Abbot Ernest Helmstetter, O.S.B.

Abbot, Saint Mary’s Abbey, Newark, New Jersey (1910-1937)
Abbot President of the American-Cassinensian Benedictine Congregation (1914-1929)

Ernest Helmstetter, given the name Joseph, was born on October 7, 1859 in Newark, New Jerseya to German immigrants. His parents Johann Gregor Helmstetter and Eva Margaret Winkler came to Newark from Bürgstadt in Lower Franconia and were married there on March 8, 1853. Joseph was the youngest of the three brothers. The eldest, Johannes (1853–1859), had died at the age of six a few weeks before Joseph was born.

Joseph attended the Benedictine-run parish school, Saint Benedict’s, and two years at the monastery’s Saint Benedict’s College. In 1874 he transferred to the College of the ‘Mother’ Abbey of Saint Vincent in Pennsylvania with the intention of entering the monastery. He began his novitiate at Saint Vincent in July 1878 and took his first vows the following year. After studying at the abbey seminary, he was ordained in June 1884, the same year that Saint Mary’s was made an abbey by papal brief dated 19 December 1884. As one of the first monks he transferred his Stabilitas there.

Abbot James Zilliox installed him as a teacher at the high school in Wilmington. After the closure of that school Father Ernest was recalled to Newark and transferred to Saint Benedict’s College, where he remained until his election as abbot in 1910. Abbot Hilary Pfrängle appointed him procurator in 1891 and put him in charge of the school twice. Elected to succeed him as Prior on Abbot Hilary’s death on January 4, 1910, he was blessed and installed by Bishop O’Connor of Newark on April 5, 910.

With Helmstetter’s assumption of office, a new era began, a heyday of the abbey. Academic capacity in Newark and Manchester (Saint Benedict’s and Saint Anselm’s) expanded, the number of students and monks multiplied rapidly, the parishes served by the Benedictines prospered and grew around Saint Elizabeth in Linden and Saint Joseph in Hilton, now Maplewood, New Jersey. In the summer of 1914, the general chapter of the American-Cassinensian Benedictine congregation elected Helmstetter president, an office that he held for 18 years, longer than anyone before or after him. In 1927 he granted independence to the Priory of Saint Anselm in Manchester, New Hampshire, and presided over the election of the first abbot, Bertrand Dolan. The Delbarton estate in Morristown was also acquired during his tenure.

Pope Pius IX awarded him the right to wear the cappa magna in 1929 and the violet pileolus in 1934. He died of a heart attack on July 9, 1937, aged 78, and was buried in the Abbey Cemetery. Patrick M. O’Brien was elected to succeed him .