October 7, 2016
While the Benedictine Sisters of Richardton celebrated their first 100 years of presence in the Diocese of Bismarck in 2010, this October they celebrate their centennial as the first independent women’s Benedictine community in North Dakota.
All are welcome to the monastery on Sunday, Oct. 23 to honor the Sisters who have gone before shaping the future of the community as well as rejoice with those continuing its legacy. Bishop Kagan will celebrate Mass at 1 p.m. with tours and refreshments to follow.
Although the community isn’t growing at a pace it once was, it is still progressing and evolving. During its first 100 years on the prairie, the mission has not changed and continues to be carried on by the 19 sisters who call the monastery home. The Sisters, over the years, have played major roles in education and healthcare in western North Dakota while devoted to prayer and good works in line with Benedictine values.
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, Penn., tired, cranky and stubbornly unwilling to depart without any Sisters.
Mother Gabriella eventually yielded to his request and called for volunteers. Amazingly, many volunteered, so she selected a former prioress, Sister Pia Tegler, as the superior and three others. Of that beginning group, only Sisters Pia and Evangelist Ruffner stayed with the new community, the last foundation from the original community of Benedictine women established in the United States in 1852.
The journey to western North Dakota 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. When they arrived in late September 1910, 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 did their store of supplies. An early story tells of there being no bread, butter or meat on hand when Sister Hilda set about to make biscuits for their first supper. Unfortunately, the can labeled “baking powder” actually contained plaster of paris. Those biscuits turned out just like our early years—hard.
Despite trying time and less-than-desirable living conditions, the Benedictine community’s love of and commitment to the Native American people on the Fort Berthold Reservation has extended well over 100 years.
he early years
The following few years brought more Sisters from Pennsylvania to help establish the mission, but, as vocations poured in, they returned to their home monastery. On October 22, 1916, Sacred Heart Convent 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 several years, the community still grew rapidly. It became quite evident, however, that the community did not have a great future in such a remote location. In August 1920, the motherhouse was 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 community. 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.
But 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. In 1933, a request had been sent to Rome to form a congregation with the Benedictine Sisters of Crookston, Minn., and Yankton, S.D. Permission finally came through in April 1937.
The Sisters bought a vacant hospital in Crosby as a backup place in case the crowded houses in Garrison caught fire (a distinct possibility given the conditions) and they opened an nursing home until Sister nurses could be trained to reopen the town’s hospital which they named after St. Luke. The community also started St. Vincent’s Home in the bishop’s old house in Bismarck and cared for elderly residents under that name since 1941.
The ever-growing monastic community, however, needed greater access to transportation, doctors, education opportunities, culture, etc. When the offer came to staff St. Leo’s School in Minot, the motherhouse moved yet again in 1942, this time to St. Leo’s Convent. The Sisters later purchased land and a farm on the edge of Minot with the intent of building their own motherhouse and academy.
In 1949, the Sisters moved into their first real motherhouse and academy. More Sisters were released for higher education both in education and nursing.
The middle years
The 1960s and advent of Vatican II brought major and rapid changes. In 1962, in response to the Pope’s call for missionaries, four Sisters were sent to start an academy in Bogotá, Colombia, near the school established by the monks of Assumption Abbey.
In 1967, the Sisters built Sacred Heart Priory (later Monastery) west of Richardton on a 50-acre plot given by the monks of Assumption Abbey. This move offered the Sisters educational, professional and spiritual opportunities they never had before with both the Abbey and Assumption College nearby. The two Benedictine communities began joint formation classes and other such ventures that have continued ever since. They became near neighbors to the community of monks with whom they began their service in North Dakota.
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 Sacred Heart Monastery Spirituality Center invited people to come into the monastery for programs as well as providing outreach opportunities. The community was able to host large groups of retreatants and those who were in the permanent diaconate formation for the diocese.
Though the community was diminishing in numbers, it adapted yet again in order to stay vital. It sponsored and staffed fewer institutions. In 1994, it established the Sacred Heart Benedictine Foundation to help sustain the community.
In the 21st century
The community has expanded its commitment to greener energy by supplementing wind energy harvested by the installation of the first commercial wind turbines in the state in 1997, adding geothermal energy, withdrawing from the use of coal, and installing a highly efficient HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) system in building renovations.
The Sisters decommissioned portions of the building not needed at this time and expanded their guest rooms. After 20 years of the annual fundraiser in Dickinson, Celebrate the West, which helped them accomplish most of their renovation and greener energy projects, they hope to have more people come to the monastery as guests, for the day or overnight, to enjoy the beauty and quiet on the bluff with a vast view of the surrounding fields and coulees.
Subiaco Manor, an independent living apartment complex for the elderly in Dickinson, is the last institution under the community’s direct leadership, but the Sisters continue to serve as the Benedictine sponsor for Sanford Health St. Vincent’s Continuing Care Center and Sanford Health Marillac Manor in Bismarck.
In over 100 years on this prairie, their lives and works have changed, but the purpose for coming—to help build God’s kingdom on the North Dakota prairie—has not. One of the unique vows of Benedictines is stability, a commitment to remaining part of this particular monastic community. It also extends to being a part of the surrounding community and the responsibilities that come with it.
Though this monastic community’s beginning was small and difficult, it flourishes in its witness of God’s presence in the world.