St. Gertrude’s history is full of people who are remembered for their extraordinary lives of service — and not all of them are sisters. Sabi Frei was an employee who worked for the Benedictine community for 45 years, beginning in 1934. His legacy includes enduring commitment, a joyful and welcoming spirit, and a wide range of skills perfect for a rural religious community.
“He was an institution,” recalls Sister Clarissa Goeckner. “…from driving the bus for St. Gertrude’s Academy (SGA) students to taking care of the boarder boys to doing repairs.”
“He knew every nook and cranny of all the buildings,” remembers Sister Chanelle Schuler. “He was always so gracious to our families and ready to help anybody. My enduring memory is him sitting on the porch, smoking his cigar.”
Julius Eusebius “Sabi” Frei was born in 1896 into a large family. At the age of 16, he emigrated from Switzerland to the United States. His sister Amalia had been sponsored by her uncle, Father James Frei, the sisters’ chaplain. She married into the Uhlenkott family and was soon able to welcome other siblings from Switzerland, including Sabi. He began working on the farm and gained a wide variety of skills.
In 1924 Sabi married another immigrant, Clara Bauknecht from Germany, in the church in Keuterville. Sabi soon found work near Olympia, Washington, and the couple moved there. They had four children: Richard, Hilda, Dorothy, and Leo. Tragedy struck when Clara contracted double pneumonia and died. Sabi and the four young children returned to the Camas Prairie where relative families could help raise the kids.
Sabi began working at St. Gertrude’s in 1934. At that time, the sisters grew and raised all their own food. Sabi farmed the hillside and cared for the orchard, tended to horses and other animals, and chopped wood. “Whatever he did, he did well,” said his daughter, Hilda Nuttman of Cottonwood.
The sisters also ran St. Gertrude’s Academy (now Prairie High School), adjacent to the chapel. Sabi drove the bus, performed maintenance around the school, and took care of the boarder boys in a house on site. He also helped with liturgical life: changing altar paintings, preparing for processions, and tending the chapel during feast days. He would drive sisters on Sunday outings into the surrounding mountains and river areas.
Shirley Gehring, a former SGA student, remembers: “He was always happy, always had a smile on his face. He saw the good in everybody.”
In 1938 Sabi began tracking a rain gauge on the St. Gertrude’s hillside for the National Weather Service. This was volunteer work and in 1968 the National Weather Service recognized Sabi for his consistent thirty years of service. The rain gauge is monitored to this day and the Monastery of St. Gertrude will be recognized this summer for 80 years of being a weather reporting station — the oldest in Idaho. It all began with Sabi.
Sabi died in 1980. Sister Placida Wemhoff now oversees maintenance and takes daily reports from the rain gauge. Sabi’s influence helped inspire her decision to become director of maintenance. “I went for a long walk on the hill and then over to the cemetery at the Keuterville church where he is buried. He was such a gentle man — he always got things done, always willing to help. He was steadfast, and he stuck with us. I have also since called on him a few times when things got difficult. He was a man of all talents.”