In the late 19th century Luther Kountze, one of four enterprising brothers, sons of German immigrants, in a reversal of the usual westward movement, having made his fortune in banking in Denver, came east and established Kountze Brothers, a Wall Street banking firm. In 1875 he married Annie Parsons Ward, a descendant of several old New York families, the Barclays, the Delanceys and the Livingstons. In the 1880s Luther Kountze began to amass the four thousand acre estate which included what are now the abbey and school at Delbarton, Morristown National Historical Park and Lewis Morris County Park. He began to develop the northeast corner of his holdings as a summer residence and, after moving the home of one of the farmers one hundred yards to the east, (It later served as the core of the building known by the Benedictines as the Brothers House.), he built the large stone mansion in its place with its grand vista of Washington Valley. Kountze established a working farm with numerous outbuildings such as barns, stables, residences for employees, a creamery (still extant, adjacent to the South Gate), and a large carriage house. The later would eventually serve as Delbarton School’s first gymnasium as well as a dormitory for resident students. To provide the estate with fresh water Kountze built a water tower on the hilltop two-hundred yards south of the mansion, and in the valley to the west a pump house to keep it filled from local springs. The mansion was completed in 1883 and the Italian Garden to the west of the main house was created shortly after the turn of the century. In it may be seen the fruits of Kountze’s connoisseurship with numerous sculptures culled from Italian villas along with architectural elements salvaged from several nineteenth century New York mansions ingeniously integrated into the garden, pergola, and revised west porch of the mansion to create a harmonious whole. He also employed a professional horticulturist who endowed the estate with avenues of trees and the fine collection of rare trees and shrubs, many of which continue to beautify the campus.
Luther Kountze had four children: Barclay Ward, William Delancey, Helen Livingston and Annie Ward. The estate was evidently named by borrowing a syllable from each of the first three childrens’ names. After Luther Kountze’s death in 1918 the decision was made to sell the Delbarton property.
Between Luther Kountze’s death and its purchase by St. Mary’s Abbey, the estate had come under new ownership twice. First, two sisters planned to make it their permanent residence. Next, a group sought to create a health spa and resort and rechristened the property Mount Royal Gardens. When the last of the two occupants left in 1923 after failing to meet payments to Delancey Kountze, eldest son and executor of the estate, Delbarton again came on the market. A handsome book was published featuring superb photographs of great historical interest. Meanwhile the estate was suffering the effects of neglect. A caretaker, Mr. Joshua Skidmore, was retained but conditions had deteriorated considerably.
Whatever may be the truth about the choice of Delbarton, on 18 August 1925 the Chapter of St. Mary’s Abbey sided with Father Ambrose and voted to take on the great debt of $155,000 and to purchase slightly less than four hundred acres of the Delbarton estate. Ten percent was paid immediately and the balance on 1 December 1925. The Chapter minutes announced triumphantly, “Today we took full possession of the Kountze Estate in Morristown.”
Little had been done to modernize the buildings since the turn of the century, visitors had damaged buildings, and fields had lain fallow. Much work had to be done to prepare the main house and outbuildings to function as a monastery and house of studies for a score and more of monks. The Chapter voted to install central heating in the main house during the summer of 1926. Despite the abundant fireplaces, it had been planned as a summer home for the Kountze family. During that same summer of ‘26, a small band of monks was sent to establish a community at Delbarton: Father Edward Bill, superior, and the aging Father Ambrose Huebner. The third of the pioneers was Father Norbert Hink, a professional artist who adorned the first floor with paintings and who also served as pastor of the parish of Notre Dame of Mount Carmel Church in Cedar Knolls, the care of which the abbey had accepted the same year. Shortly after arriving Father Ambrose fell and broke his hip requiring Abbot Ernest to send a fourth pioneer, Brother Aloysius Hutten, a registered nurse, for his care. Brother Al also contributed his considerable skills as a master cabinet maker and carpenter to refurbish the buildings.
The Kountzes’ caretaker, Wes McGowan, and, in 1929, Mr. Alphonse Helmer, a skilled mason, joined the monks in readying the house and grounds. In the main house the drawing room and the formal dining room became the chapel and monastic refectory. During the following summers, scholastics and clerics, college and theology students, resided at Delbarton and helped maintain the lawns and the farm. Brother Isidore Stumpf, farm boss, assisted by Brothers Peter Olheiser, and later, Albert Becker, (brother of Father Henry Becker, first prior at Delbarton) organized vegetable gardens, planted a fruit orchard and vineyard, and cared for the chickens, cows, pigs, and horses. Grain, hay, and alfalfa crops were harvested.
On 14 September 1927 the monastery and school of theology at Delbarton were formally inaugurated by Abbot Ernest. Father Henry Becker was appointed prior and would serve until 1931. The resident community numbered between fifteen and twenty, increasing during the summer when recently professed novices, clerics and students returned from their respective schools. During the early thirties scholastics took their first two years of college at Delbarton. All lived, prayed, studied, and ate in the one building, the former Kountze mansion, united by the common life, shared inconveniences and a pioneering spirit. Proximity allowed the young to be inspired by the mature and tried, especially by brothers like the legendary Brother Isadore Stumpf. Monks of the decades of the thirties and forties never forgot the sweaty, dirty late summer days of the annual harvest in “forty acres” of corn for the dairy herd. It was the last major effort of the summer and the occasion for a final community celebration before returning to classes.
The late twenties also saw the arrival at Delbarton of three Benedictine sisters from their motherhouse, The Plains, in Ridgley, Maryland. They were later joined by three more and all made their home in what had been the gardener’s cottage to the south west of the mansion, now a faculty family residence. The sisters prepared the meals and did the laundry for the monks, and later for Delbarton School students until their return to Ridgley in 1958. Like the sisters who taught in St. Mary’s School in Newark and worked in the monastery kitchen and laundry, they were silent paragons of the Benedictine culture of Ora et Labora that the young monks were in the process of assimilating.
As the house of studies got under way the influx of monks resident the year round necessitated a more formal administration. Thus Abbot Ernest, in 1927, appointed Father Henry Becker to be the first prior of St. Mary’s Monastery. He served in that office until 1931 and was succeeded by Father Vincent Amberg.