Biography of Aloisius Cardinal Muench

1889 – 1962

In Brief

Coat of Arms

Motto: “In All Things Christ”

Aloisius Cardinal Muench was born on February 18, 1889, and ordained a priest on June 8, 1913. He consecrated a bishop on October 16, 1935, and installed as the third bishop of the Diocese of Fargo on November 6, 1935. He was appointed Apostolic Visitator in 1946, appointed Papal Nuncio to Germany in 1951 and created a Cardinal on December 14, 1959. He was the first cardinal from the United States to work in the Roman Curia. He died on February 15, 1962.

Biography

Early Years

Aloisius Muench was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on February 18th, 1889, to German immigrant parents. While living in a home where German was spoken by the family, in a neighborhood where German was heard on the streets, and attending a parish where sermons were preached in German, his mother insisted that her children learn English so that they could understand the world in which they lived. Aloisius would later learn French and Italian so that he could easily converse with the people he served.

“Allie” Muench loved the outdoors and he loved God. The earliest pictures show him enjoying canoeing and fishing in Wisconsin. He was an avid baseball player. When he later came to North Dakota, he continued to go on hunting and fishing trips. He was an excellent shot. Once he “brought down” a moose with a rifle while in a rocking boat.

Priestly Work

He knew from a young age that he should be a priest. After graduating from grade school, he was tutored by a priest in Latin so that he could begin his training as a high school seminarian. He attended St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee for nine years. He was ordained a priest on June 8, 1913. For four years he worked as an assistant priest at St. Michael’s Parish, Milwaukee, and then as an assistant chaplain at St. Paul’s Newman Center on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. While there he found time not only to take classes in sociology and economics, but within two years had earned a Masters Degree in Economics.

When World War I ended, Fr. Muench was sent to Fribourg, Switzerland to study. While there he traveled throughout Europe, where he witnessed first-hand the devastation of the war. He joined the effort to bring relief to the afflicted German people. It was through this work that he met Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli, — the future Pope Pius XII — who was the Apostolic Nuncio to Germany. Muench earned a Doctorate in Social Studies in 1921; the title of his dissertation was “Fundamental Norms for Health Insurance Legislation in the United States.”

photo with parents

Bishop Muench with his parents following his first pontifical Mass as bishop at their home parish, St. Boniface, Milwaukee.

When he returned to Milwaukee in 1922, he was assigned to teach in the seminary. After seven years, he was appointed the seminary’s rector and brought new vigor to the institution. Early in 1935 he was named a “Monsignor.”

Bishop of Fargo

After the death of Bishop O’Reilly, the second bishop of the Diocese of Fargo, Pope Pius XI asked Msgr. Muench to be its new bishop. His episcopal ordination was in Milwaukee’s Church of the Gesu on October 15th, 1935, and he was installed as bishop in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Fargo, on November 6th.

Bishop Muench found that the Diocese of Fargo was in a financial crisis, many parishes had large debts. Drawing on his understanding of economics and the Gospel, he established the Diocese of Fargo Expansion Fund. He asked all parishes to invest their surplus funds into this cooperative, from which funds needy parishes could secure loans. Despite the fact that people were recovering from the Great Depression, years of drought and the Dust Bowl, within five years many parishes came out of debt.

As bishop he endorsed Catholic Action, that is, the laity’s active involvement in the apostolate of the Church. For example, he invited them to participate in “discussion clubs” in their local parishes. Among materials discussed were his annual Lenten Pastoral Letters and Manifesto on Rural Life, a book he helped edit, which promoted the principles of Catholic family life. At one point over 11,000 people across the diocese were participating in these clubs. He also worked to increase vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

Apostolic Visitor, … and More

In 1946 Bishop Muench was in Rome attending the ceremonies in which Archbishop Stritch of Chicago, his close friend, was made a cardinal. Pope Pius XII asked the new cardinal if he could recommend an American bishop to represent him in post-war Germany. The cardinal suggested Bishop Muench. Pope Pius XII, who met Bishop Muench when he was a student, chose him for the position.

Bishop Muench had multiple roles in Germany: Apostolic Visitor of the pope, liaison between the government and the German hierarchy and others. He worked tirelessly for the people: the devastated German citizens, prisoners of war, the German bishops, American soldiers, priests and others displaced by the Second World War and Communist revolutions. He was respected by all he served. In 1950 Pope Pius XII conferred the title “Archbishop” on him, and in 1951 Archbishop Muench became the first Papal Nuncio to the new government of Germany.

Cardinal and Member of Roman Curia

When Pope Pius XII died in 1958, Pope John XXIII succeeded him as pope. It was Pope John XXIII who made Archbishop Muench a cardinal. He was raised to the College of Cardinals on December 14th, 1959, and the pope conferred the “red hat” (a galero, a wide-brimmed hat which is sign of being a cardinal) on him in ceremonies in St. Peter’s Basilica on December 17th. He also assigned him to work in the Roman Curia (the governing body of the Vatican); Cardinal Muench was the first cardinal from the United States to work in the Roman Curia.

“The various assignments that the Holy Father has given me in the past, I have always accepted in the spirit of humble obedience and with trust in the goodness of divine providence. In this same spirit I accept the office of cardinal which His Holiness has chosen to give me. I shall beg Almighty God to give me the strength I shall need to serve His Church and the Vicar of Christ on earth in accordance with His Holy Will.”
– Archbishop Muench from his residence Bad Godesberg, Germany, after learning he would be elevated to the College of Cardinals, November 16, 1959.

At the time Cardinal Muench was named a cardinal, the prime of life was behind him. He had labored 22 years as a priest in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, 11 years in North Dakota and 13 years in Germany during the post-war reconstruction. He had published over 400 works, given thousands of homilies and addresses, and written innumerable letters. At 70 years old, he was tired. In humble obedience to the assignment given him by the Holy Father, he did the work in Rome as best as he could.

Once he became a cardinal he was no longer Bishop of Fargo, but Cardinal Muench still considered Fargo his home. In 1960 of all the places he could have celebrated the 25th anniversary of his episcopal ordination he chose Fargo. It was the first time that he was in Fargo as a cardinal; he was greeted by crowds of well-wishers wherever he went. It is tradition that a cardinal display his galero in his titular church in Rome; however, Cardinal Muench shipped his backed to Fargo, where it hangs to this day—tassels and all!—in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Fargo.

Final Days

In January of 1962, a little more than two years after his new career began, his health began to fail. On February 9, Pope John XXIII visited him in the hospital. The cardinal was moved to tears when the pope expressed his gratitude for all of the cardinal’s labors. As a farewell, the pope gave him his blessing and kissed his forehead.

A few days later, when he heard of his imminent death, Pope John XXIII prayed the rosary for the dying cardinal. His family in Milwaukee had been contacted and three of his sisters flew to Rome. As they and some staff members were praying at his bedside, Cardinal Aloisius Muench died on February 15, 1962.

On February 18, 1962—the day which would have been his 73rd birthday—Cardinal Muench’s body was carried into St. Peter’s Basilica. Pope John XXIII conducted the funeral rites, and a funeral mass was celebrated. On February 20, his body lay in state in St. John’s Cathedral, Milwaukee, and the following day a second funeral Mass was celebrated. A third funeral Mass was celebrated in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Fargo, on February 23. In was 4° F and the wind was howling during the burial at Holy Cross Cemetery, Fargo—not unlike the wintry day 26 years earlier when he, as the new bishop of the Diocese of Fargo, first arrived in North Dakota.

Pope John in St. Peters Basilica

Pope John XXIII performed the
funeral rites for Cardinal Muench.

Cardinal Muench was a shepherd with the heart of Christ, moved by social and charitable concerns, rather than political or diplomatic motives. He was equally comfortable among prairie farmers and presidents of nations, among children and popes, in banquet halls or mess tents,—wherever he was called to serve Christ. He lived his motto: “In all things Christ.”

His grave can be visited at Holy Cross Cemetery: 32nd Avenue North, about one half mile west of University Drive, Fargo.

Works of and about Cardinal Muench

The list of the known published works (PDF) of Cardinal Muench includes his Pastoral Letters, books, pamphlets, articles and addresses. He was involved in the publication of 3 books. The most well-known is Manifesto on Rural Life (an electronic version is available from ewtn.com, a TXT document), which was published in 1939 and had 3 printings; the last one was in 1950.

The Bishop Writes

From 1938 through 1959 Bishop Muench wrote a monthly column for Catholic Action News (the official newspaper of the Diocese of Fargo which he started), entitled “The Bishop Writes.” In 1946 when he was assigned to Germany, the title of the column was changed to “The Bishop Writes from Europe.” His columns gave the people of the Diocese of Fargo a ‘front row seat’ to the events unfolding in post-war Europe.

Muench at desk

Last photograph of Cardinal Muench, a few days before his death, signing the
bull convoking the Second Vatican Council

In the 256th consecutive monthly installment in December of 1959, he wrote on the history of ecumenical councils in the Church, giving background on the new ecumenical council Pope John XXIII convoked. Once he became a cardinal, he was no longer the bishop of the Diocese of Fargo and his monthly column ceased; this article was his final installment. Little did he know that he, as a cardinal of the Roman Curia, would spend the last days of his life preparing for the council he wrote about, now known as the Second Vatican Council. One of the council’s planning sessions was postponed to allow people to attend his funeral.

Pastoral Letters

From the beginning his episcopacy as the third bishop of the Diocese of Fargo in 1935, Bishop Muench, in imitation of the practice of some European bishops, published an annual pastoral letter. He was installed as bishop in November of 1935, the first Pastoral is dated Lent 1936. Even when later served in Europe Bishop Muench continued the practice of writing a Lenten Pastoral Letter for the faithful of the Diocese of Fargo, and this practice continued until his elevation to the College of Cardinals in 1959. His pastoral letters were read and studied in parishes throughout the diocese. Beginning in 1949, discussion questions were included at the end of the document.

His Lenten Pastoral Letter of 1946, “One World in Charity” (PDF) was translated into German and read throughout Germany. In it he argued that German citizens should not be considered collectively guilty of the crimes of the Nazis, and contrary to the position of some in the United States government, pled that they be treated humanely. Later that same year he was appointed Apostolic Visitator to post-war Germany.

Cardinal Muench’s Papers

In 1972 the Diocese of Fargo donated Cardinal Muench’s papers to “The American Catholic History Research Center” of the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. A detailed catalog of the contents of the 61 boxes in this collection is available online.

American Nuncio

While Cardinal Muench was still alive, Fr. Colman Barry started research on a book about him. In 1969 Saint John's University Press (Collegeville, MN) published Barry’s 379 page American Nuncio: Cardinal Aloisius Muench, a comprehensive biography of Cardinal Muench. It is available in many Catholic university libraries.

St. Walburga’s Abbey Memorial Book

A brief biography was made by the Benedictine Nuns of St. Walburga’s Abbey, Eichstätt, Germany on the occasion of Cardinal Muench being named a cardinal. Is was hand-lettered, illustrated and bound, and presented to the cardinal in 1960. The St. Walburga’s Abbey Memorial Book (PDF) includes all the photographs and most of the illustrations contained in this volume.