Friday, May 1, 2009

Personal Aside: Marketing the News Tribune-Style…and Flashback: Ernie (Fr. Ernest) Prepares to Use Two Sexual Offenses on Campus as a Teaching Moment as Crowds Pack His Classroom.


Marketing the News.

Disclosure that the “Tribune” sent out unpublished news stories to focus group audiences validates my longtime suspicion that the news…not just with it but with other hard-pressed papers like the “Sun-Times”…is being dolled up and processed to get maximum reader interest by marketing departments. The liberal tenor of both newspapers are, I believe, manufactured by marketing to appeal to selective audiences.

Fr. Ernie.

Two Saint John’s students are expelled for then horrific sex scandals at old, pre-Vatican II Saint John’s in 1948 as tough old Ernie (aka Fr. Ernie Kilzer, OSB) prepares to substitute for his lecture on Berkeley and Hume a theological discourse on the nature of sexual sins so his class would profit from their colleagues’ misbehavior.

The two individual sins were heterosexual and homosexual.


Sexual congress between the genders was specifically designed to be an all but insuperable accomplishment by founders of the all-male pre-Vatican II Saint John’s of Minnesota. In accordance with Benedictine tradition the monastery-university was built away from urban centers…in this case in the midst of a dense forest, sixteen miles from Saint Cloud (then population: 25,000) where the state teachers college had women as well as male students and the Saint Cloud Hospital nurses, all female…ten miles from the small hamlet of Saint Joseph which housed the Benedictine all-female college of Saint Benedict.

Non-clerical students from Saint John’s were encouraged to consider the young ladies of Saint Benedict as future wives…definitely not the seculars at the Saint Cloud teachers’ college or nurses at its hospital, despite its Catholicity since nurses were purported to know all too much about the inclinations of the male body). Thus there were occasional Sunday afternoon mixers held at Saint Benedict’s gymnasium with ice water and cokes served and presided over by veiled Benedictine nuns of strict observance in floor-length black habits with heavy white starched headdresses binding their cheeks so tightly so that only their beaming, cherubic, well-scrubbed faces showed.

Despite—or maybe because--the mixers were conducted in this proper antiseptic way, promiscuity was impossible and many marriages flourished. And in the almost hundred years of the two schools’ founding there was never a recorded…or even slightly rumored…violation of chaste relationships. Until 1948.

In the Spring of that year, the transgression began innocently enough with a mixer at Saint Benedict’s gym whose theme selected by the nuns was taken from Matthew 5:16: “Let your light shine among men that they may see your good works.” Shining light was right. Every light in the gym was ablaze so as not to encourage intimacy and the couples danced properly to the phonograph records of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey.

But at that dance, unbeknownst to us colleague of ours, an ex-GI of age 30, devilishly attractive to young women because of his premature grey shaggy hair and his football player prowess struck the attention of a Saint Benedict’s girl of about 21 from a farm family Cold Spring, Minn. At the dance, she was so drawn to him that they decided to meet again. This they did several times on Saturday afternoons when the Johnny blue bus dropped off a handful of students at Saint Joseph.

On three successive Saturdays they met drinking mild 3.2 Cold Spring beer at Linnemann’s general store…gathering place for both Johnnies and Bennies…while the juke box played songs at five cents a pop. Then the prematurely graying football player and ex-GI evidently felt that he would be successful in persuading her to intimacy if …God knows how…he could arrange a private assignation. But how? There was no possible arrangement that could not be frustrated: hotels in Saint Cloud would reject the unmarried and no small hotel or motel in Saint Joseph would cooperate in such liaison. No cars which could be used to provide intimacy were allowed on either campus. Then the ex-GI-football player ingeniously thought of a solution.

Saint John’s was at that time in the semi-finals of a regional basketball tourney and Saint Benedict’s had arranged for a private bus to carry such girls who wanted to come, all escorted by three chaperone nuns, to come to Saint John’s to attend a conclusive game in the Saint John’s gym. The Johnny explained his stratagem to the girl and she evidently agreed. Thus she rode on the Benny bus to the Saint John’s gym one weeknight and sat in the bleachers with him. Then, as part of his plan, he excused himself, purportedly to go to the restroom. Ten minutes later she did the same. She met him in the gym basement below where on the floor of which had been spread wrestling mats. The plan was that while the crowd cheered the basketball game upstairs…a crowd which included me…this couple would consort with unchaste intimacy in the pitch-dark gym basement. The ex-GI congratulated himself on his prescience: he had finally beaten the system.

Brother Ambrose, OSB.

We divert now to discuss a Brother Ambrose Wegleitner, OSB, aged 82 who had been a member of the cloistered community since the age of 16. He was of deep spiritually but of simple mien in education and intellectual acuity…one who served God by tapping maple syrup from the forest and was the institutions’ janitor. He in fact was the oldest man in the monastery, one who knew as no one else had, Abbot Alexius Edelbrock OSB who as a boy named Joseph had rowed a handful of Benedictine monks across the Mississippi in 1857 from what is now east Saint Cloud to Saint Cloud proper as they were on their way to found the monastery. Joseph Edelbrock went to school at Saint John’s in the 1850s and joined the monastery, taking the name Peter and rose to the post of Abbot-father of the community. Alexius was followed by the legendary abbot Peter Engel, OSB under whose guidance the university and monastery blossomed.

Ambrose, born in 1866, took his final vows as a young man, conferred by Abbot Peter. And as the years went by, Ambrose matched his woodworking skill with sanctity. Finally at the age of 72. a brother for 64 years with bright blue twinkling eyes and a fulsome white beard that reached down to his leather belt, he applied to Abbot Alcuin Deutsch, OSB for permission to live a hermit’s life…in perpetual, Trappist-like silence and away from the monastery by himself…continuing to do his work as a janitor in silence—and at night while the monastery slept.

So impressed with Ambrose’s sanctity…and the old man’s charm for when he spoke he had an unaffected child-like spirituality… was Abbot Alcuin that he granted permission for Ambrose to take the vow of silence and live as a hermit—and working as a janitor each night. He would end his day when it began for others: at the 4:10 a.m. Mass and recitation of Matins. A vacated shack used by a gardener was on the banks of Lake Sagatagan deep in the woods which Ambrose restored to perfect shape for his use.

I remember as a student walking on campus early one evening after a heavy rain and coming upon ancient Brother Ambrose, then in his 80s. He was standing in the monastery courtyard, studying a deep puddle on the cobblestones, contemplating whether he could leap over it. I paused, not wishing to disturb the child-like simplicity of the moment. He hiked up his long clerical habit, backed up and ran jerkily as a limping old man to the pond and jumped—not executing the leap perfectly but coming down in the water with a great splash. After he finished, I heard applause coming from behind me. I turned around to see Abbot Alcuin himself, whom I only had seen in monastic processions when they approached the choir stalls to sing their office…he the monastery head and university president… who had been watching quietly, all smiles. The two embraced silently. .

“Well done, Brother!” said the Abbot. “Far better than I could do!”

Ambrose, delighted with the praise, chirruping proudly to himself, skipped away to his tasks. Abbot Alcuin said to me: “Isn’t he something? The unaffected joyousness of a child! Would that we all could have that same wonderment in simple things!”

I then made the mistake of all mistakes and said: “Father Abbot, do you think Brother Ambrose is all right?”

“Young man,” Fr. Abbot said sternly,. “what is your name?”

Now I knew I would likely be on record forevermore as insulting the favorite monk of the head of the Benedictine Order and president of the university and president of the American Society of Benedictine abbots and slurring a likely future saint.

“`Except you come as a little child,’” said the prelate-Benedictine quoting Christ, “`you will never see the kingdom of God’ Remember that before you ever again ask if someone invested with child-like grace is `all right, Mr., Mr. Thomas F. Roeser!’”

Expelled into the Darkness.

Back to the salacious liaison in the gym basement. Well, you can surmise the story.

While we were cheering the exploits of the winning Saint John’s basketball team, the ex-GI football star and his inamorata were engaged in lustful activity in the pitch dark gymnasium basement on the wrestling mat. Then as they were thoroughly engaged, the lights suddenly burst on and there was Brother Ambrose with his mop and noisy wheeled bucket, his mouth agape, his beard bristling. Ambrose broke his silence by screaming “YOWWWWWWW! HIIIIIII!”

Upstairs in the gym we heard his strange noise of an animal being eviscerated with no sedation which froze us with fright. Then came the shriek of the girl…EEEEEEEEEEE! Followed by a voice which we all took to be Ambroses: YOWOWOOWOWOW! Then: EEEEEE!

The girl from Saint Benedict’s, shrieking as loudly as she could at the sight of the white-bearded monk with pop-wide eyes, armed with mop and brushes, picked up her garments and wailed at a stentorian level….the ex-GI athlete trying to remonstrate with both her and Ambrose. Neither would hear of it, the louder she screamed the more he bellowed, the louder he bellowed the more she screamed, his animal-like howl frightening her to hysterics. She continued to scream as if murdered which spurred Ambrose to accelerate his “YOWWWWWWW! HIIIIII!”

Her shrieking and Ambrose’s unnatural howls …he with a voice that had not been used in 30 years or more…almost paralyzed us in the gym audience upstairs. The players stopped for a moment, themselves, puzzled. Then the game went on but most of the crowd raced downstairs and it was largely unnoticed. For the first time, a basketball game was overshadowed by what was happening…possibly murder, rape, mayhem, all three… in the gym basement.

All of us ran downstairs, students, the nun chaperones, Benedictine monks. Seeing the two protagonists semi-clothed, it took no genius to draw an instant analysis of what happened. It was a physical love affair gone bad, terribly bad. But the main event was the girl screaming in fear at Ambrose and he returning her hysterics with strange, almost unearthly howls. As they continued in their duet, someone next to me shouted, “you know what? Ambrose hasn’t the faintest idea of what was going on. He is a child innocent.” Another agreed, saying “he probably thought he had come upon a murder.”

The mutual howling continued as both our ex-GI athlete colleague and his inamorata were instantly expelled and we as a group agreed it was the right thing to do as we witnessed it , he instantly by our outraged Dean of Men of Saint John’s on the stop and she instantly by the equally aghast Dean of Women of Saint Benedict’s. There was no laughter or snickering because we feared the shock of the sight had driven Ambrose quite mad, he being consoled by a coterie of his fellow monks. Gradually the crowd evaporated back to the game…which was decidedly overshadowed by events (but which we won). And it took a half hour for his fellow monks in the gym basement to calm Ambrose down, plead with him to cease his howling and escort him to his hermit’s cottage, one staying with him through the night to placate him.

Very early next morning there appeared on all the bulletin boards of the university hand-scrawled posters reading “How would you like to be conceived on a wrestling mat!” It was reported that on his way out of morning matin office prayers, Ernie saw one, rubbed his chin thoughtfully, scowled but did not remove it. The Dean of Men ordered them pulled down and tried to find the author and vowed his expulsion as well—a search which was not successful. As I knew who the author was (no, it was not me) and was pledged to permanent secrecy I have never said, notwithstanding the fact that he is long dead—and led a far more prominent public life in Minnesota than anyone at the monastery could ever have imagined.


The homosexual scandal was not nearly that dramatic. A young Saint John’s student, non-GI of 18, propositioned his roommate and when unsuccessful propositioned a student in the next room. Both spurned his advances but reported the incident to the Dean of Men who expelled the offender. I knew the offender slightly (he was a term below mine) and had always felt he was okay. But it was the first time that I…at age 20…had a glimmer of what homosexuality was. I had never imagined it; it was, of course, never even mentioned in society or in the press or catalogued as one of the sins in my classes. I remember in English Lit I had been puzzled to read of the jailing of Oscar Wilde for an offense “that dares not speak its name” but my professor did not elucidate and I confess I neglected to think about it much and forgot it soon enough.

Now the word went across the campus seemingly within an hour that Ernie…Fr. Ernest…decided to drop his original lecture and present the cases as theological learning experiences anent mortal sins of carnality. The ex-GI athlete had been in our advanced Ernie class…and the other offender in beginning Ernie, Phil. 101. The word was swiftly passed that Ernie would discuss the matter in the class I was taking “Spirit of Berkeley’s Thought and the Association of Ideas According to Hume,” and so it was filled with all regular attendees as well as other students not taking the course who packed the classroom eager to hear what he would say.

Oh, yes. Brother Ambrose recovered, returned to his silence…actually he had never yelled a word but simply howled… and lived a good long time as abbey janitor.

Ernie’s memorable words and lecture on human carnality, hetero- and homo-… next time…Monday…at this place.


  1. elizabeth alexanderMay 2, 2009 at 3:43 AM

    Dear Sir: Will you please tell us more about Obama's "late paternal grandmother"? When did she make the statement and when did she die?

    When he started running for president, she must have said she was present at his birth, then she promptly died? Would you clear this up for us?

    And thank you for not blocking me this time.

  2. Looking forward to the theology.

  3. I saw that a number of articles on Ethan Hastert's possible congressional candidacy mentioned his affiliation with Mayer, Brown. I think a worthy subject of future articles would be detailing which Chicago Law firms derive a significant part of their annual income from Chicago, Cook County and Illinois government legal work.