May 26, 2016
“Oh, this place has so many memories,” Sister Gemma Peters says with a smile.
The excitement is evident in her voice as she enters the largest room of the historic C.B. Little mansion. The lavish home, situated on the corner of Washington Street and West Avenue A, was built in 1902.
When Little died in 1941, the diocese purchased the property. It first served as the convent for the sisters teaching at St. Mary’s Grade and High School.
In 1944, 140 Sisters from St. Benedict’s (St. Joseph, Minn.) volunteered to begin a new community in Bismarck. The Sisters first arrived in 1878 and the community had grown in numbers without an official “home” in Bismarck. In 1947, the house evolved into a temporary motherhouse of the Bismarck Benedictines.
Sister Gemma was among the first to live here with the community at the Convent of the Annunciation. In 1949, she joined the convent as a postulant in December of her senior year of high school.
Wise use of the space
“The first thing we did was look for a chapel,” she says as she continues to navigate the large room at the front of the house, which would have served as a family room for the Little family. She sweeps her hands around pointing to where five rows of pews, the organ and altar were situated.
“We were so crowded. As we grew, we just kept squeezing together in the pews,” she said with a laugh as she remembers all the good times in the convent.
The sisters were indeed crowded. The postulants (now called candidates) and novices bunked in the carriage house, which was situated just north and west of the house. Sister Gemma started out there and then moved into the main house, first on the third floor, then to the second floor. She spent most of her time working as a teacher at Catholic schools in Bismarck while living in various rooms of the houses.
Every nook and cranny of the home was used wisely. She points toward a small corner between the main foyer and the kitchen saying it served as the sacristy and Mass preparation area. It was also where the one telephone for the house once hung.
She turns the corner into the dining room and describes where everyone sat at mealtime. “The space looks so small now, when you think of all the people we had in here,” she says of the dining room that is covered in ornate oak woodwork and cabinets.
The main-floor kitchen has been modernized now, but Sr. Gemma describes how it once looked with a large fridge and freezer that covered the entire back wall. “By the time I came, they had electricity, but it was the old ice box fridge that they had then,” she explains.
Living quarters on upper floors
As she ascends the grand wooden staircase off the main foyer, she gazes down at the intricate banister and says, “Oh, I remember dusting every part of this.” Sister recalls all the jobs each of them had to keep the community running smoothly with so many living under one roof.
The second floor featured several bedrooms, a gathering room and a large bathroom. Sr. Gemma points to the larger bedroom just at the top of the stairs to the right that belonged to the prioress. Each space was used to it’s fullest with the room also serving as her office and meeting room.
The large, second-floor room that faces Avenue A served as a gathering space. Sister Gemma recalled it was also the room where they had the Christmas tree each year. She says they would keep the tree up until Feb. 2 and after one year of dragging a tree down the stairs and littering pine needles everywhere, they learned a new way of disposing of the dry tree. The next year, they hoisted it out the second-floor window, instead!
The third floor, which was the living quarters for the servants back in the time the Little family lived there, also held many memories for Sr. Gemma. She points to the wallpaper in one of the small bedrooms that she and her housemates put up. She notes that every corner had a bed and maybe a chair beside it, but there was room for little else. She remembers a dresser in the hallway because there wasn’t space for it anywhere else.
Another bedroom still had the squeaky floors she remembered that would wake the prioress in the bedroom below. “She was such a light sleeper and I remember coming back late at night from parent-teacher conferences and having to be so very careful not to creak the floors too much. We had to tip-toe across it,” she says recalling her time in that bedroom.
Finished with the tour of the living quarters, she descended to the basement. Sr. Gemma points to how worn the steep, small steps appear. “I remember many trips up and down these stairs,” she recalls.
The basement was a very important space for the sisters providing for storage of their garden harvest. There was a kitchen down there where they would prepare the fruits of their labor for canning and storage over the winter. The sisters tended to a very large garden that spanned a city block from the corner of Washington Street along Avenue B all the way over to the Cathedral Church. For reference, it is the space where they Diocese’s Center for Pastoral Ministry and the Cathedral’s rectory and offices are situated today.
But the basement also served as a place for recreation for the sisters. There is a small space in the corner that was dug out of the basement and lined with cement. Originally, this space was intended as a cistern to collect rainwater. For Sr. Gemma and her fellow housemates, it served as a racquetball court. One can only imagine the lively games played in that basement back then as Sr. Gemma describes where the cheering section was situated.
New home south of town
Indeed, every space of the Motherhouse was well used. The Sisters simply outgrew their home as a new convent was constructed at the University of Mary site. They moved there in the fall of 1959.
After the Annunciation Sisters vacated the home, it again served as a home for sisters teaching at St. Mary’s Central High School. It was soon renamed Holy Spirit Convent that 13 sisters called home. A new convent was built to the north of the Little mansion later in the 1960s. That building now serves as diocese offices known as the Center for Pastoral Ministry.
The house today
Although the exterior has changed very little over the years, the interior has been renovated a few times to be converted to office space.
From 2004-2014, the Bar Association of North Dakota rented the house for offices. A larger-scale remodeling project is in progress now for more diocesan offices.