21 years of sharing Benedictine life in Catholic Rural Ministry

Sister Mary, left, Sister Phyllis and Ben

The surroundings may have changed from rural to city and from house to monastery for Sisters Phyllis Schleicher and Mary Hoffman but the biggest change is in their hearts, now enriched by the people with whom they've shared the last 21 years. In late September the two sisters moved back to Erie, to Mount St. Benedict Monastery, after two decades of living and working in Potter and McKean Counties, the eastern, rural part of the Diocese of Erie. They began Catholic Rural Ministry in 1999 and have served it faithfully ever since.

"Our hope was to bring Benedictine gifts of hospitality, prayer, service to the people of Potter and McKean Counties," said Sister Phyllis. "As Benedictines we learn to live in Christ wherever we are--it's in our vow of stability. One grows with the regular routine knowing that God is there, wherever you are."

And the sisters did just that. "I can remember when your ministry began," Father Walter Packard wrote to Sister Phyllis and Sister Mary. "It was a daring beginning and you were the first to inaugurate this kind of unique ministry to our diocese. And from nothing, look what you gave to this rural part of the diocese. Amazing! Your presence crossed denominational boundaries and helped bridge the divide that often exists in our rural communities. What a gentle presence you were able to give to so many people."

This isn't the first time the sisters returned to the monastery after a mission at a distance. The community called them back in 1990 when the sisters elected Sister Phyllis prioress. At the time she was the Administrator of John XXIII Home in Hermitage, Pennsylvania, and Sister Mary was the activities director. They both picked up and moved back to Erie. After completing eight years as prioress, the diocese invited the two sisters to begin Catholic Rural Ministries. Although they again left the monastery physically, they remained grounded in their community. "We prayed the same psalms morning and night that the sisters in Erie were praying. We travelled to Erie for all the major community events, to celebrate jubilees and sisters being professed, for memory services and funerals when one of our sisters died, for special meetings and retreat. Our stability in community binds us and at the same time frees us," explained Sister Phyllis. "Community is at the core of what it means to be a Benedictine."

And, this is also what makes it possible for a sister to return to the monastery after 21 years living elsewhere and fall back into the monastic rhythm. It's a rhythm that has been guiding and supporting communities for 1,500 years. It's been the rhythm Sisters Phyllis and Mary have lived for decades and it will continue to hold them even as they adjust again to different surroundings. "Although it is hard to leave close friends and a special ministry, the sisters here at the monastery are grateful to have Phyllis and Mary home again," said Sister Stephanie Schmidt, prioress.

The only one who doesn't understand is Ben, the sisters' dog. While he couldn't come to the monastery to live, Sister Phyllis found a home for him in nearby Northeast where they can visit from time to time. He's pictured above with Sister Mary, left, and Sister Phyllis.

Click here to read a story on the Diocese of Erie website about the sisters and their work with Catholic Rural Ministry.