Benedictine Nuns and Sisters | (2023)

Benedictine women trace their origin to the sixth century monastic rule attributed to (St.) benedict of Nursia. His sister (St.) Scholastica was a consecrated virgin who participated in Benedict's spiritual teaching. In the early days of monasticism, both men and women used rules that were localized and often were composed of concepts from different sources; thus to speak of a Benedictine order or a date of its foundation would be misleading. Under the influence of Pope gregory the great, the Benedictine rule spread through Europe. With its introduction into monasteries early in the seventh century, as well as the increased restriction upon other forms of monastic life, the Rule of St. Benedict gradually supplanted other rules, remaining the standard guide for most women's communities until the twelfth century, although adapted and interpreted in a variety of ways.

Early Growth. With the Benedictine missions in England, foundations of nuns began at folkstone (630) and Thanet (670). Under the influence of the monks of Canterbury, these monasteries probably observed the Rule of St. Benedict from their beginning. Other important monasteries were founded at ely (673), barking (675), wilton (800), and ramsey (967). In 657, St. hilda founded Whitby and participated in the famous synod there in 664. The synod's adoption of the Roman rite in preference to the Celtic observance further reinforced the supremacy of Benedictine monasticism. Coldingham (673), ruled by St. cuthburga, was another important monastery in Northumbria. Contemporary writings reveal the interest of these early English nuns in theological, scriptural, and patristic studies, as well as their skill in the arts of illumination, gold lettering, and needlework. Although practically all these monasteries, with the exception of Barking, were destroyed during the Danish invasions of the ninth and tenth centuries, some were subsequently restored and many others were founded in England after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

In Germany the first monastery to adopt, at least basically, the Rule of St. Benedict, was probably nonnberg in Salzburg, founded about the year 700 by St. rupert. Among other early monasteries were four founded by St. boniface: Tauberbischofsheim, Kitzingen, Ochsenfurt, and Schornsheim, all under the direction of St. lioba, who came from wimborne abbey. Lioba, St. Thecla, St. walburga, and other Anglo-Saxon nuns succeeded in imparting to Teutonic women not only the faith and the Christian heritage, but also a tradition of learning that continued through the Middle Ages. This was a marked characteristic of St. Hildegarde's monasteries at Rupertsberg and Bingen, and of the monastery of helfta, the home of St. gertrude the great and other thirteenth century mystics.

The role of women in these monasteries mirrored the role of noble women in the culture. These women and others attest to the influence exercised not only in the spiritual and liturgical life, but in other areas of education and culture as well. The nuns devoted themselves also to the care of the sick and the needy, the study of science, literature and the arts.

In France during the seventh and eighth centuries the rules most widely used by women were those of Saints caesarius and columban. About 629 luxeuil, the center of Celtic monasticism, adopted a rule combining those of Saints Benedict and Columban and remiremont became

for the nuns what Luxeuil had been for the monks. Among the more important monasteries that followed a mixed observance were Sainte-Marie in Soissons, Rebais, Saint-Martial in Paris, faremoutiers, jouarre en-brie, and Chelles. The Council of Aix-la-Chapelle in 817 made the Rule of St. Benedict obligatory for all monasteries. One of the most famous during the Middle Ages was the Abbey of Notre-Dame at Angers (1028), which had under its jurisdiction a large number of other priories.

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Benedictine women's monasteries were similarly founded in Italy in the seventh and eighth centuries and became so numerous during the Middle Ages that practically every city had one. By the early eleventh century, Benedictine communities were established also in Spain, Portugal, and the Scandinavian countries.

Reform Congregations. When the various invasions threatened European monastic life, the houses were reduced in number and greatly impoverished. During the cluniac reform movement, St. Hugh founded a community for the nobility of France at Marcigny. Under the centralized government of Cluny, affiliated women's houses were directly under the control of its abbot and were obliged to observe its constitutions. However, many monastic communities not belonging to the congregation were influenced by its spirit and adopted some of its customs.

Changes in cultural and Church attitudes towards the role of women and of monastics in general resulted in a restriction of the activities and movement of women. Beginning in the thirteenth century, a series of ecclesiastical documents encouraged the ideal of separation from the world as essential to the monastic life. In keeping with this model of monastics as withdrawn from the world and devoted to liturgical prayer and contemplation, reforms like that of cÎteaux superseded the Cluniac model. Their

affective form of prayer, with its mystic tendencies, had a special attraction for women. This integration of liturgy and personal encounter with the divine is manifested in the life and writings of St. Gertrude the Great, St. mech tild of hackeborn, mechtild of magdeburg and other mystical writers.

Women also participated in new Benedictine congregations, such as the Camaldolese, the vallombrosans, and, somewhat later, the Olivetans. Other reform movements of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, such as that later known as the Cassinese Congregation, as well as the Bursfeld Congregation in Germany, and the congregation of Claustrales in Spain, likewise had branches for women.

Post-Reformation Development

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The restriction of the monastic role in culture, the popularity of new forms of religious life and the decline in quality of life within the monasteries all contributed to a decrease in Benedictine vocations after the Middle Ages. New legislation demanded that the lifestyle of Benedictine women become enclosed and strictly contemplative while other types of religious took up the activities of external ministry. The vows of the more recent orders focused on the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, and these came to be seen as the norm. Likewise, the larger and more visible population of apostolic sisters, identified with the Church's ministries, became a new model for women religious.

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century dealt monastic life a further blow. Houses were suppressed in England, Germany, Denmark, and the Scandinavian countries. The practice of commendation, a form of secular control of monasteries, and the religious wars in France weakened monastic life there. Eventually, however, as the legislation of the Council of Trent (1545 to 1563) became effective, monastic life began to flourish again all over Europe.

France was one of the first countries to respond to the renewal. Although two of the most influential foundations of men, Saint-Vanne and Saint-Maur, refused to admit nuns into their congregations, old monastic houses were revived and new ones established. In the general renewal of this period, the monasteries at Montmartre, Beauvais, Val-de-Grace, and Douai played an important part. The new spirituality also influenced the foundation of the Benedictine nuns of Calvary and the Benedictine nuns of the Blessed Sacrament and Perpetual Adoration. Both congregations stressed the interior motive of reparation and enjoined severe penitential observances. The French Revolution and subsequent secularization decrees resulted in another setback for Benedictine life, but developments in the later ninteenth century included a resurgence of monasticism, marked by a renewal of the contemplative aspect of the Benedictine vocation and a remarkable expansion of missionary activity.

German participation in the post-Reformation renascence of Catholic life was evidenced in the new statutes drawn up for the monasteries at Hohenwart, Fulda, Nonnberg, Chiemsee, and Eichstätt, in which emphasis was placed on the Divine Office. England benefited from the French Revolution, which brought a return of English nuns to their native land. From Brussels, where the first post-Reformation English women's monastery was organized in 1597, the nuns escaped to Colchester, England. The community of Cambrai (1623) returned to England to establish what became stanbrook abbey in Worcester. A member of the Cambrai community, Dame Gertrude More, great-great-granddaughter of Thomas More, became a significant figure under the direction of Dom Augustine baker. Her writings included the Spiritual Exercises and Practices in Divine Love.

Both Abbot Prosper guÉranger of Solesmes and Archabbot Maurus Wolter of Beuron, nineteenth century monastic reformers, were convinced that nuns, unhampered by priestly duties, were in a better position to live the Benedictine life than were the monks. Thus Solesmes and Beuron fostered the liturgy among the nuns, and Guéranger founded the monastery of Sainte-Cécile, near Solesmes, while the Beuronese Congregation erected a women's monastery in Prague. There was a flourishing liturgical life in monasteries such as Eibingen, Herstelle, Fulda, and Maredret as well. The writings of Jenny H. Cécile bruyÈre, abbess of Sainte-Cécile, clearly reflect the liturgical spirit of the times.

Missionary activity brought about the establishment of new congregations, such as the Sisters for Foreign Missions, founded in Tutzing, Bavaria, and the Missionary Benedictine Nuns, founded in France. In the midninteenth century there began also the establishment of monasteries in Australia, North America, and South America and, in the twentieth century, Benedictine life began to fluorish in Africa and Asia as well.

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Benedictines in the United States. At the invitation of Boniface wimmer, monk of metten Abbey in Bavaria the first three nuns from Eichstätt, Bavaria, arrived in the United States in 1852 and, with Mother Benedicta Riepp as foundress, opened St. Joseph's Convent and School at St. Marys, Pa. During the next century, more than 30 houses were founded, directly or indirectly, from the original community. Three other motherhouses in Switzerland, Maria Rickenbach, Sarnen, and Melchthal also began North American monasteries in the later nineteenth century. French communities sponsored United States foundations as well.

At the time of the American missionary efforts, Benedictine nuns generally led an enclosed life with the primary ministry of contemplative liturgical prayer, although Eichstätt was among those which had an attached school. The hierarchy of the United States, which was a mission territory, forbade the establishment of communities of enclosed contemplatives by a decree of the Second Council of Baltimore in 1865. This led to a confusion of roles for the Benedictine women who valued the praying of the Divine Office and the autonomy and local nature of their communities. Canon law distinguished between nun (monialis ), a member of the older orders with their solemn vows and enclosed contemplative lifestyle, and religious sister (soror ), one who belonged to an apostolic order. A 50-year struggle led to the approval of Benedictine monasteries without enclosure as the nuns took up increasingly more external ministries expected of them by bishops and local needs.

Eventually, as new congregations of non-enclosed Benedictine sisters were established elsewhere, the canonical distinctions among religious became less specific, and the attitude towards contemplative life changed. Nevertheless, the American lifestyle has remained somewhat unique. The United States Benedictines continued to maintain their autonomy, with their own local membership, novitiate, and administration, as is common to Benedictine nuns. Instead of the evangelical vows, Benedictine women retain the ancient rite of monastic profession in which they commit themselves to "conversatio" or fidelity to the monastic way, obedience to the rule and its life of attentiveness, and stability to the particular women of that community. Most Benedictine women's communities in the United States were eventually placed under pontifical jurisdiction, in contrast to Europe, where more communities remained subject to the local ordinary. A majority of the American foundations have grouped together into federations which provide mutual support and supervision. Women's houses use the term "federation" in order to distinguish their monastic congregations from the different structure of apostolic congregations of women.

Among the American monastic congregations of pontifical status, the Federation of St. Scholastica is the oldest and largest, the roots of which were initiated in 1881. Because of the difficulties over the question of the classification of American Benedictines, final approval of the congregation was delayed until 1930. Subsequently the path was clear for the formation of other federations, the Federation of St. Gertrude the Great, approved in 1937, and the Federation of St. Benedict in 1956.

Federation of St. Scholastica [0230, I]. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Federation of St. Scholastica had over 1,000 sisters in 22 monasteries in the United States and Mexico. All these monasteries were descended from the original foundation at St. Mary's, Pennsylvania. Members are: Mount St. Scholastica (Atchison, Kansas), St. Scholastica's (Boerne, Texas), St. Benedict (Bristow, Virginia.), St. Scholastica (Chicago, Illinois), Benet Hill (Colorado Springs, Colorado), St. Walburg (Covington, Kentucky), Sacred Heart (Cullman, Alabama), St. Walburga (Elizabeth, New Jersey), Mount St. Benedict (Erie, Pennsylvania), St. Lucy's (Glendora, California), Queen of Angels (Liberty, Missouri), Sacred Heart (Lisle, Illinois), Emmanuel (Lutherville, Maryland), San Benito (Mexico City, Mexico), Red Plains (Piedmont, Oklahoma), St. Benedict (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), St. Gertrude (Ridgely, Maryland), Holy Name (St. Leo, Florida), St. Joseph (St. Marys, Pennsylvania), Pan de Vida (Torreon, Mexico), St. Joseph (Tulsa, Oklahoma), and Queen of Heaven-Byzantine Rite (Warren, Ohio).

Federation of St. Gertrude [0230, II]. The Federation of St. Gertrude consists of 17 houses, also with approximately 1,000 sisters. Members come from both the German and Swiss nineteenth century foundations. They are: Our Lady of Grace (Beech Grove, Indiana), Queen of Peace (Belcourt, North Dakota), Our Lady of Peace (Columbia, Missouri), St. Gertrude (Cottonwood, Idaho), Mount St. Benedict (Crookston, Minnesota), Immaculate Conception (Ferdinand, Indiana), St. Scholastica (Fort Smith, Arkansas), Holy Spirit (Grand Terrace, California), St. Benedict Center (Madison, Wisconsin), Dwelling Place (Martin, Kentucky), Queen of Angels (Mt. Angel, Oregon), House of Bread (Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada), St. Martin (Rapid City, South Dakota), Sacred Heart (Richardton, North Dakota), Mother of God (Watertown, South Dakota), St. Benedict (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada), and Sacred Heart (Yankton, South Dakota).

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Federation of St. Benedict [0230, III]. The Federation of St. Benedict consists of daughterhouses of the original St. Marys group, mostly foundations from the community at St. Joseph, Minnesota. There are 900 sisters in 11 monasteries in several countries. The monasteries are: St. Benedict's (St. Joseph, Minnesota), Annunciation (Bismarck, North Dakota), St. Scholastica (Duluth, Minnesota), St. Bede (Eau Claire, Wisconsin), St. Placid (Lacey, Washington), St. Martin (Nassau, Bahamas), St. Mary (Rock Island, Illinois), Mount Benedict (Ogden, Utah), St. Paul's (St. Paul, Minnesota), St. Benedict's (Sapporo, Japan) and St. Benedict's (Tanshui, Taiwan).

The sisters of these federations engage in a wide variety of ministries both within their monasteries and in external locations. Wherever they are and whatever they do, the daily Liturgy of the Hours and the witness of life in a contemplative and supportive community remain primary. Besides these three federations, there are also other Benedictine sisters in the United States in some other affiliations or jurisdictions.

The Congregation of Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration [0220]. This congregation was founded in 1874 by five sisters from Maria Rickenbach in Switzerland and its constitutions were approved in 1925. Consisting of a motherhouse in Clyde, Missouri, and several interdependent priories, the congregation observes the rule of St. Benedict with a primary dedication to the Eucharist. Its members serve the Church through a ministry of contemplative prayer and offer hospitality and retreats to guests in a shared environment of monastic peace. The liturgy of the hours is offered daily in each monastery and other works of the community are consistent with a contemplative life-style. Formation for new members is centered in Clyde, while the vow of stability, made to the congregation, allows transfer to other of the priories, located in Dayton, Wyoming, Sand Spring, Oklahoma, and Tucson, Arizona.

There remain a very few monasteries in this country which are outside of the major federations. These are usually associated with some other international federation or motherhouse in another country. The Congregation of Missionary Benedictine Sisters of Tutzing [0210], a congregation of pontifical jurisdiction, originated in 1885 in Bavaria and has missions throughout the world. The generalate is located in Rome and the general motherhouse remains at Tutzing, Germany. In 1923 a house was established in the United States at Norfolk, Nebraska, where the sisters engage in a variety of ministries.

Holy Angels, Jonesboro, Arkansas, [0240] is a diocesan community affiliated with the Olivetan Congregation. It was begun in 1887 by sisters from Clyde, Missouri, and became a member of the Benedictines of Mount Olivet in Rome, Italy, in 1893. There is a foundation of Camaldolese hermits at Windsor, New York[0235] and cloistered communities at Regina Laudis (Bethlehem, Connecticut.) [0180] and at St. Scholastica, of the Subiaco Congregation, (Petersham, Massachusetts) [0233]. The nuns of Eichstätt, after the acceptance of contemplative communities in this country, made two further foundations. Conditions in Germany in the 1930s led to the establishment of St. Emma's (Greensburg, Pennsylvania) and St. Walburga (Virginia Dale, Colorado) [0190]. The Sisters of Jesus Crucified, O.S.B., are an enclosed community in Branford, Connecticut.

Because of the unique canonical conditions in the United States, Benedictine life developed very differently than in other areas of the New World. Today, traditional enclosed communities exist in Latin America and Canada, along with communities which were originated as missions of United States monasteries and maintain the American model. In Australia, besides the contemplative communities, missionary sisters were organized by Bishop Polding according to the congregational model. With a single central generalate, the Sisters of the Good Samaritan of the Order of St. Benedict live throughout the country and now in several other countries. Other communities with external ministries and a Benedictine contemplative focus have been formed in other places as well. Meanwhile, many communities in Europe maintain the tradition, often in monasteries hundreds of years old. In Asia and Africa, as well as in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, monastic life is being established or re-founded. The longevity and continuity of the Benedictine way of life, its diversity around the world, and its ability to adapt to many times and cultures give witness to the wisdom and timelessness of St. Benedict's teaching.

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Bibliography: r. baska, The Benedictine Congregation of Saint Scholastica: Its Foundation and Development (Washington 1935). j. chittister et al., Climb Along the Cutting Edge: An Analysis of Change in Religious Life (New York 1977). d. dowling, In Your Midst: The Story of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (St. Louis 1988). g. engelhart, trans., Spring and Harvest (St. Meinrad, Indiana 1952). i. girgen, Behind the Beginnings (St. Joseph, Minnesota 1981). e. hollermann, The Reshaping of a Tradition: American Benedictine Women, 18521881 (St. Joseph, Minnesota 1994). p. johnson, Equal in Monastic Profession (Chicago 1991). j. klimisch, Women Gathering: The Story of the Benedictine Federation of St. Gertrude (Toronto 1993). Medieval Women Monastics: Wisdom's Wellsprings, eds., l. kulzer and m. schmitt (Collegeville, Minnesota 1996). j. rippinger, The Benedictine Order in the United States (Collegeville, Minnesota 1990). j. t. schullenburg, Forgetful of Their Sex: Female Sanctity and Society, CA 5001000 (Chicago 1998). j. sutera, True Daughters: Monastic Identity and American Benedictine Women's History (Atchison, Kansas 1987). h. van zeller, The Benedictine Nun (Baltimore 1961). b. walter, Sustained by God's Faithfulness: The Missionary Benedictine Sisters of Tutzing, trans. m. handl (St. Ottilien 1987.)

[t. a. doyle/

j. sutera]


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