Dutch historian writes biography on life of Abbot Bernard Pennings

By | April 7, 2011

Norbertines still tell stories about their first abbot’s fondness for cigars, his frugality and wit, but these anecdotes don’t reveal the real man, said Dr. Jean van Stratum, author of “Bernard Henry Pennings, OPraem, Founder of the Norbertine Order in the USA” (Paisa Publishing, 2010).


Dr. Jean van Stratum, author of “Bernard Henry Pennings, OPraem, Founder of the Norbertine Order in the USA,” stands next to a copy of the book during an appearance at St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere March 30. (Rick Evans | For The Compass)

“I thought, ‘you can’t joke the whole day. You must have more than that,'” said Van Stratum, a Dutch historian, educator and writer, who was in the Green Bay area in late March and early April speaking about the native of a small Dutch town and carpenter’s son.

The stories and Pennings’ stone grave marker in the abbey crypt adjacent to an exhibit of clothes and religious articles he used formed a “kind of cocoon which was spun around him and behind which he had almost disappeared.”

Van Stratum learned of Pennings while writing a history of Berne Abbey, mother abbey of St. Norbert. His research brought him to De Pere, where Abbot Gary Neville invited him to use the archives of the abbey and the abbot general in Rome to write the book.

Despite the myths that “Pennings wasn’t able to see the great lines, to make real financial policy” and that “he would send people in a whim to certain places,” the reality was different, van Stratum said.

The tens of thousands of entries in the cash books Pennings kept from 1898 until 1953 showing all the income and expenditures for the priory (and later abbey) and college reveal a network of people who aided Pennings:

• diocesan clergy, some of whom left legacies (one from 1907 for $15,000 — about $150,000 today) in their wills;

• local businessmen who gave low-interest loans;

• widows and single women who loaned him money at low rates of interest — of which only about a quarter was repaid;

• rich and famous people, such as Henry Boyle, who with his brother John owned Northwestern Yeast Co. in Fond du Lac, and Frank Sensenbrenner, president and chief executive officer of Kimberly-Clark Corp., both of whom have buildings at St. Norbert College named in their honor.

One mystery van Stratum tried to solve is what attracted people to Pennings, who seems stern and uninviting in photos.

Van Stratum believes Pennings met some because their sons attended the college. The Norbertine habit, the connection people felt to the church, their trust in the clergy and willingness to give them money when asked also probably figured in, he said.

So strong were the bonds Pennings built that people would ask him to administer the last rites.

When it comes to human resources, van Stratum said, Pennings used trial and error.

“He was really concerned about the well-being of his confreres. He was also individualistic enough to accept that they would also be individuals. He was not taking them by the hand. He gave them a lot of freedom. When things went wrong, then he would show them you have not done well. When things went well he would not praise people and that’s probably because he didn’t want people to boast on themselves.”

While his Dutch confreres saw him as the first among equals and would test his authority, American Norbertines typically did what he said, van Stratum said.

All that changed in 1947. The abbey had grown to about 150 members and was financially strong — during World War II Pennings was the main source of support for the order’s offices in Rome — and the 86-year-old abbot-for-life was unwilling to share power.

Several Norbertines wrote the abbot general detailing their dissatisfaction and asking his help.

Pennings, van Stratum said, “wasn’t aware of what was going on around him, that people were not satisfied with their life, not satisfied with his way of leading.”

The abbot general met with Pennings. They agreed on the need for a coadjutor and signed the necessary documents. But rather than become an honorary abbot, as the abbot general wanted, and let the coadjutor — Sylvester Killeen — assume control, Pennings resisted.

He wrote to the papal representative in Washington, D.C., and the Dutch abbots seeking their support. Two months later the pope’s representative wrote telling him to let the coadjutor take charge and do “as even the pope would like to see.”

The Dutch abbots’ initial support evaporated after the abbot general explained the situation.

Gradually Pennings mellowed and accepted his new role, van Stratum said, although he opposed plans for a new abbey — “over my dead body.”

The new abbey opened four years after Pennings died, van Stratum said, “and I think it’s quite symbolic that the crypt and the church are built over his body.”

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