Prairie Messenger Header

Abbot Bruno’s letters give insight into colony life


By Paul Paproski, OSB


The portrait of Abbot Bruno Doerfler, OSB, is the face of St. Paul in St. Peter’s Parish (Cathedral), Muenster. Count Berthold Imhoff made the portrait in 1919 when he painted the church sanctuary with 80 life-sized figures and frescos. Doerfler was a friend of Imhoff and the first abbot of St. Peter’s Abbey, Muenster.

A humorous story is told of Abbot Bruno Doerfler, OSB, purchasing a railroad ticket for Muenster at a Winnipeg train station. Doerfler pronounced his destination as “Minster.” The ticket agent corrected him with the enunciation “Munster.”

“No, I mean Minster. I ought to know how it’s pronounced, I named the place,” he told the agent. Doerfler, the abbot of St. Peter’s Abbey and spiritual leader of St. Peter’s Colony, not only named Muenster, but many of the communities in his religious jurisdiction.

A lesser-known story about Doerfler is his disappointment in 1911 over being named abbot of St. Peter’s Abbey, Muenster. In 1906, he was elected prior of St. Peter’s Priory. In 1911, the priory was elevated to the status of an independent abbey. Doerfler informed his superior, Abbot Peter Engel, OSB, of St. John’s Abbey, Minnesota, that he had no desire to become the first abbot of St. Peter’s Abbey.

“You also know that I do not consider myself as having the qualities of an abbot,” he wrote in a March 30, 1911, letter. “Hence I beg you to not recommend me as abbot.” His request was denied.

Bruno Doerfler was a pillar of the colony, serving as its co-founder in 1903. He played an important role in the building of the first Catholic hospital and Catholic schools. He promoted German-Catholic culture by helping found Katholikentag (Catholic Days) and the first colony newspaper, The Bote. A canon lawyer, he was the vicar-general of the Diocese of Prince Albert, where the bishop often sought his counsel.

Doerfler died unexpectedly on June 12, 1919, at the age of 52. He had been celebrating confirmation at St. Paul’s Church, Saskatoon, when he became ill. His death brought an outpouring of grief across St. Peter’s Colony and throughout the Catholic Church.

Between 1902 and before his death in 1919, Doerfler wrote more than 120 letters to Abbot Engel to keep him informed of events in St. Peter’s Abbey and Colony. Doerfler, in one of his last letters to Engel, mentions that a well-known artist, Imhoff, is painting the sanctuary of St. Peter’s Cathedral, Muenster. Imhoff immortalized Doerfler by using Doerfler’s portrait for the face of St. Paul, who is above one of the nave pillars.

Doerfler’s letters to Engel reveal that Doerfler had a concern for the monastic community and colony and keen interest in local happenings. The following are excerpts from some of the letters.

June 26, 1903 (Rosthern): “Yesterday morning when I went down to the shack in which I have been saying Mass and for the use of which I have been paying $3 per week, I found that some men were tearing the roof off. I got them to stop till the Mass was over. Then I looked up the proprietor and found that he intended to build a house on the site of the shack and wanted to use the lumber of the shack in putting up the house. . . . Land seekers are still coming in daily, and a big wagon load goes out to the settlement at least every second day.”

Sept. 6, 1903: “St. Peter’s Priory will, before winter, be a wonderful piece of architecture. The first frame building put up was 16 ft. square and 1 1/2 stories high. From a distance it looked like an elevator and the Indians predicted that the wind would blow it over. . . . They are now finishing a log church which will be 24 by 40. . . . It is only too bad that the railroad is not finished. . . . There are six small stores in the colony.”

Sept. 10, 1905: “The farmers are all jubilant over the splendid crops they are gathering. It is expected that 50,000 bushels of wheat will be shipped from Muenster alone this year.”

Dec. 29, 1905: “I am editor and business manager of The Bote. . . . The Bote now practically makes cash expenses, while formerly it was conducted at a very heavy financial loss. It seems to become more liked by the people and the number of paid subscribers is rapidly increasing.”

Aug. 22, 1906: “We decided to put up a frame building (monastery) 62 by 38 ft., two stories and an attic high. . . . It is estimated that the building will cost us $3,000 to $3,500. . . . The deeds for the half section on which we live have arrived from the Eastern and Western Land Co., yesterday, so that we now feel safe.”

April 22, 1907: (Snow storm hits colony.) “Trains from Winnipeg could not get beyond Humboldt. There were at least 4 passenger trains with 1,000 to 1,500 persons stuck there without beds or shelter but the cars. The hotels were unable to serve more than 2 meals daily. . . . Ordinary freight is not yet moving consequently and the storekeepers are in despair. Fortunately, flour, meat, wood and seed grain is plentiful in our colony.”

Nov. 29, 1907: “We have a good well at last. It is 177 ft. deep and has over 100 ft. of water.”

Feb. 10, 1908: “We had a misfortune lately. We had ordered 3 dozen copies of the new Ceremoniale Monasticum. They arrived in Humboldt for the customs just shortly before the freight sheds burned down with all contents. Of course our shipment burned up.”

March 3, 1908: “On Sunday I had the High Mass in our church and just before it was to begin, the water began to come down through the ceiling right on the middle of the altar and the centre of the platform. I sent a couple of men upon the roof to shovel the snow off. . . . At the proper time I began the sermon and kept at it till all the snow was off the roof and all the surplus water had come down.”

June 18, 1908: “The foundation for our church is finished and looks very fine. I wish the building were on top of it.”

July 12, 1908: “At last work has begun on our new station building and the livery barn, which was destroyed by lightning a few weeks ago. On the 30th, Muenster is to be incorporated as village. On the 29th, we expect to have a grand “Katholikentag.” Crops are looking well and the weather is still very favourable.”

Oct. 7, 1908: “Have just returned yesterday from St. Boniface, where I attended the blessing of the new Cathedral. It was a grand affair, 13 bishops and archbishops and about 150 priests being in attendance. . . . The parade in the afternoon was a grand one, between 9,000 and 10,000 Catholic men from Winnipeg marching in it.”

March 4, 1909: “We have ordered the lumber for our church here and expect the first car almost daily. The total bill amounts to about $2,800.”

July 29, 1909: “P. Benedict, his trustees and others got into trouble for having dispensed beer at a church picnic July 1st. They were fined altogether a sum of $431.15. While I regret the occurrence, I am glad that it gives me an occasion for enforcing absolutely what I have been trying to carry out for a year past: the banishing of beer from church picnics. The opposition was too strong so far, but now I can surely carry through my intention with ease.”

Jan. 11, 1912: “For the past 24 hours we had south wind and still the temperature was minus 51 yesterday morning, minus 50 yesterday evening and minus 54 1/2 this morning. This is the greatest cold we experienced since coming to Canada. In previous years it was never lower than 49 below zero.”

Jan. 22, 1912: “I accept your offer of sending me the set of Stations for $400, which you had bought, but did not use for the Abbey church.”

Dec. 11, 1912: “It is impossible to get cars for shipping grain and the elevators are filled. So far only about 30 cars of grain have been shipped from Muenster, and over 300 cars are still in the farmers’ hands. The result is that money is extremely scarce. Collections are practically nil.”

Dec. 4, 1913: “There are twelve of us priests belonging to St. Peter’s and we have two Fathers at St. John’s making 14 in all.”

Dec. 12, 1914: “So far none of our colonists had occasion to complain about bad treatment on account of the war.”

June 17, 1915: “The provincial government is still working at its liquor law. . . . This law will make it almost impossible for a man to get a drink of beer, whilst it will encourage whiskey-drinking very much.”

Jan. 23, 1916: “One man in our parish, who had $4,000 debts a year ago has only $1,800 debts left and is going to build a new house in the bargain. Everybody of our people seems to have the chance of a lifetime to get out of debt this year. . . . I am going for a Presbyterian minister, who has been making a big row in the public press and in public in general about our parish schools. I enclose a copy of a circular, which I got out against him.”

Dec. 27, 1917: “We started a little college course . . . Fr. Matthew is prefect and I am director. All the fathers, including myself, and the clerics are teaching classes. . . . I hope the war will be over by next fall, so that we can start a new beginner’s course. . . . We built a new parish school with interlocking hollow tile this fall and expect to occupy it for the parish children right after the New Year. It seems to make a remarkably warm building. These tiles are made at Bruno.”

Nov. 16, 1918: “I hope the influenza, which has taken such a sad toll at St. John’s, is now gone from you. . . . Probably 15 deaths occurred in the whole colony, but now it is getting worse. Two daughters of one Muenster family who had married into other parishes of the colony during the past two years, died within 12 hours at their homes.”

Jan. 26, 1919: “Our provincial legislature has made an amendment to the School Act, which prohibits the teaching of any language but English in the government schools. Only French has the privilege of being taught for one hour per day where the trustees so decide, but the language of instruction even during that hour must be English according to the letter of the law. The Orangemen have been working hard, and they succeeded in getting this legislation passed.”

Feb. 8, 1919: “The Banque d’Hovhelaga, a French-Canadian institution, is going to open a branch at Muenster. A whole string of branches of the Bank is to follow in various parts of our colony this year. I wrote to P. Kilian, asking whether he has boys who can speak German to take positions as clerks in these banks.”

June 6, 1919: “Tomorrow I shall have to start on my first Confirmation trip, as the projected trip did not realize last autumn on account of the ‘Flu.’ I think I shall be absent on such trips most of the time during the summer. Our Bishop left for Europe . . . He does not expect to come home till late in the fall.”

Paproski is a monk of St. Peter’s Abbey, pastor, archivist and historian.