In the Spotlight

News & Features
By Marisa Helms
May 20, 1999
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Saint John's Abbey and University sit off Interstate 94, just west of Saint Cloud. After a big campus fire in the late 1930s, it became clear that Saint John's needed a fire department of its own to respond to campus emergencies. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Saint John's Firemonks.

ON A CLEAR SPRING SUNDAY RECENTLY, a couple dozen Benedictine monks and an abbot gathered around a brand new fire truck. In honor of the 60th anniversary of the Saint John's Firemonks the new truck is being blessed with holy water by Saint John's Abbot Timothy Kelly. "I suppose the only way to bless a new fire vehicle is to say 'let us spray,'" he quips.

This truck will deliver the firemonks of Saint John's to emergency calls. Their work is confined mainly to the abbey and campus, but they also serve as backups for emergencies in the nearby towns of Avon, Saint Joseph, and Cold Spring.

82-year-old Brother John was one of the first monks to serve in the fire department and was fire chief for 23 years. He says back in 1939 when the Saint John's Fire Department started up, there were just nine monk volunteers. They had little or no training, some tools, and no truck. John says before the brothers knew anything about fighting fires, they decided to build themselves a proper red fire truck.

"All we had was a chaise and we had a pump put on it. The rest we did ourselves. Brother Edward did the plumbing, Brother Stephen did the blacksmith working on it, Brother Hubert did the carpenter work, and I did all the wiring and all the ceiling."

Brother John says the squad saw a few major fires during those years. There was the carpenter shop fire that took all night to put out And then there were the various rescues that seemed to proliferate one particular year.

"We had another case when they built the first building of the liturgical press. We had a young man who was buried over his head; nobody knew where he was, so we dug around with our hands and found his hair. Then we dug him out with our hands as far as we can then got him out."

Today, there are just about 20 monks in the department. All younger, able-bodied monks are required to volunteer their services for at least a few years.

Like most contemporary firefighters, the monks are on-call 24 hours a day and paged for emergencies. But a call to a fire can be jarring for a man who spends a good deal of time in formal prayer. Which brings up the matter of the cassocks; the robes monks wear at certain times of the day.

Brother Neal has been in the Saint John's Fire Department for nine years. He says he and his fellow volunteers wouldn't think of stuffing their robes inside the fire gear, which can be wrinkle-producing at best. Instead, Neal says, they do what the firemonks have been doing for the past six decades. "If you get a call between seven in the morning and seven in the evening,that's the time when most of younger monks have their robes on,"he says. "We come and that gray box is where we put our robes and jump into our fighting gear and off we go."

Assistant Fire Chief Brother Bradley has been on the squad for seven years. He admits the robes are just one example of how the call to a fire doesn't always gel with the calling of religious life. "We like silence, and measured pace of life and fire fighting and any kind of emergency work is very disruptive and very noisy. We don't always use the siren as readily as some because we tend to be quieter people. So it's kind of funny at times."

But, Brother Bradley says serving God as a monk, and serving the community as a firefighter are both about the same thing: the dedication to helping others.