Living in the Strength of our Founding Members

Living in the Strength of our Founding Members

Feast of Benedict

Three weeks ago we marked an anniversary that I want to celebrate and reflect on with you.

The anniversary occurred on June 23rd, the 160th anniversary of the day Benedicta Riepp and five sisters arrived in Erie in 1856: Benedicta Riepp, who was the leader of the first Benedictine women in the United States; Scholastic Burkhard, who would become the first prioress in Erie; Ruperta Albert and Anselma Schoenhofer, who would be among the first sisters to begin our daughterhouse in Covington, Kentucky; Frances Knapp, who would be the first prioress at our daughterhouse in Chicago and Luitgarde Butsch who would return to St. Marys, PA and die at a young age.

Those early years of the mid-nineteenth century, both here and throughout the United States, were difficult ones. They were filled with living conditions of abject poverty, illnesses and major health concerns, and few resources of any kind to draw upon.

In the first 50 years, the young Erie community suffered 48 deaths: 7 of these sisters were only teenagers and 17 others just in their 20s when they died.

Initially responding to requests by Erie Bishop Young and Fr. Hartmann, pastor of St. Mary’s parish on East 9th Street, the community grew, slowly at first, but steadily. They began teaching school to the German immigrant children of St. Mary’s Parish in the fall of their very first year.

In 1860 the sisters moved into a newly built convent on East 9th Street. Additions and extensions, including a large chapel, would be added over the next decades.

Within the same time period a boarding school began and eventually became St. Benedict Academy. In the 1950s it moved out of the motherhouse into a brand new building where the sisters and lay staff continued educating hundreds of Erie teenage girls for 119 years. Even to this day the SBA Lassies alumnae group is alive, well, and very active.

In 1906, Mother Josepha Miller purchased 120 acres in Harborcreek Township for $11,500 and in 1926 the prioress famously interrupted a bootlegging enterprise on the community’s lakefront docks.

In 1930 Camp Glinodo began and became a summer camp where thousands of children enjoyed summers in the country. More recently many more enjoyed environmental programs on the grounds, within Seven-Mile Creek and along Lake Erie.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, in those early years, sisters continued to respond to diocesan requests and went to towns and cities throughout the diocese of Erie and even into western Ohio, to teach school, CCD classes and music. They worked in parishes and established mission houses wherever they lived: Oil City, Clarion, Sharon, Farrell, North East, Ashtabula, to name just a few. Today our presence continues in many places of our diocese through our rural ministries.

In the 1960s, when Vatican Council II encouraged women religious to “return to their roots” and to “respond to the needs of the times” Benedictine women turned their attention to their monastic foremothers and forefathers and also to the particular needs of that time and place.

Some say that a major factor in the successful renewal of the community was the election of a prioress with the perfect personality to allow experimentation and change. Others believe that moving the “motherhouse” from its original site with its years of history, customs and memories to a brand new building and a brand new set of living practices was a pivotal event. The renovation of the nearly 40-year old chapel in 2006 brought even deeper opportunities for the rich monastic Liturgy of the Hours and Sunday liturgies that have become such a unique and exceptional part of our life and one we can share with others.

Still others talk of the intense study throughout the 70s and 80s, of the Rule of Benedict and contemporary issues, especially the embracing of a corporate commitment to peace, whether through statements and anti-war actions or Take Back the Site public prayers in the streets of Erie, as a major factor in the community’s ability to come through those extremely changeable times.

Whatever it was, the 1970s and 80s were full of new ministries: education still, but also health care, social services of all kinds and administrative leadership in offices and organizations.

New involvements‒local, national and even international‒grew, all of which were part of the response to the Vatican Council’s mandates to live community, prayer and ministry to the People of God as Jesus would, through the lens of being Benedictines.

Although we could all list recent moments and events that have made a dramatic difference in our life, as it is lived today, I would cite three:

First: The expansion of our hospitality ministry‒ whether it be the Oblate Way of Life, the Benedicta Riepp program, the building and staffing of Benetwood Apartments or the myriad services of Emmaus Ministries, all include a whole new level of interaction and commitment with our sisters and brothers.

Second: The organization of the Neighborhood Art House and St. Benedict Community Center and the growth and expansion of the services of St. Benedict Education Center and the Child Development Center, all of which expanded our ministerial works with the people of the Erie area, in areas of much broader and deeper ways than ever before.

Third: The brave leap into the World Wide Web. It has opened up for us and for those in contact with us through our website, Benetvision and Monasteries of the Heart, the entire globe as our ministry.

From June 23, 1856 to June 23, 2016 we find:

-- more than 200 women whose names are memorialized on our necrology board for our constant remembrance, including the names of those seven teenagers from our earliest days.

-- scores of women who spent part of their young adult lives with us and continue to be our friends, supporters, oblates, volunteers and benefactors, years after they left community life.

-- today’s community of nearly 100 women…from our 70-year jubilarians to our novices and postulant.

All have lived this monastic life faithfully; have ministered honestly, bravely and tirelessly; have together joined in prayer, every day of their monastic lives; have studied and endeavored to live the Rule of Benedict in today’s world, as women and as Benedictines; and have followed the Gospel of Jesus Christ day after day, to form the community that we are at this moment.

We are the followers of the saint we celebrate today: Benedict.

We are the living legacy and living heritage, the successors of the life lived for 15 centuries‒down to our time, in our culture and in our ways.

We are grateful for the great women who have gone before us, all of them brave leaders, faithful and courageous sisters. We honor their memories by continuing the work they began so that in all things God may be glorified.

Sister Anne Wambach, OSB, the twenty-first prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania is a native of Philadelphia. She moved to Mount St. Benedict Monastery in 1992 to respond to a desire to experience the monastic way of life. Previously a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Chestnut Hill, Sister Anne began the formal transfer process to the Erie Benedictines in 1993 and made her monastic profession in 1997.

Sister Anne has served the people of the Diocese of Erie as a teacher at St. Gregory's School in North East, Pa., from 1992-1995, and at the Neighborhood Art House in Erie, beginning as program director in 1995 and as executive director since 2005. She served on the Monastic Council from 2006-2010.