Book review by Father Jonathan Fischer, O.S.B., St. Paul, Minnesota
Kopp, Father Anthony. Memoir’s of Father Anthony Kopp. North Dakota State University Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 1999.
I was recently asked to put down a few thoughts and comments, a book review if you will, of "Memoirs" by Fr. Anthony Kopp as edited by Mrs. Jolenta Fischer Masterson. I have to admit I have not done anything like this since my college days. But this is a fine book with which to get back into it again.
I found Fr. Kopp's autobiography a truly fascinating work. In spite of the obvious and frequently run-on sentences and dangling prepositions, (as the editor, Mrs. Masterson puts it, "he thought in German and wrote in English") Fr. Anthony weaves a beautiful web of ideas about his own life and times. It takes only a few pages of reading to get accustomed to this stilted, though amusing style of writing. Then one sort of gets swept up in the intriguing pictures he paints. Basically, the book unfolds into four general areas: 1) the life of his family and more immediate ancestors in and around Krasna, Bessarabia in South Russia, 2) their emigration from there to and getting settled in Midwest United States, 3) his education in its various stages, and 4) his life as a parish priest in North Dakota.
Throughout the various sections of the book Fr. Anthony generously relates many very interesting details which help me get a better view of the scene being discussed. After reading the Bessarabian section of the book, I felt I had a much better understanding of how these people lived their lives, how they had arrived in the Black Sea area in the first place and why they now felt they had to leave. The character sketches of his parents, John and Caroline, were very well done and helped me understand why they acted as they did.
Fr. Kopp's description of his family's trip to America and their getting situated in North Dakota was most revealing. They made up their minds and, without comment, remained focused on their goal, "Neither looking to the right nor the left but always straight ahead." Of course, we all know that these early pioneers had tough sledding, but Fr. Anthony fleshes out the picture with interesting and revealing details. For example, he not only mentions sod houses but describes how they cut and laid the sod and how they formed the roofs of sod. He graphically describes how crucial was the availability of water as well as other basic supplies. The difficulty of the life was underscored by his relating how some of their people actually gave up the struggle in one place and went on to another area or even threw in the towel altogether and returned to Bessarabia.
He also details the effort of having to 'homestead' on this vast prairie, how families had to live isolated and apart from each other instead of in a friendly 'Dorf', or village, as was the case in the old country. As a result there would always be great rejoicing over the arrival of visitors, especially in winter time. His depiction of turn-of-the-century transportation modes is also fascinating. Instead of S.U.V.'s and snowmobiles they had ox carts and stone boats.
Another outstanding aspect of the early settlers portrayed by Fr. Kopp, especially regarding his own family, was their staunch Catholic faith. Many important decisions in their pioneer life were based on the availability of worship opportunities. For this reason moves to certain areas were made or not made, debts were incurred and sacrifices made to build churches, and bishops petitioned to send priests.
For personal reasons I found the author's coverage of the various types of farm work most interesting. His description of the long abandoned harvesting technique of 'heading' reminded me of one of my first farm jobs as a young boy. I too had to drive the "header box" and worry about its proper positioning alongside the header machine.
The long up and down saga of Fr. Anthony's education is also of great interest. I was especially intrigued by his description of seminary life at that time, both at St. Mary's (i.e., at Assumption Abbey in Richardton, ND) and in St. Paul, MN. His rather blasť 'boys-will-be-boys' type attitude towards some of their less than regular extra curricular activities, both in the earlier years and in the seminary, showed that Fr. Anthony was not beyond having a little fun.
The final arena of his life and of his book, Fr. Kopp's work as a parish priest, showed us a life that was anything but easy. A glance at the chronology of his appointments reveals, even without reading his rather agonizing account, that the first quarter of his priesthood was the most difficult. He started with illness and then within seven years was assigned to no less than three different parishes, each with missions.
As a priest, I am quite struck by what some of those early pastors had to go through. But one certainly does not have to be a priest to really appreciate this outstanding book which includes many fine photographs. It provides both entertainment and some marvelous insights into a period of our German-Russian past which explains a great deal about our present.
Congratulations to everyone who was involved in its production, especially its editor, Jolenta Fischer Masterson (my sister)! and Michael M. Miller, without whose energy, resources and know-how this book would very likely not have come to be.