Reflection: MEMORIAL MASS FOR JOHN VIANNEY - October 26th, 2017

It was on July 17, 1983 when Br. Vianney left his beloved Germany to embark on a new adventure with Schuyler, NE, as the destination. 

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With the centralization of the mission offices connected with the Abbey of Muensterschwarzach and computerization of data entry and correspondence, the position Br. Vianney held at the study house St. Benedict in Wuerzburg was eliminated and the leadership had to find a new assignment for him where he could put his talents to work. In conversations he often remarked about the years as “city monk” in Wuerzburg and the work with altar servers and visits with donors in the area.

Following a short orientation at his new home, Br. Vianney was given the opportunity to learn English – first at Mount Michael Abbey in Elkhorn, then at the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a few years later a refresher course at the Berlitz Language School in Chicago followed. In an interview with Dr. Richard Cupich (who is among us this evening) he admitted that the time at Mt. Michael was very frustrating for him since he knew very little English and that there was  no one with whom he could converse in German. Vianney enrolled in the ILUNO Program at UNO, an intensive English immersion program for international students. During this time he enjoyed the hospitality of Msgr. Peter Dunne and the priests of St. Margaret Mary’s Rectory across from campus

His friendly and inquisitive nature helped to overcome any shyness and Vianney made many friends which was a hallmark throughout his life. In 1984 he joined the staff of the office, helping with many tasks. I recall his special love affair with the bundler. Thousands of letters had to be sorted, then bundled and placed in mail sacks labeled for destinations throughout the United States. Vianney called this work “bindling.”

Throughout our history of 82 years, monks from the Mission House ventured out all over the country, visiting donors and finding new ones. Br. Vianney was introduced to the art of visiting donors by Br. Norbert and Br. Henry-Libory. These personal contacts have been the foundation of our fund-raising efforts. For a short time Vianney accompanied Henry-Libory. It was reported that once Henry had a foot in an open door he did not budge until he had delivered his speech, and asking if another donation could be made. Vianney developed his own style. He struck many lasting friendships. It is said that within five minutes he could find out personal information and details about families and issues. 

Vianney’s primary mission during the years as traveling brother was to thank people for their support and to inform of projects of missionaries. A traveling brother never knew where he will put down his head for rest at night. Over the years a network of friends providing hospitality made planning a trip easier.

Following the death of Br. Innocent in 1990, Br. Vianney was asked to take over the kitchen. Since I was the assistant to Br. Alphonse in the office, the leadership thought it is better to keep me in the office then to give me the original assignment which brought me to Schuyler, to be the cook for the community. Bro. Vianney, who had no background in cooking at all, accepted the challenge. He enrolled at Metro Community College for a course in Culinary Science. To learn more about baking bread he spent a week or so at Blue Cloud Abbey in South Dakota and also learned from Kurt Guenther, our former chef. In the early 1980ties Br. Innocent had taken over the kitchen at the time Kurt transitioned to be cook for the Jesuit community at Creighton Prep in Omaha.  After Vianney’s retirement, Kurt returned to Schuyler in 2010. Thanks, Kurt, for your time and patience in teaching Vianney. He treasured your friendship and the many hours of visiting.

During the early months in the kitchen Vianney also learned from the Sisters of Immaculata Monastery in Norfolk, especially from Sr. Elizabeth, Sr. Jania and Sr. Gilberta.  Many Saturdays, Sr. Jania came over from Columbus and cooked for the monks and teaching Vianney. He did not always listen to their recommendations, especially how to use the oven to keep food warm, a recommendation he had a hard time with to incorporate. Sr. Gilberta instructed him not to take murmuring too serious but to be firm in telling the community that the food on the table is all they get! No exceptions! Canning and freezing produce for later use, Vianney learned from our housekeepers Mary Ann and Becky even though many years he conveniently was on vacation during the canning season.

Each Christmas, Vianney baked Christstollen – a special holiday bread – but using Sr. Gilberta’s recipe dating back to the years after the war when butter was not so plentiful, turned out rather dry, yet it was delicious especially when buttered. In later years he sold the “stolen bread” as people called it during the Christmas on the Hill craft show. Vianney was known for his variety of breads, especially a sourdough bread, and coffee cakes and torts. On his shopping tours to Omaha, including Sam’s Club, he found out that cooking from scratch is not the only option, but that the frozen food department has also delicious creations ready to be placed into the oven or microwave.

As St. Benedict already knew, there are always guests at the monastery. Before we opened St. Benedict Center the cook also had to provide nourishment for our numerous guests. For a number of years we had every month a priest group for their day of reflection. They joined the monks for lunch, often uniting 20 people around the table. One Saturday, Vianney served leftover lasagna in the evening. A visitor praised the food and wanted to know if Vianney had made it and asked for the recipe. Without hesitation he informed that the dish was cooked by him – even so the monks knew that it came from Sam’s Club on 132nd Street in Omaha because the packaging was discovered in the dumpster. It became a slogan in the community: “Today we had a dish according to a 132nd Street recipe.”

Vianney had an eye for beauty. He loved a festive table setting. When the monk helping did not do it to his expectation he was told. For Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving and other community celebrations he prepared wonderful dishes, arranging serving plates artistically.

 Throughout his time as cook, Vianney was granted each year a few weeks for visiting donors. He also dedicated time every afternoon to keep up his extensive correspondence with donors, family and friends from near and far. During his absence Mark and Patty from St. Benedict Center’s kitchen made sure that the monks will not starve. Meals were picked up at the center and then served in the monastic dining room.

Vianney always had a keen interest in German politics and the life of the Church in his homeland. I have my doubts if he ever considered becoming a citizen of the United States. One thing is for sure, we are all citizens of the kingdom of God and the heavenly Jerusalem.

There are many other stories that come to mind. However, I better shut up and invite you to share memories of Br. Vianney. Following Mass, we will continue sharing over a simple supper in our dining room to which the community invites you – crowded as it may be, but under Vianney’s time we had at least once each year  a gathering of over 100 people for a Christmas party and dinner. Once St. Benedict Center opened these events were moved to the retreat house.  

Vianney, the Lord may grant you now eternal reward for your faithful service. Rest from your labors, unless the Lord has assigned you to the heavenly bakery or kitchen.

Written by Br. Tobias Dammert