Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Two German Catholic Almanacs: Views from a Lost World by Alan Borer
Two German Catholic Almanacs: Views from a Lost World
Among my grandfather’s books was an odd little quarto, printed in Cincinnati in 1863, titled Das Vaterunser (The ‘Our Father’). Most of the book was taken up with a popular religiousl text. But the book begins with twelve pages of almanac tables for 1864. Pious and orthodox, but what were those almanac tables, looking oddly superstitious, doing in the book?
Another almanac, this one from 1922. The Ohio Waisenfreund Kalender (Ohio Orphan’s Friend Almanac), published by the Pontifical College Jospehinum in Columbus, Ohio, was a more typical almanac. It was loaded with stories of Catholic heroes in varying degrees of trouble, biographies, poems, and some advertisements. But again, those mysterious calendars in the front: holy, with their carefully listed saints’ feasts, but the signs of the zodiac as well.
This essay asks what can be learned from the contents of the almanacs, including the almanac format itself. If World War I and its state-sponsored denial of all things German marks the tragic collapse of German America, what does viewing the two almanacs, with their “before” and “after” dates of publication, teach us about almanacs, about German America, and German Catholic America?
The two almanacs are actually connected, in a way. Both were products of Ohio German Catholic newspapers. The Vaterunser title was published for the 27th anniversary of the Wahrheits-freund,, a newspaper published by the Archdiocese of Cincinnati from 1837 to 1907. Originally the project of Father (later Bishop and Archbishop) John Henni (1805-1881), the Wahrheits-freund had a long run, serving the needs of German-speaking Catholics:
“This was the first German Catholic newspaper published in the United States. It was a weekly newspaper of "Catholic life, work, and knowledge," literally translated as "The Truth's Friend." It included stories about Germany, local parishes in Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky, as well as obituaries of local people.”
But, as was true of much of German Catholic America, times were changing. An historian of the Cincinnati archdiocese noted,
“The publication of the paper, however, was continued until the need which had brought it into existence, had passed, and on June 19, 1907, the last number was issued.”
Upon its demise, the Wahrheits-freund merged with the Ohio Waisenfreund, the German Catholic newspaper for the diocese of Columbus. The Waisenfreund struggled on until 195X, but eventually succumbed to the same forces that did in the Wahrheits-freund.
One of the key artifacts of the now-vanished German-speaking Catholic culture in America is the almanacs the culture left behind. Almanacs are a relic of our once dominant agricultural heritage. Combining a mixture of astrology, prognostication, and humor, almanacs were among the earliest printed works circulated among an only semi-literate rural population Almanacs, in their early years, had a flavor of the magical; they were thought of, not as a witch’s book of spells, but as a sort of talismanic object none the same. They dealt with predicting the future in a hopelessly unpredictable world.
By the middle of the seventeenth century, the almanacs dealt with a less frightening world, and more with the practicalities of farming and farm life. In colonial America, both English and German communities had almanacs intended for them:
“Generally, almanacs or “calendars” as they are called in German, included a few key elements. Monthly calendars with information varying slightly from almanac to almanac, but usually including the phases of the moon…. Most almanacs included entertaining stories. In many instances the monthly calendars are interrupted by short, humorous stories or funny drawings…..Much can be learned from studying generations past, and German-American almanacs provide us with a special look at the everyday lives of the people who tamed much of the Eastern and Midwestern portions of the United States.”
Many of the German almanacs were Catholic in sponsorship and audience. As a catechetical tool and propagation device, the German Catholic almanacs were a way to hold together communities in the New World. Even though most German Catholics were clustered in urban areas, the almanac, with its flavor of country life, appealed to those new Americans whose heritage was the rural life lived in the Germany of their ancestors.
Clinging to the Old World: Das Vaterunser (1863)
After the almanac pages, Das Vaterunser was an Ohio reprinting of the text of a popular work by the German priest/author Alban Stolz. Stolz (1808-1883) was a native of the southern German principality of Baden. Nearly forgotten now, Stolz wrote several popular books that taught the Catholicism of the nineteenth century. Yet Stolz’s work was not pedantic of overly erudite, but was rather full of stories, anecdotes, humorous observations. An example of his earthy-yet-holy wit is seen in the following text (taken from an English translation):
“… I will now tell of an honest farmer who was asked to dine with a gentleman. Now this farmer was no sycophant, who held a pair of patent leather boots in more respect than his God. He asked a blessing at table as he was accustomed to do at home. His host, looking up, said jeeringly, “That is old fashioned – it is not customary now-a-days for well-educated people to pray at table.” The farmer answered that with him it was customary, but that at home some of his household were in this respect very fashionable and refined, for they never prayed over their food. “Ah, then,” said the gentleman, “they are sensible and enlightened; who are they?” The farmer answered: “They are my pigs – so from their youth up they have been in possession of education and refinement. For when they have finished eating they run away and never bestow a glance on those who have brought them their food
One Foot in the Old World, One in the New: Ohio Waisenfreund Kalendar, 1922
In the 1922 almanac, there were a variety of stories: “Fraulein Topp,” a Christmas story, ran with a “Marianisches Alphabet in Bild und Lield” (Marian Alphabet in Picture and Song). A didactic story of “Der Anarchist” kept company with “Der Esel, der Sack und der Stock des hl. Winock” (The Donkey, the Sack and the Staff of St. Winock), a variation of the story by the brothers Grimm. All these stories had German themes and/or settings.
One article, however, is less German and more American. P. Jakob Marquette, ein Apostel Amerikas (Fr. Jacques Marquette, an American Apostle) tells the story of Father Marquette (1637-1675), the French Jesuit missionary who worked in what is now Michigan and, with Louis Joliet, explored Lake Michigan and the upper Mississippi valley. The Marquette story is an important component. Proudly Catholic, the story, if only for a few pages, looks away from Old World Germany to the New World and one of its Catholic heroes.
One historian has theorized that German-American almanacs were, as time progressed, were set in a “medium-dependent framework,” or more simply, a familiar form but with new content. I cannot say with certainty that an almanac story was intended as a break, or even a gradual reorientation, of the Catholic world-view that was rooted in Europe but was beginning to look to the New World. More likely coincidence than intentional, the Marquette story, easy to read and American in outlook, contrasts with the Stolz work. But that contrast teaches us about German Catholic America. Both use humor, both address a rural (whether currently or by heritage) audience, and both use the almanac, that oddly mystical literary souvenir from the past. They diverge in the degree of longing for a home receding into the past. Perhaps the contrast is useful for the Catholic life of our time: the more things change, the more they stay the same.