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There’s a new abbot in town

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When Pope Pius XII dedicated May 1 to St. Joseph the Worker in 1955 in response to the Communist’s May Day, he probably had no idea that that there would be one less Stephen in the world as a result.

Joseph Wittstock was born two years after the famous declaration in a King William’s Town hospital in South Africa. His parents, Arthur and Daphne Wittstock, were all set to name their seventh child after St. Stephen the Martyr, but the Dominican sisters who managed the hospital were insistent on the name Joseph to honor the feast day.

I trusted the Lord’s leading and came down here at the end of 1990 and have been here ever since

He grew up in a devout Catholic family in South Africa, where his German ancestors had lived for more than three generations. The family managed their farm and operated a general store near East London during the apartheid. The store serviced the native people living on the nearby reservation and functioned as a mall, pharmacy, hardware store and general meeting place. His parents taught their children the value of hard work and service by working in the store at an early age. Joseph and his siblings would fetch items from the shelves for customers while their father worked the register.

His father had been Lutheran before marrying his wife, Daphne, and together they strove to give their eight children a strong Catholic foundation that included regular family rosaries, and frequent visits with the local Irish clergy and Dominican sisters.

“Priests and nuns were always part of the family, in and out of the house and that sort of thing,” said Abbot Wittstock. “(The Dominican sisters) gave me some of my first monastic impressions, although I would not have known it at the time. We used to go to a mission station that also was a center for the Dominican nuns. They had two orphanages, a nursing home for their sisters and a big operating farm.”

According to Abbot Wittstock, one of the things that surprises people is that South Africa as a whole only got television in 1975. Without the distraction of cartoons and cable, the children enjoyed playing cricket, soccer, riding bicycles, listening to the radio and walking the cattle out to pasture.

In 1979, his family’s store and farm were purchased by the government and made part of the new homelands given to the local tribe. Not long after the family relocated, a fire destroyed the store leaving the buildings in ruin.

A call to the monastic life

He was in his late teens when he started to feel the call to the priesthood. He entered St. John Vianney National Seminary in 1975 in Pretoria.

When he first entered the seminary, he was confident that he would become a priest, but after four years he was unsure about his vocation and decided to take a break. Because of military conscription he was required to enter the armed forces and spent his two-year break from seminary in the army.

 “It became clear that I really couldn’t get (the priesthood) out of my system as it were,” he said. “I was also reading a lot of literature about monastic life, Thomas Merton in particular. I really felt a strong pull toward monastic life, but at that time there was no Trappist house in South Africa.”

 He returned to seminary and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Port Elizabeth in December 1984.

While he enjoyed being a priest, he still felt the pull toward monastic life. In 1986, his bishop gave him permission to explore this vocation, even though he had only been a priest for two years.

Following God’s lead

He traveled more than 10,000 miles to Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey in Oregon in January 1987. He was then sent to St. Joseph Abbey in Spencer, Mass., which had a community of 80 monks. He lived there for two years before his superiors decided it would be good for him to try a smaller community at Holy Cross Monastery in Berryville.

“I trusted the Lord’s leading and came down here at the end of 1990 and have been here ever since,” he said.

He made his first vows at Holy Cross Monastery in 1992 and final vows in 1995.

In the past 16 years, Abbot Wittstock has helped with much of the monastery’s work, including manual labor and the bakery. He earned a doctorate in pastoral care from Loyola College University in Maryland. He currently serves as the cellarer or business manager of the abbey, the cemetery manager and gift shop manager in addition to his new responsibilities as abbot.

“At its deepest, it has brought me closer to God because it is God’s will for me,” he said. “I think we draw closer to God when we spend the time to discern the point that we know or are reasonably sure that this is the will of God.”

While he felt honored to be elected abbot in August, there was also a feeling of apprehension about the position.

“There was heaviness to it because of the size of the community and precariousness of its future,” said Abbot Wittstock. “That being said, there is a lot of support from the community and working together, which makes it manageable. 

He sees the position as the next chapter of his journey toward sanctification.

“This is the form it is taking and it brings its own challenges, graces and blessings. In that sense the demands, weight and responsibility can be used by God to draw me closer to Himself and, one hopes, leading others along too.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017