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Searching for Swissness Finding hidden traces of Switzerland in the US

An abbot holds a pint of beer

Abbot Jeremy Driscoll shares a pint with an organiser of the Mount Angel Oktoberfest


Over the next few months we'll be uncovering how Switzerland has left its mark on the United States. From small place names to forgotten monuments and distant communities, we're tracking down 'Swissness', far from home. Tim Neville is our journalist on the ground.

Do you know of a Swiss connection in the US? Tell us!external link

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If you say the word “Engelberg” fast enough and Anglicise it a bit, you end up with something that sounds a lot like Angel-berg—a fitting name for a town in central Switzerland known for its 12th-century monastery. Twist the name a bit farther, and knowing that “Berg” means “mountain” in German, you end up with Angel Mountain. 

Tim Neville is a journalist based in Oregon, where he covers adventure travel and business for The New York Times, Outside magazine, and other media outlets. His work has appeared in The Best American Travel Writing, The Best American Sports Writing, and Best Food Writing.

(Tim Neville)

Run it all through the word wringer once more and you get Mount Angel, a town in the American Pacific northwest that’s indeed named after Engelberg, though it's better known for its annual celebration of beer.

Mount Angel, like its Swiss namesake, also has a monastery. 

Today home to about 3,500 people, Mount Angel, Oregon, is located about 30km (19 miles) northeast of the state capital, Salem. It was first settled in the mid-1850s by a guy who wanted to call it Roy, but that all changed thanks to a Swiss priest named Adelhelm Odermatt, who was born in Stanz, canton Unterwalden, in 1844.

By 1865 Father Odermatt was studying at the Benedictine Abbey in Engelberg and in 1873 the powers that be sent him off as a missionary to the United States. He spent most of the 1870s in Missouri, which, if you didn’t know, looks nothing like Switzerland. That wore on the holy man. “I hunger and thirst for mountains,” he wrote. “For during seven years in America I have not yet seen a decent hill.”

In 1881 Father Odermatt joined some other Swiss monks and journeyed west, stopping off in San Francisco and later Portland, looking for a place to start a “New Engelberg.” He eventually found the place he was looking for near Roy, which had a series of parishes — and a 300-foot-high (91m) hill with a “magnificent” view — in Oregon’s fertile Willamette Valley. After some more bouncing around, Father Odermatt and friends raised enough money (and cows) to start the Mount Angel Abbey, which to this day still stands.

Many Oregonians might not know Engelberg but they do know Mount Angel, especially when autumn comes. That’s because the town of Swiss and Bavarian immigrants throws one of the best Oktoberfests in the state. On September 23 this year, the monks at Mount Angel Abbey even opened up their first brewery in the tradition of their Benedictine ancestors.

One of the beers on tap?

A Helles, or lager in German, which, of course, offers another nice play on words for a town with such a holy history.

Mount Angel Abbey church with monastery wings behind.

Mount Angel Abbey church with monastery wings behind


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