A Community of Prayer, Work and HospitalityFebruary 2, 2013
Story by Alexandra Sondeen
Photos by Rachel Mummey
The Castle on the Hill in Ferdinand is impossible to miss. The massive brick structure with its dome roof sits atop a large hill and dominates the town’s skyline.
Monastery Immaculate Conception has a long, rich history because of the women who call it home, the Sisters of St. Benedict. Founded in 1867 by four sisters from Covington, Ky., more than 1,000 women over the years have dedicated their lives to seeking God and sharing their faith with each other and with the outside world.
The community has 161 members, 108 of whom live at the Ferdinand monastery. A few groups of sisters, often called missions, live outside of the monastery in places including Evansville and Louisville.
“We are a family,” Sister Kristine Anne Harpenau, the sisters’ prioress, or leader, said. “As Benedictines, we are very down to earth and we are connected by our prayers and the way we have chosen to live our lives.”
The monastery and its expansive grounds are a sanctuary for the sisters, who follow the Rule of St. Benedict with four primary guiding principles: prayer, community, work and hospitality.
Prayer is central to everything the sisters do. They have scheduled group prayer three times a day in addition to each individual’s private prayers throughout the day.
“It permeates the day and it gives us the strength and ability to continue to glorify God in what we do,” Sister Jane Will, subprioress, said. “According to the Rule of St. Benedict, we should start all good works with prayer.”
The center of the stone threshold to the community’s first church, built in 1886 and now called the Blessed Virgin Room, has been worn flat by the sisters’ footsteps over the years as they were called to prayer.
“It’s an expression of our relationship with God, whatever the form of prayer may be,” Sister Betty Drewes, coordinator for the motherhouse, said. “It’s how we continue to grow and deepen our relationship with God and it forms a common bond between us. Even if I’m away, I know my sisters are praying and we’re united in that.”
Sisters come together in the church, built in 1924 and completely restored in 2005, in the morning and afternoon to pray. Evening prayers are generally held privately or in their small living groups, called deaneries. Throughout the day, sisters find their own quiet times for prayer. Some sisters walk the grass labyrinth on the north side of a residence hall, take the rosary steps through the grotto or sit in the quiet of the eucharistic chapel.
The sisters take prayer requests from outside the community by phone, mail, email and through the sisters’ website. The intentions are written on a prayer board each day so sisters who walk by can read them and pray for those requests.
“We pray a lot for others,” Sr. Jane said. “We don’t just pray for our needs. We pray for the church, the community, the world.”
The Sisters of St. Benedict place a strong emphasis on community, which is often one of the main reasons sisters decide to join the Ferdinand monastery.
“I’m in love with the community,” postulant Rachel Geracitano said. “They have really taken me in and they are so close to each other.”
A woman enters the community as a postulant before taking temporary vows after a year to become a novice and gain the title of “sister.” A sister will spend at least three years with temporary vows but can take up to nine years to make her final profession.
Postulant Rachel, 23, of Louisville, entered in August 2012 and is the youngest in the community. But the way the community members immediately incorporated her into their lives made her feel right at home.
“I felt a connection here,” she said. “I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. The sisters are so full of life and vibrant and amazingly energetic. I’m trying to keep up with them most of the time.”
The further along a woman gets in the process, the more a part of the community she becomes.
“There are sisters who have been here 60 and 70 years or more,” Sr. Betty said. “They’ve spent their entire lives together. And we are stronger in our faith together.”
The sisters eat their meals together, share stories over coffee and take walks together on the grounds. Deaneries celebrate birthdays and feast days at Camp Marian, a peaceful area on the monastery grounds that features a cabin and lake, and the community comes together to celebrate sisters’ anniversaries of monastic profession, called jubilees, with a special Mass and prayers for the jubilarians as they recommit themselves to the community.
The sisters elect a prioress every six years by identifying what the community’s needs are and the sisters who have the abilities and gifts to fit those needs.
“We don’t lobby or campaign for the position,” said Sr. Kristine Anne, who is in her 10th year as prioress. A prioress can serve two terms. “It’s a very prayerful process of really listening to the community and to God about who might be being called to lead us in the next six years. By the time we come to election, we usually have almost unanimous support for one individual.”
The prioress appoints her subprioress, who is like a vice president, and the motherhouse coordinator, who oversees the operations of the monastery. A monastic council that meets monthly is an advisory body for the prioress as the voice of the community and has some decision-making abilities.
“One of the things that’s changed over the years is that before Vatican II, there was very much a hierarchical structure in the community,” Sr. Kristine Anne said. “The community didn’t have quite the same voice to express their opinions nearly like we do today. The world has changed a lot. As the world has changed, so have we. Everybody has a say.”
The sisters follow a philosophy of “ora et labora,” or pray and work. St. Benedict believed the two were partners and life required a balance of both.
“When we were young, we used to say it was ora et labora, et labora, et labora,” Sr. Jane said.
“There’s always been plenty of work and we don’t shy away from it. All the sisters give 100 percent in their work and their ministries.”
Many of the sisters have full-time jobs outside of the monastery, the income from which is pooled for the benefit of the entire community. But each sister also has assigned tasks within the monastery, such as gardening, doing laundry, baking and working at the gift shop or in the monastery’s business office. Several sisters are artists and produce products for the gift shop.
Others are musicians or singers and fill the church with joyful music during Mass and special occasions.
“We look at the gifts of the individual sisters and try to match their tasks to that,” said Sr. Betty, who is in charge of assigning the sisters to their chores. “It depends on their likes, dislikes, what needs to be done and where we have an opening. Then there are things we all take turns doing, like ringing the bells to call the sisters to prayer.”
Sister Sharon Hollander is the main caregiver for the monastery dog, Serena. Once a week, Sr. Sharon visits the monastery’s nursing facility, Hildegard Health Center, with Serena, allowing the Hildegard residents to feed the Labrador retriever mix bits of chicken or other treats.
“You see their faces light up when we come,” Sr. Sharon said. “This isn’t a chore to me. I’ve always loved dogs and I don’t think it’s an accident they’re called ”˜dogs’ and ”˜dog’ spelled backwards is ”˜God.’”
The sisters in the health center also do what they can, be it folding towels or some other small task. Those unable to perform physical tasks are asked to pray.
“They contribute whatever they can,” Sr. Jane said. “That’s just part of who we are.”
The monastery does have paid staff in the office, in the health center and for maintenance, groundskeeping and housekeeping.
“I’m amazed at how well it runs sometimes,” Sr. Betty said. “If we all do our piece, the burden is light. If I were to do it all myself, the burden would be unbearably heavy.”
It is no coincidence that the sisters are known for their welcoming and open natures. Hospitality is also a guiding principle and the sisters have an open-door policy.
“It comes from the Rule of Benedict to meet each person as Christ,” Sr. Jane said. “We respect and accept who they are and welcome them. That’s very important to us.”
The sisters believe that their lives should be shared not only with each other, but with anyone who should visit. The sisters’ prayer times and Masses are open to anyone wanting to attend.
“This life isn’t just for us,” Sr. Jane said. “We share the gifts we have been given and share the goodness of God.”
The monastery offers tours to visitors every day of the week and typically sees more than 10,000 visitors each year. The main grounds also are open for the public to stroll.
“Everyone is treated on an equal plane,” Sr. Betty said. “We are all one people. If you come, it doesn’t matter how much money you make or how much education you have. It doesn’t matter if you’re here for a retreat or if you come asking for help.”
But more than just welcoming people into the monastery to visit, the sisters also are committed to a more personal form of hospitality.
“We also open up our hearts,” Sr. Betty said. “We let go of any prejudices and biases. We make no judgments. We accept each person for who they are as an individual.”
The community is changing as opportunities for women grow and fewer women seek out a religious life. At its peak, the community numbered 476 sisters in 1959 to 1960.
“We’ve downsized quite a bit,” Sr. Kristine Anne said. “We have a number of buildings on our grounds that have been closed.”
The sisters know their community is shrinking as the number of sisters dying, an average of five per year, outnumbers those that enter the community. Sr. Jane said in the last 10 years, the community received just one or two new members a year. The average age of the sisters is 68, with the oldest being 97.
“The reality is that we’ll be smaller,” the prioress said. “That’s not a bad thing. Sometimes a bigger organization is a little more impersonal and a smaller community can be more flexible.”
Postulant Rachel knows the sisters are aware of the situation and have been planning for the future carefully. She believes the community always will be around because of the sisters’ faith and passion.
“We may get smaller, but we won’t cease to exist,” she said. “I have faith that God will provide in that way as he has for the sisters so many times before. We truly live our lives seeking God. Every day matters and we take every day to the fullest.”
Sr. Kristine Anne said the sisters will do everything possible to maintain the buildings and the 190 acres of land into perpetuity. Ferdinand will never be without the monastery, she said.
“This is our home,” she said. “It’s sacred ground.”
Contact Alexandra Sondeen at email@example.com.
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