“Early Days of St. Norbert’s”
Quoted from the 1917 Des Peres
By A.A. Vissers, O.Praem, Class of 1905
There are few people better qualified than the Catholic priest to tell of the value of a good religious training. “As the twig is bent the tree will grow” applies to men as well as the vegetative kingdom. The Church, with her heavenly wisdom, has ever striven to develop her children into virile spiritual men by giving them a Christian education. Many times it happens that a Catholic elementary training is impossible or very expensive; but whenever it is efficiently employed it changes weaklings and deserters into brave soldiers who become the bulwark of our Faith. It is encouraging to see the great confidence so many parents have in the moral strength of their children.
The Very Reverend B. Pennings, of the Order of Premontre, viewing the hopeful possibilities of a college in the section of the country void of higher Catholic education and, as yet, having too few parochial schools, conceived the plan of privately teaching boys the classical studies and the science. The first boy to present himself was Francis Van Dyke, who came October 10, 1898. Two weeks later I joined him.
The Fathers were very busy, during the time, re-arranging the parsonage so as to make it habitable for the winter. The first student took lessons between busy moments. After my arrival, classes were given regularly in the old parish school which was torn down in 1916. We had been pursuing our course peacefully for a few days when one morning at recess time, (there had been a High Mass at the Shrine) we were disturbed by the clamor of the acolytes standing beneath the window. They all wished to enter the classroom. With a wink at each other, we reached through the window, grabbed one boy by the coat collar, and pulled him into the room, head first. It was Charles Savageau. This strange initiation marked the beginning of his college course. Shortly afterwards, in the middle of November, the remodeled convent building was ready; and, forthwith, the college of three students was moved thither. The next week a fourth student, W.C. Marchant, came. It may be of interest to know that the first four students persevered and became priests.
All that comprised the convent at this time was a low building which attained the pretentious aspirations of two stories at one end. The main part of the lower floor contained four rooms with a hall along the south side. One of the rooms was for the rector, another for the prefect, the third for college and class room, the fourth for recreation. There were three teachers that first year.
Recreations were frequently spent in skating or playing checkers. Skating was very good all winter. Smoking was not forbidden by the rector, nevertheless many recreations were enjoyed in using our wits to escape an angry prefect who considered smoking as something essentially evil.
The following fall, twelve students reported at the priory. A few boarded among the neighbors, the rest of us went home every night. We who had been there the year before, were very anxious to initiate the newcomers into the customs and mysteries of the college. The college rules required day students to attend seven o'clock Mass and to remain for study in the evening. This study lasted from seven until eight.
There were no Thursday recreations then as now, but instead Wednesday and Saturday afternoon from 12:00 noon until 5:00 p.m. Many a long walk did we take to the woods in search of “shinney” clubs and hickory nuts. By the time that the river was safely frozen, there was a goodly collection of well dried “shinney” clubs behind the radiator. We had unusually good skating until the middle of February and we formed an association of “shinney” to defeat all the city teams.
The third year there were twenty-two of us. One day in the fall, twelve of us who were in the literature class went down to Green Bay, each to buy a book to be donated to the library. The event marked its modest beginning. We sent out appeals to parish priests and we soon had a small library and a collection of curiosities.
During this term the “movies” made their way to De Pere. They had formed the chief topic of discussion long before their arrival. There seemed to be no danger from the prefect; and, accordingly after seven o’clock study of the “eventful night” eleven of us, all day students, went over to see the pictures. Before the performance was over, who should enter but the rector. He found five, the rest of us had escaped. The next day their month's report read, “medium conduct.” No one ever told who the other six of us were.
A few students boarded at the college that year but it was apparent that they needed more room. In the Spring, May 9, 1901, a meeting of the parish priests was called at the priory by the Right Reverend Bishop Messmer. After a lengthy discussion, the priests promised their moral and financial assistance for the erection of a “modern up-to-date college building, capable of accommodating a hundred and twenty-five students.” Shortly afterwards the ground was broken and the foundation laid. A year later the building was ready for occupancy.