Two Men and a House They Built

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On a lake in southeastern Wisconsin, is a house, Nashotah House, a traditional and theologically conservative seminary in the Episcopal Church. It is also officially recognized by the Anglican Church of North America. Here is the story of two of the men who founded the school. 

Bishop Jackson Kemper (1789-1870) was the first missionary bishop of the Episcopal Church. He was born in the Hudson River Valley of New York, where his parents had taken temporary refuge during a smallpox outbreak in New York City. Baptized David Jackson Kemper by Dr. Benjamin Moore, the assistant rector of Trinity Church, NYC. He eventually dropped the name “David.” His father was Colonel Daniel Kemper, a former aide-to-camp to General George Washington at the battles of Germantown and Monmouth during the American Revolution. His mother, Elizabeth (Marius) Kemper, descended from well-known families of the Dutch New Amsterdam era.

At Columbia College, he studied theology under Dr. Henry Hobart and graduated in 1809 as valedictorian of his class. Having moved to Philadelphia, he was ordained a  deacon in 1811 and priest in 1814. In 1835, the Episcopal Church decided to consecrate missionary bishops to preach the gospel west of the settled areas. Kemper was chosen and he promptly headed west. He found that clergy who had lived all their lives in the East were slow to respond to the call to join him on the frontier. So he recruited priests from among men already in the West and established a college in St. Louis for that very purpose. He went on to found Nashotah House and Racine College in Wisconsin and founded the mission parish that became the Cathedral Church of All Saints in Milwaukee. 

Kemper constantly urged a more extensive outreach to the Native American peoples and the translations of the Bible and services of the Church into their languages. His first official act as Missionary Bishop, in what would become Wisconsin, was laying the cornerstone for a new frame building for Hobart Church, Duck Creek, which served the Oneida Indian Mission. But more importantly, it was at that church that he ordained William Adams and James Lloyd Breck, two of the men who would assist him in establishing Nashotah House on October 9, 1842. He also ordained a member of the Ottawa tribe, Emmagahbowh, as deacon in 1859. These were the first ordinations in what would become Wisconsin. 

Kemper supported the Oxford Movement, although he maintained the importance of separation from the Catholic Church. In 1846, he purchased a property adjacent to Nashotah House and spent the rest of his life there. From 1847 to 1854, he served as provisional bishop of the newly formed Diocese of Wisconsin, and then served as its diocesan bishop from 1854 until his death in 1870. He also supported the creation of a new diocese, though he did not live to see the formation of the Diocese of Fond du Lac come to fruition. Kemper is honored on May 24th in the Episcopal Church.

James Lloyd Breck (1818-1876) was a priest, educator and missionary of the Episcopal Church. Born in Philadelphia County, he went to high school at the Flushing Institute, founded by William Augustus Muhlenberg, who inspired him to resolve at the age of sixteen to devote himself to missionary activity. He received his bachelors from the University of Pennsylvania in 1838 and a B.D. from the General Theological Seminary in 1841.

In 1842, now a deacon, he went to the Wisconsin frontier, with two of his classmates under the direction of Bishop Kemper, to found Nashotah House as a monastic community, seminary and center for theological work. It continues today as a seminary. Breck was ordained into the priesthood by Kemper later that year. 

In 1850, he moved to Minnesota, where he founded a school for boys and girls such as Breck School in Golden Valley, MN and the Seabury Divinity School at Fairbault, MN. He also started missionary work among the Ojiibwa. On June 23, 1850, on top of Grandad Bluff, Breck celebrated the first Episcopal eucharist in the La Crosse area. 

In 1867, he moved to Benicia, California to build another two institutions. Breck was known as “The Apostle of the Wilderness.”

Breck died in Benecia in 1876. He was buried beneath the altar of the church he served as rector but later his body was removed and reinterred on the grounds of Nashotah House in Wisconsin. The recommittal service there had 14 bishops, around 100 priests and numerous lay people in attendance. As legacy, Breck School was established in 1886 in Wilder, Minnesota. 

Nashotah House considers itself to be within the orthodox Anglo-Catholic tradition. Overall, the faculty support traditional theology and conceptions of Christian doctrine in opposition to liberal theologies. Graduates themselves come from a variety of jurisdictions both inside and outside of the Episcopal Church. Nashotah House sees its mission to form priests and church leaders from all over the Anglican Communion, including several international students.

Nashotah began as a community inspired by traditional monastic life of prayer, work and study. James Lloyd Breck‘s vision was to create a center for Christian formation in the (then) wilderness that would also be movement to propagate other communities for the purpose of evangelizing the frontier. Today, much of this vision remains intact and students still live a Benedictine cycle of prayer,work and study. The life of the Seminary seeks to form the character of priests and leaders into the image of Christ. Various students have been involved in mission work around the Anglican Communion as well.

“Seminarians are invited to participate in an ascetic, disciplined, prayerful season of spiritual growth in Christ” in which they “practice the Benedictine Rule of daily prayer, labor, and study.” Daily routine includes Morning Prayer, Mass, breakfast, classes, lunch, and Solemn Evensong.

172 years later, the mission founded Kemper and Breck continues today and the impact of the House continues to impact the world for Christ. These two men would be pleased to see that. 

The Man Behind the Rule: St. Benedict of Nursia

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The magnitude of Benedict’s significance in church history is not matched, unfortunately, 

by the knowledge of his life. About forty years after his death (and the year of his death is not known), Pope Gregory I wrote a series of dialogues on noteworthy Christians of previous times; his account of Benedict contains almost all the solid biographical information we have.

 

He was born in about the year 480 in Nursia in north Umbria in Italy, along with his twin sister St. Scholastica. Benedict was the son of a Roman noble of Nursia. He was educated at Rome, where he was repelled by the vices of the city and in about the year 500, he abandoned the city and fled to the mountainous town of Subiaco, some forty miles away. He seems to have been about nineteen to twenty years of age. 

 

On his way there, he met a monk named Romanus, whose monastery was on a mountain overhanging a cave. The wise monk discussed with Benedict the purpose which had brought him to Subiaco and gave him the monk’s habit. By his advice, Benedict became a hermit and lived for three years, unknown to men, in this cave above a lake. Romanus served Benedict in every way he could. The monk apparently visited him frequently and on fixed days brought him food. 

 

During these years of solitude, Benedict matured in mind and character and in his knowledge of himself and his fellow man. Despite his desire for solitude, his holiness, austerities and spiritual insight became well-known. He secured the respect of those in the area, so much so that upon the death of the abbot of a monastery in the neighborhood, the community at Vicovaro came to him and begged him to be their abbot. Benedict consented. 

 

But the monks came to resent Benedict’s attempts to reform the monastery along with his strict rule of life and the monks tried to poison him and he returned to his cave at Subiaco. The legend goes that they first tried to poison his drink. He prayed a blessing over the cup and the cup shattered. They then tried to poison his bread. When he prayed a blessing over the bread, a raven swept in and snatched the bread away. This is why Benedict is sometimes portrayed with a raven. From this time forward, the miracles seem to have become quite frequent and many people, attracted by his sanctity and character, came to Subiaco to be under his guidance and Subiaco became a center of spirituality and learning. For them, he built in the valley twelve monasteries, in each of them he placed a superior with twelve monks. 

 

In 525, he moved south to Monte Cassino where he destroyed a pagan temple to Apollo on its crest, brought the neighboring people back to Christianity and in about 530 he started to build the monastery that was to be the birthplace of Western monasticism. The monastery exists to this day, sitting on a hilltop between Rome and Naples. He remained the father or abbot of all the monasteries he founded. Soon disciples again flocked to him as his reputation for holiness, wisdom and miracles spread far and wide. Benedict organized the monks at Monte Cassino into a single monastic community. It was most likely after the arrival at Monte Cassino and as part of the effort to reform the general practice of monasticism that Benedict composed his regula  or Rule prescribing common sense, a life of moderate asceticism, prayer, study and work, and community life under one superior known as an abbot or father. It stressed obedience, stability, zeal and had the Divine Office as the center of monastic life. It was to influence spiritual and monastic life in the West for centuries to come. 

 

This famous Rule soon won nearly universal approval as providing shape for monasticism in the West. Benedict’s Rule was also read with appreciation in the East. It became the norm for tens of thousands of new monastic communities in Europe and it served as an inspiration for the slightly altered ideals that created the Mendicant Orders (or “friars”) in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. “Never in the recorded history of Christianity has a person whose own life remains so obscure,’ writes historian Mark Noll, ‘done a deed with greater public consequences.”  While ruling his monks, most of whom including Benedict, were not ordained, he counseled rulers and popes and ministered to the poor and destitute around him. 

 

Benedict died of a high fever at Monte Cassino at its magnificent abbey, while standing in prayer to God. According to tradition, this occurred on March 21, 543 or 547. But due to the observance of Lent, he is commemorated on July 11, including in the Anglican Church.  He was buried with his sister in the same grave. 

 

He is the patron saint of Europe, students, monks, against poison, farmers, cave explorers and many more. It is quite an impressive list and it shows how influential St. Benedict is. In fact, the early Middle Ages have been called “the Benedictine centuries.” Benedict lived at the end of the classical age when Roman civilization had been overrun by barbarian hordes. It was the Benedictines who, in the words of Pope Paul VI, “brought Christian culture to the peoples scattered from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia, from Ireland to Poland.” During the Dark Ages, Benedictines taught people how to read and write, to cultivate the soil, to develop crafts and the arts, and to pray. In short, Benedict helped bring about stability during a very unstable time period.

 

In April 2008, Pope Benedict XVI discussed the influence St. Benedict had on Western Europe. The pope emeritus said that “with his life and work St. Benedict exercised a fundamental influence on the development of European civilization and culture” and helped Europe to emerge from the “dark night of history” that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. Benedict of named the patron protector of Europe by Pope Paul VI in 1964. In 1980, Pope John Paul II declared him co-patron of Europe, together with Saints Cyril and Methodius. To this day, The Rule of St. Benedict is the most common and influential Rule used by monasteries and monks, more than 1400 years after its writing.