The monastic community of St. Benedict’s was founded on a wave of German and Irish immigration and the opening of the Kansas Territory to settlers. Father Henry Lemke, a restless Benedictine monk, wandered west from Pennsylvania in 1855. His superior later sent two monks, Father Augustine Wirth and Brother Casimir Seitz, to join him at the town of Doniphan, Kansas. Those three monks established monastic life in Kansas in April 1857.
St. Benedict’s College opened its doors in October 1858 and then the fledgling community moved to nearby Atchison. The monks began a horseback circuit to celebrate Mass that covered hundreds of miles south along the Kansas-Missouri border and west out onto the prairie, and north into Nebraska and Iowa. This laid the groundwork for a network of parishes the monks would staff for the next 150 years.
Prior Louis Mary Fink became coadjutor-bishop in 1871 and led the diocese until his death in 1904. He established parishes throughout the diocese and made pastoral ministry a priority for the Abbey.
Becoming an Abbey
St. Benedict’s Priory became an abbey in 1876. Father Innocent Wolf was elected the first abbot.
The monks shared the fate of early Kansas residents, suffering the scourge of grasshoppers, bankruptcy, and diphtheria, all while developing and growing their school. Under the guidance of Abbot Martin Veth, the college flourished and Maur Hill Prep School was founded.
In 1926, the community had outgrown its monastery and began building a new home high on the bluff overlooking the Missouri River. However, construction on a new church was suspended in 1929 when the Great Depression hit.
In 1957, the community celebrated its centennial by finally completing its new church and a guest house. The Abbey’s first capital campaign paid for the church.
In 1971, St. Benedict’s College and Mount St. Scholastica College for women merged to form Benedictine College.
In 2005, Abbot Barnabas Senecal led his community into the second capital campaign. The Abbey embarked on a $2.2 million accessibility project. Wheelchair ramps were added to the church and guesthouse, as well as a new elevator and restrooms and other accessibility features. The project also included an expanded gathering space in the Abbey church and a new art gallery.
Forward, Always Forward
In August 2011, St. Benedict’s Abbey began preparations for a $3.2 million capital campaign to replace more than 600 windows in the monastery, complete repairs and replacement of the monastery’s slate roof, and to establish an endowment for the education of new members and to assist in the care of retired monks.