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July 13, 2009

Angela Englbrecht was among the delegation that visited St. Vincent Archabbey and Seminary, as well as his first American mission in Cambria County and toured Pittsburgh.

More than 150 years after St. Vincent Archabbot Boniface Wimmer settled in Pennsylvania, a contingent of visitors from his German hometown were inspired by their native son's legacy.

As part of a yearlong celebration marking the bicentennial of Wimmer's birth on Jan. 14, 1809, the Thalmassing delegation has spent the last week visiting the St. Vincent Archabbey and Seminary near Latrobe, as well as his first American mission in Cambria County and touring Pittsburgh.

Among the visitors are Anton Schober, pastor of St. Nikolaus at Thalmassing, Burgermeister (Mayor) Alfons Kiendl, and Richard Heindl, archivist of the Kolping family and Wimmer's great-great-great-nephew.

With Heindl translating, Schober said Tuesday his visit already had made "several very deep impressions."

In his homily Sunday, St. Vincent Archabbot Douglas Nowicki reflected on Wimmer's life and work, Schober said.

"We got a guided tour of a lot of the buildings of St. Vincent," Schober said, "so we can imagine how powerful that monastery is."

"For the first time, I realized completely the dimensions of Boniface Wimmer, his person and his work," Kiendl said.

Heindl said he discovered 12 years ago that his family was related to Wimmer.

"By chance I saw the parents' (names) of Father Boniface," he said. "I discovered I had the same persons in (my family). Since I know the relation, I was interested in each detail I could get."

Heindl said he read a biography of Wimmer and a collection of his letters.

"I never believed I could one day be (at) that place," he said, referring to the archabbey, college and seminary.

Wimmer established the Order of St. Benedict in North America, coming to the United States in 1846 to evangelize immigrants from Germany and other European countries and train them for the priesthood.

Wimmer led 18 novices to the United States, with plans to build their community in Carrolltown in Cambria County.

The land was not suitable for farming, Nowicki said, and Wimmer accepted an offer from the Diocese of Pittsburgh to use the St. Vincent Parish for the mission.

St. Vincent Archabbey, which Wimmer founded in 1846, is the largest Benedictine monastery in the world.

"His motivation was to establish a seminary to train priests to serve the German population," Nowicki said.

Area farmers asked Wimmer to help educate their children.

"That was the beginning of the prep school and college," Nowicki said.

Wimmer saw education as an answer to the bigotry many of the immigrants experienced, Nowicki said, and a way for them to enter mainstream American society.

"In a relatively short period of time, in his own lifetime, he was able to make a difference" Nowicki said.

Before his death in 1887, Wimmer established seven abbeys, 150 parishes and 75 schools throughout the United States. He also established 11 abbeys and priories that operated dozens of schools.

Heindl said the hills of western Pennsylvania are "very similar to home."

"Father Boniface could feel at home, just from his view of the landscape," he said.

Several of the visitors noted that in Germany, the bicentennial year is making more Bavarians aware of Wimmer's contributions.

"It is good that Boniface Wimmer gets more known now," Schober said.

School children learn little about Wimmer other than that he was born in Thalmassing, became a monk and went to the United States, the visitors said.

"I think it's important for the young people of Thalmassing to know one of their sons had such an impact, not only in the church but throughout the country," Nowicki said.

One person who was well-acquainted with Wimmer's accomplishments is Pope Benedict XVI. Nowicki presented him with a copy of "Boniface Wimmer: Letters of an American Abbot," during a trip to Rome.

"He said, 'Oh, our most famous Bavarian,'" Nowicki said. "He was very well familiar with Boniface Wimmer."

The Thalmassing visitors planned to return to St. Vincent a final time today, then travel to Washington, D.C., for their flight home.

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