Lighten my burdenOnus Meum LeveSomascans

If you know of other mottos for religious orders with brothers, please send to:

As a footnote, I found this bit of information in the records of St. Patrick’s Church in McEwen. There was a Benedictine monk who served as chaplain for the Confederacy and was killed in the Civil War. He came to the U.S. in 1849. He was from Metten in Bavaria, the same town as Brother Zoettel and the base for some of the Benedictines in America. His name was Fr. Emmerend Bliemel. He came to America via St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. This was the same origin of the monks of St. Bernard who came to Cullman in 1891. Fr. Bliemel’s presence as a Benedictine in the region in 1851 predates St. Bernard Abbey by about 40 years. There were strong contacts between the German Catholic in the U.S. and the Mother Abbey in Metten, Bavaria. It may be interesting to see if the draw for vocations in Metten was in part related to the foundations in America and drew vocations from all over or attracted mostly local men from Metten.

See the story written by Peter J. Meaney, OSB: Valiant Chaplains of the Bloody Tenth

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