The Golden Jubilee of Brother Placid Gross

Kardong, O.S.B., Father Terrence. "The Golden Jubilee of Brother Placid Gross." Assumption Abbey Newsletter37, no. 3, July 2009, 1-2.

Alois Gross was born in 1934 near Napoleon, in south central North Dakota. He is the son of the late John and Magdalena Gross, the ninth of thirteen children. 1934 was the depths of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl on the Great Plains, so the Gross family knew hard times. In his memoirs, Bro. Placid tells the amazing story that he and his brothers were so short of pocket money that they actually raised skunks. They managed to trap a whole bunch of them alive and keep them in a shack where they fed them until killing them for their pelts, which they then sold.

Although some of his siblings went to high school in Linton, the family lived far from any town and there were no school buses at that time. So Alois’ formal education ceased after the 8th grade at Mannheim School #4. We note the name of that country school because Bro. Placid recently wrote a history of the institution, which has been closed for many years. He eventually obtained his high school equivalency diploma (G.E.D.) and he told this interviewer he did it without studying a minute. Like many people of his generation, he did not lack brains, only opportunity.

For the German farmers in Logan County, public life mostly revolved around the church. In this case it was St. Anthony’s, a country parish of the Fargo Diocese. That church is long closed, but Placid is working on its history. For a fellow with no secondary education he is quite scholarly. In fact, he is a dedicated record-keeper, with scrapbooks that record every significant event in his life.

Alois Gross came to Assumption Abbey in the fall of 1957, “directly from the farm” as he says. With his limited educational background, he naturally entered the “lay brothers.” In those days, that group was quite separate from the choir monks. The brothers had their own novitiate, their own chapel, their own Office, their own recreation room and so forth. They were basically the material support group of the monastery. They did not make solemn vows, but they actually lived a more classical monastic life than the clerics and priests. In 1960, Alois made his first vows, receiving the name Bro. Placid by which he is known to everyone today. 

When he first came to the monastery, Bro. Placid worked in the print shop and the carpenter shop for a couple of years, but he was soon placed on the farm. At that time, our farm was mostly a dairy operation, with a whole crew of monks involved. But within a few years the school closed and so did the dairy.  Since 1970 Assumption Abbey has concentrated exclusively on its beef herd of about 150 cow-calf pairs. And about the same time Bro. Placid became the head of the Abbey farm, a position he has held up until last year when Bro. Jacob succeeded him. But Placid still works full time on our farm.

At this point perhaps a few words of commentary are in place regarding Placid and farming. For one thing, he is very good at it. If our farm has been successful, it is largely due to him. The sheer fact that we still have a farm, when almost every other monastery has closed theirs’, is a testament to his excellent management and hard work. Of course, he grew up on a farm and he has a deep intuitive understanding of animal husbandry. Somebody once remarked that he has never seen one of our cows looking unhealthy. And yet the boss himself is not particularly healthy. For many years he has suffered from very poor digestion and all that brings with it. So his achievement with our farm is all the more remarkable.

But Bro. Placid is not just a work-drudge. Indeed, he has a very active social life to go with all his hard labor. Years ago the whole community took the Meyers-Briggs personality test and the results were very revealing. Most of the monks turned out to be introverts who enjoy being alone, which is what you might expect from monks. But not Placid! He is truly a social animal. In fact, if there is anything he likes better than farming it is partying. If that sounds too scandalous, at least it is undeniable that he likes to go visiting. And what does he do on these visits to the neighbors and relatives? Well, he talks, but not just about anything. His idea of an interesting conversation involves an in-depth discussion of geneology: who begot whom.

Closely connected to his sociability is his ethnic loyalty. He is German from Russia, that special breed of cat that settled North Dakota in their thousands, and who still constitute an essential part of our population. Placid is a passionate student of German-Russian culture. With him, it is not just an academic pursuit. In fact, he grew up speaking the German-Russian dialect long before he learned any English in school. He still speaks it fluently, and it is easily discernible in his speech. In 1971, he became one of the charter members of the German Russian Historical Society, the meetings of which he has faithfully attended for forty years.

But even before he got into GR research, he was an active genealogist. Nowadays it seems that everybody is interested in their roots, so that kind of activity is not unusual. But Placid is quick to point out that when he started his work on his family-tree, hardly anybody was involved in such study. He had to learn his research methods from books in our library. He says that today a lot of people contact him for advice and training in this work. Recently he moved into a larger room in the monastery and he needed it. He is surrounded by so many books and files and materials that we worry that someday we will find him buried under the debris.

Until that time, we are delighted that our brother has been with us for fifty years. We have all been edified by his cheerful attitude and his devotion to monastic observance. May he enjoy his “retirement” and have many more fascinating genealogical conversations.

Permission to print this article of the Assumption Abbey, Richardton, North Dakota.

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