While in 2010 we celebrated our first hundred years of presence in the Diocese of Bismarck, ND, in October 2016 we mark our centennial as an independent Benedictine community.
In the beginning . . .
Bishop Vincent Wehrle, OSB, first abbot of Assumption Abbey and first bishop of the Diocese of Bismarck, was determined to have Benedictine women serving in his new diocese. The lore has it that, after numerous requests and rejections at various convents, he arrived at St. Joseph’s Convent, St. Marys, PA, tired, cranky and stubbornly unwilling to depart without any Sisters. Mother Gabriella eventually yielded to his request (more so, no doubt, intending to clear the parlor than to start a new foundation) and called for volunteers. Amazingly, many volunteered, so she selected a former prioress, Sister Pia Tegler, as the superior, and three others.
The journey was long and arduous, proving perfect training for what they found waiting for them at Sacred Heart Indian Mission in Elbowoods, run by the Benedictine monks of Assumption Abbey in Richardton. The welcome by the Indians and the monk missionaries was warm and comforting, but the living conditions proved to be neither. The Sisters were to live in the same building with the Indian boarding students, a building that left as much to be desired as their store of supplies. As there was no bread, butter or meat on hand, Sister Hilda set about to make biscuits for supper. Unfortunately, the can labeled “Baking Powder” actually contained plaster of paris. Those biscuits turned out just like our early years: hard. Yet our love of and commitment to the Native American people on the Fort Berthold Reservation has extended well over 100 years.
The early years . . .
The following years brought five more Sisters from Pennsylvania to help out at the mission but in the end, only Mother Pia and Sister Evangelist stayed permanently. On October 21, 1916, we became the first independent community of Benedictine women in North Dakota, with Mother Pia as the first prioress. The occasion was also the first profession day for seven new members who had come to join.
Despite the hardship and extreme poverty of the next few years, we still grew, but it became quite evident that we did not have a great future in so remote a location. In August 1920 the motherhouse officially moved to Garrison and within the year four new candidates arrived. Living in cramped, inadequate housing in which wind, rain and chill had easy access was nothing new.
In 1925 Mother Pia, aged and in poor health, resigned. Mother Cecilia Bauer, the first North Dakotan vocation, was elected prioress of the struggling but steadily growing band. The Sisters worked long and hard, subsisting on a steady diet of navy beans and salt pork so they could save for a “proper motherhouse,” one in which everyone fit and would still have some room for the stream of new members. Times were hard all over. Drought and crop failure made it often impossible for pastors to pay the Sisters’ small salaries and what money had been squirreled away was lost in the bank failures in 1926-27. Even at that, things went from bad to even worse. As a consequence Mother Cecilia resigned in 1931 and appealed to Bishop Wehrle for help. His recommendation was that we amalgamate with St. Benedict’s Convent in St. Joseph, MN, but that would have been a sad epitaph to so pioneering a spirit. However, we did accept gratefully their assistance, including an appointed superior.
In 1933 a request had been sent to Rome to form a congregation with the Benedictine Sisters of Crookston, MN, and Yankton, SD. Rome has never been accused of moving quickly, but it came through with the permission in April 1937, a mere few months before amalgamation with St. Benedict’s would have become a fact. As a charter member of the Congregation of St. Gertrude the Great, we were able to become fully independent once again. Other communities helped us with our school commitments and we were able to get back on our feet.
With Mother Benedict Beehler’s election as prioress, after nearly six years under the administration of St. Benedict’s, we were pervaded by a new energy, a new sense of purpose and possibility, and even more new members. We bought a vacant hospital in Crosby as a backup place in case our crowded houses burned (a distinct possibility given the conditions) and opened an old folks’ home until we had nurses trained to reopen the hospital. We started St. Vincent’s Home in the bishop’s old house in Bismarck and cared for elderly residents there since 1941. Our larger monastic community, however, needed greater access to transportation, doctors, culture, etc., so when the offer came to staff St. Leo’s School in Minot we officially moved the motherhouse to St. Leo’s Convent in 1942.
We purchased land and a farm on the edge of Minot with the intent of building our own motherhouse and academy. In the post-war era it was difficult to obtain building materials and plans were further stalled by a construction strike. By 1945 we numbered fifty-one members and even then it was not uncommon for some Sisters to have only tables to sleep on when they came to the motherhouse. In 1949 we moved into our first real motherhouse and academy even though it was missing some paint, plaster, tiling and assorted windows and doors. Even better, more Sisters were released for higher education both in education and nursing. We were able to devote more time to prayer and religious formation. We even expanded our teaching staffs to include a school in Malta, MT.
The middle years . . .
The 1960s and advent of Vatican II brought major and rapid changes to our community. In 1962 we sent four Sisters to Bogotá, Colombia, in response to the Pope’s call for missionaries, in addition to staffing schools, a hospital and a nursing home. Yet again, we outgrew our home, so again we moved.
In 1967 we built Sacred Heart Priory (later Monastery) west of Richardton on a fifty-acre plot given to us by the monks of Assumption Abbey. This move offered us educational, professional and spiritual opportunities we had never had before with both the Abbey and Assumption College. We began joint formation classes and other such ventures that have continued ever since. We became near neighbors to the community of monks with whom we began our service in North Dakota they have continued to be good brothers to us as friends, teachers, coworkers and chaplains.
The post-Vatican era brought a greater shift from Sisters in education and healthcare to greater involvement in various areas of spirituality, social work, teaching, parish work and chaplaincies. The era also brought a decline in membership as other opportunities to serve in the Church opened to women and our elders aged and died. Our Spirituality Center invited people to come into our monastery for programs as well as attend outreach opportunities. We were able to host large groups of retreatants and those who were in the permanent diaconate formation for the diocese. Eventually we were physically unable to handle large groups so we had to adjust.
Though we were no longer growing as we did in our beginning, we did evolve to stay vital. We sponsored and staffed fewer institutions. In 1994 we established our Sacred Heart Benedictine Foundation to help sustain us as we had fewer Sisters drawing salaries. We established programs for Associates, Oblates and volunteers who formed close, extended associations with us, mutually enriching our lives.
And now in the 21st century . . .
We continued our commitment to greener energy by supplementing our wind energy with geothermal, withdrawing from the use of coal, and installing a highly efficient HVAC system in our successive building renovations. We decommissioned portions of the building and expanded our guest rooms. In shifting from providing programming to hosting such groups as quilters, scrapbookers, etc. that provided their own, we could concentrate on providing Benedictine hospitality. Some of our hosted groups have been with us for so many years that they have become members of our extended family. After twenty years of our annual fundraiser in Dickinson, Celebrate the West, which helped us accomplish most of our renovation and greener energy projects, we are hoping to have more people come here to our monastery as our guests for the day or overnight, to enjoy the beauty and quiet here on the bluff.
Our community no longer grows in membership at the same rapid pace that we did in our early years, but we are growing. Not only are we getting new candidates, the number of those who feel at home with us and in our monastery has grown exponentially. In over a hundred years on this prairie, our life and our expression in our works have changed, but our purpose for coming has not. One of our unique vows as Benedictines is stability, commitment to remaining part of this particular monastic community. It also extends to being a part of our surrounding community and the responsibilities that come with it.
Though our beginning was small and hard, we continue to bring about the Kingdom of God here in southwestern North Dakota.