DOERFLER, GEORGE, named Dom Bruno, Benedictine and priest; b. 29 Dec. 1866 in Richfield, Minn., son of Adam Doerfler and Sophia —; d. 12 June 1919 in Humboldt, Sask., and was buried in nearby Muenster.
George Doerfler remained on his father’s farm until he turned 20 and then attended St John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. Upon completion of his studies, he was admitted to the Benedictine order, was renamed Bruno, and professed his first vows in 1893. His superiors were quick to recognize his scholastic talent and spiritual commitment and later in 1893 sent him to the International College of Benedictines in Rome, where he would remain six years and where he would be ordained into the priesthood on 10 Aug. 1897. On his return to Minnesota he was appointed rector of St John’s University, and from 1902 he served as librarian.
In August 1902, in response to appeals for German Catholic priests and settlers in the Canadian prairies, the abbot of St John’s monastery in Collegeville, Peter Engel, decided to send an exploratory party, including Doerfler, to seek a suitable location for a colony centred on a Benedictine monastery. After investigating many places, the group chose the sparsely inhabited fertile plains a hundred miles east of Saskatoon. Late in September the energetic Doerfler returned to the area with another party to inspect the land, and he even joined a group of surveyors to carry out a detailed evaluation of the site.
By agreement with the Canadian government 50 townships (1,800 square miles) were reserved for the proposed colony. To supplement the homesteads available, more than 100,000 acres of railway land were purchased by the German American Land Company, formed by the lay leaders who had first accompanied Doerfler. The Catholic Settlement Society advertised the venture in German Catholic colonies throughout the American plains states, and the first homesteaders began to arrive in October 1902. Under Doerfler’s guidance, St Peter’s Colony developed rapidly into one of the largest German Catholic settlements in western Canada. By 1906 all the homesteads had been taken up, and in 1910 the number of German Catholics stood at 8,000.
Doerfler had participated in the first mass celebrated in the colony, on 11 Jan. 1903; the first parish was erected in May. Also in May Doerfler helped to establish St Peter’s monastery at what was soon named Muenster, acting as guide for the seven Benedictines who transferred there from Illinois. On 26 April 1906 he became its prior and, as prior, he would serve as parish priest for St Peter’s parish until 1917. He soon supervised the construction of a new monastery, a three-storey frame building completed in November 1906. In 1911 the priory was elevated to the dignity of an abbey. To provide for the needs of the settlers, Doerfler was instrumental in securing the services of two other religious orders: the Sisters of St Elizabeth, who arrived from Austria in 1911 to establish hospitals [see Aloisia Wilhelm] and the Ursulines, who came from Germany two years later to teach. Widely respected for his learning, Doerfler took a keen interest in education. In 1912 he became vicar general of the diocese of Prince Albert and because of his bishop’s failing health his activities subsequently were more those of a diocesan administrator than those of an abbot.
The Order of St Benedict, and particularly Doerfler, did much to promote German identity in western Canada. Within a year of the settlers’ arrival, the monks had founded St. Peter’s Bote, the sole Catholic newspaper in Canada published in German. Its third editor, Doerfler was responsible for developing a printing press at Muenster in 1905. In addition, he promoted the first Canadian Katholikentag (Catholic Convention), essentially a meeting of German Catholics, held at Muenster in 1908, and reportedly helped direct the activities of the Volksverein Deutsch-Canadischer Katholiken (People’s Association of German Canadian Catholics), founded in 1909.
From 1907 Doerfler saw to the construction of a beautiful new St Peter’s Church, first used in 1909, and took an intense interest in Berthold Imhoff*’s lavish decoration of the interior, begun in May 1919. He would not live to see the project completed. He died the following month, at the age of 52. The broad variety of prelates, priests, and sisters attending his funeral testified to the high esteem in which he was held. Over 3,500 mourners joined in the procession.
The character of this extraordinary priest was portrayed well in the eulogies following his death. One noted “his characteristic childlike simplicity, frankness and charity in all his dealings with others, joined with an utter forgetfulness of self.” His efforts to improve the lives of the settlers of St Peter’s Colony had been unceasing and he benefited literally thousands.
Doerfler’s account of his expedition to Saskatchewan in 1902 is described in “Father Bruno’s narrative, ‘Across the boundary’ . . . ,” Sask. Hist., 9 (1956): 26–31, 70–74; 10 (1957): 11–26, 55–63. His narrative has been reissued along with Jerome Weber’s history of St Peter’s Abbey, infra, as Quest for a new homeland: the founding of St. Peter’s Colony in Saskatchewan (Muenster, Sask., 1988; copy at St Peter’s Abbey, Muenster).
Minn. Hist. Soc. Research Center (St Paul), 1870 census for Richfield Township. St John’s Abbey Arch. (Collegeville, Minn.), File information on Bruno Doerfler. St Peter’s Abbey Arch., Parochial school folder, [George] Doerfler, named Bruno, German schools in the Humboldt district (Muenster, 15 Jan. 1916). Prairie Messenger, 30 May 1976. St. Peter’s Bote (Muenster), 18 June 1919. A. B. Anderson, German settlements in Saskatchewan: the origin and development of German Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Mennonite and Hutterite communities (Saskatoon, 1990). Colony Post (Muenster), no.1 (December 1976); no.3 (October 1977) (copies in author’s possession). C. A. Dawson, Group settlement: ethnic communities in western Canada (Toronto, 1936). C. A. Dawson and E. R. Younge, Pioneering in the prairie provinces: the social side of the settlement process (Toronto, 1940). “Feu dom Bruno Doerfler, o.s.b.,” Les Cloches de Saint-Boniface (Saint-Boniface, Man.), 18 (1919): 184–85. German, Mennonite and Hutterite communities in Saskatchewan: an inventory of sources, comp. A. B. Anderson ([Saskatoon], 1988). Bede Hubbard, “St. Peter’s: a German-American marriage of monastery and colony,” in Visions of the New Jerusalem: religious settlement on the prairies, ed. B. G. Smillie (Edmonton, 1983), 153–64. Heinz Lehmann, Das Deutschtum in Westkanada (Berlin, 1939); The German Canadians, 1750–1937: immigration, settlement & culture, trans. and ed. G. P. Bassler (St John’s, 1986). Muenster, 1908–1983 (Muenster, 1983; copy in author’s possession). Souvenir of the silver jubilee of St. Peter’s Colony, 1903–1928 ([Muenster, 1928]; copy at St Peter’s Abbey). Jerome Weber, “St. Peter’s Abbey, 1903–1921,” CCHA, Report, 16 (1949): 37–49. C. O. White, “Education among German Catholic settlers in Saskatchewan: a reinterpretation,” Canadian Ethnic Studies (Calgary), 16 (1984), no.1: 78–95; “Language, religion, schools and politics among German-American Catholic settlers in St. Peter’s Colony, Saskatchewan, 1903–1916,” CCHA, Study sessions, 45 (1978): 81–91. Peter Windschiegl, Fifty golden years, 1903–1953: a brief history of the Order of St. Benedict in the abbacy nullius of St. Peter, Muenster Saskatchewan ([Muenster, 1953]).