Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Flashback: Wherein the German Nuns Teach Us Humility.


More than 60 years of memories written for my kids and grandchildren.

Long about the end of the first year at Saint John’s, when Spring started to melt the snows in central Minnesota, a number of us at the ex-GI table in the university refectory (which included me since I was elevated as an honor for being the first student to try a mid-week jailbreak, albeit unsuccessfully) began to get restive. For one thing we were getting tired of the abbey meals. The meals were served family-style as I reported. The Dean and his immediate clerical advisers sat at a special table in the center of the room. The rest of us stood at attention at our places until the Dean marched in proceeded to his seat at the table and hit a bell…similar to the bell you could see at on the front desk of rural hotels to summon the desk clerk…and immediately the entire group began the Grace Before Meals.

Then we were seated and waiters…students who were working their way through…had gathered enough servings for each table…and raced headlong into the refectory. We all had the same servers for the entire year. At this time…in Spring…there was general malcontent about one dish that was always served for dinner on Wednesday. To this day I cannot explain it but it was contained in a large bowl in a warm, gooey gelatinous mass into which chunks of rather grey meat were buried. There was a covering of white Saltine crackers on top. It was tasteless and its age indeterminate. The Dean and hi clerical advisers were as caustic about it as were we. One of our number, a football players and star athlete named Joe Cascalinda, delicately inquired of the Dean, Fr. Martin Schirber, OSB, if he approved of the dish. Schirber was an explosive man and thundered: “Hell no! But I don’t know what to do about it! It must be some concoction from Germany as the nuns have been serving this to us on Wednesday since I was an undergraduate!”

Cascalinda then asked if there had been an attempt to change the menu. The Dean said, “no, that is not for me to do. I am a Benedictine and have vows of obedience, chastity and poverty. I offer it up, you see: obedience to the way things are done here, poverty because it is a rather poor serving and…well I cannot think how it fits into chastity at the moment except—oh now I do, yes! The nuns are humble people, from Bavaria, do not speak English very well and have taken the vow of chastity. Some years ago it was suspected that the stew, for that is what it is supposed to be, contains salt peter which is a derivative to slow down carnality”

Cascalinda replied, “would you be offended if I asked them to change the menu since I have not taken the vows of poverty, obedience and chastity?” The Dean thought a moment and said “no, go ahead. But be Christian about it.”

So Cascalinda who had a working knowledge of German despite his Italian heritage, went to the kitchen and deferentially asked to talk to the Mother Superior. She was an affable, grandmotherly nun and gave him a cookie. The little nuns stood round and chattered in German, some bringing him milk, others offering leftover cake.

Then in his best mixture of German and English, Cascalinda explained that we would appreciate it if we could have a substitute for Wednesday. He got the idea that they understood. So he returned to us.

We waited a week but sure enough on Wednesday, the waiters rushed from the kitchen with their tin trays loaded with the casserole of grey, gelatinous material into which were hidden gobs of meat that were laden with fat that made some of the portions indigestible. Fr. Martin, the Dean, smiled and told Cascalina: “You see, that is the Benedictine spirit. Thus it has been and thus it will always be.”

But Cascalinda was determined to get a change. So he went table to table and encouraged us on the next Wednesday when the trays come out to accept the bread, butter and other things—especially dessert—but not touch the casserole. That was important. The casserole would be sent back to the kitchen by the waiters and the nuns would finally understand. I am informed that the Dean got wind of it but such was his human frailty that he did nothing to interfere, hoping against hope, that the student strike against the casserole would work and change the menu forever…or for as long as God permitted him to take his meals in the refectory.

When on the next Wednesday the eager waiters rushed to our tables with the serving, we accepted the casserole, set the bowl to one side and wolfed down bread and dessert. The Dean watched the process but decided to mind his own business, eating the casserole daintily himself.

The waiters, stunned, scooped up the casseroles, asked if we didn’t want to taste, to which we said no, thank you. Then the waiters returned to the kitchen and the nuns with the rejected offerings.


The Dean arose to impart the final benediction when the Benedictine Brother who supervised the kitchen appeared in the doorway. He beckoned to Cacalinda with a crooked finger.

Everyone’s mouth was agape.

“You,” said the Brother to Cascalinda, “talk to them, will you? They’re crying and I cannot comfort them.”

Immediately Cascalinda lost all the edge he had with us. We were aghast and thoroughly ashamed that we had brought sorrow to the little group of joyous roly poly ladies from Bavaria with no special education just the willingness to serve God as best they could, in the kitchen. There was a quick move from the floor to accept the casseroles back. Men stood up and beckoned to the waiters—“bring it back!” But the waiters did not do this. So Joe Cascalinda arose and walked like a man going to his execution to the kitchen where he comforted the weeping nuns whose day would start at 4 a.m. with Mass and continue through the hours with menial tasks which they were offering up for the greater honor and glory of God.

We were so ashamed that we slunk out. The next Wednesday when the waiters rushed out with their tin trays filled with the casseroles, we ate as if we had been on starvation rations.

As far as I know, the casseroles were served each Wednesday thereafter until Saint John’s adopted the cafeteria style of service and the nuns had died off or lived in seclusion looking at their private garden.

As all of them are likely in eternity now, let us hope that episode was the worst day of their utterly simple but beatifically beautiful lives.

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