Monday, August 11, 2014

THE ABBEY AND ME and the Story of the Takeover of the Alexian Brother's Novitiate IN 1975

Some books simply pull you in and won't let you go until you finish.  This was one of those books. In The Abbey and Me  J. Patrick Rick (2011)
shares a facinating story of a building and its history that can almost be described as simply tragic. At the heart of the story is the account of the takeover of the Alexian Brother's Novitiate in 1975.  However, beginning with the original construction of Jennie Peter's estate, begun in 1938 and finished in 1941 (built originally for her disabled daughter who died before construction was completed), Rick works though the years of the Peters family, through the brief history of the novitiate (1950-1968), during which the author was a novice himself for a short time, then into the takeover of the novitiate in 1975 by the Menominee Warrior Society, finishing with the history of the property to the present, which now only claims a gutted and aging edifice in a section of overgrown forest.  While reading the book I visited the property near Gresham, Wisconsin, but owing to the No Tresspassing sign I stayed at a distance with my camera and binoculars. The pictures here are the best I could get. If you look carefully at the center of the first picture you can catch a glimpse of the sole remaining building - the Peter's mansion. There are other pictures available from those who did get permission to enter.  But it's still a shaddow of its former self, a tragic ending to a property which once possessed so much potential.

Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the take over, and I am curious how it will be remembered.  From reading the book I suspect that the current leadership of the Menominee Nation would probably prefer to simply put it deeply into the past, a story of a different era perhaps best left without too much attention. 

The book is available on Amazon for under $13, but I read a copy my wife secured for me through interlibrary loan.  Amazon gives this description of the contents:
Born from a film project, The Abbey & Me is a non-fiction account of invasion and seizure of a Midwestern Catholic monastery. The narrative chronicles a certain 1975 Native American act of Civil Disobedience and Thirty-Four days of armed occupation in harsh winter conditions. Researched and told by a former cloistered resident and novice-monk, this is a true contemporary, cavalry, Indian, and missionary story of hostages, vigilantes, renegades, and celebrity including the late Marlon Brando facing the Wisconsin National Guard.

I was a fourteen year old boy living in nearby Wausau in January 1975, and like many my age, I suspect, I had no real knowledge of this event, even though it was heavily featured in major newspapers around the country.  Coming on the heals of the Wounded Knee incident, the takeover in Gresham was part of the waning efforts of what was then known as the American Indian Movement.  In those post-Vietnam years some political movements, it seems, tended to be more violent and destructive.  Reviewing the history of the Menominee tribe, especially the history in the last half of the 20th century, helps you understand, in part, the frustration that led to the take-over of the novitiate.  This was the era prior to the successful casinos and lumbering businesses that now bring a comfortable revenue flow to the reservation.  But it is also a story of how the government, for a time, removed the tribal status from Menominee, causing all kinds of anger and resentment.

It is a shame that, in the end, this once beautiful building and the later additions added by the Alexian Brothers, had to be reduced to nothing more than an aging shell of brick and stone left to slowly rot.  The damage casued in the take-over and the vandalism and neglect in subsequent years put this once great edifice on the irreversible road to ruin.  I still hope that someone with sufficient capital eventually attempts to restore the last remaining building and then make it available again to the public.  But I am grateful to Rick for the labor of love he gave in researching and writing a story that was in danger of being lost and forgotten.  As the 40th anniversary approaches there will undoubtably be other articles - maybe even another book - as people rediscover this facinating yet painful period in our history and the shadow of a building testifying to past days of fleeting glory.   [Note: the links provided here, especially to Wikipedia articles, are very informative in gaining a basic understanding of the events chronicled by Rick in his book.]

Here are some additional links and pictures I originally posted on my Facebook page:
--Article and pictures (including a Google arial shot) regarding the Alexian Brother's Novitiate:
--Article and pictures on the Novitiate Ruins:

Here is a link from the College of Menominee Nation containing various documents related to the take-over, including newspaper articles:

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