The Benedictine Sisters of Virginia: Celebrating 150 Years

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On May 1, 2018, the Benedictine Sisters of Virginia will celebrate their jubilee: that’s 150 years since the first Benedictine sisters, originally from Bavaria, Germany, established a presence in Richmond, VA. What followed is remarkable.

Today the Benedictine Sisters of Virginia is a flourishing community that developed right along with the young and growing nation. It is a growing vocation of pioneering nuns, led by the Holy Spirit, with a desire to help the poor, educate children, and be good stewards of hundreds of acres of natural land.  Theirs is a legacy of community and compassion still being practiced in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

To commemorate this milestone, the Sisters have begun “Countdown 150.” The Countdown is a daily email campaign which connects recipients to a prayer and a piece of the community’s history in the 150 days leading up to their anniversary. The emails include everything from a profile on the first Prioress, Mother Edith (forever memorialized by a friend and poet-priest), to an outbreak of typhoid, to the day they inherited 500 acres of donated farmland.  The first few weeks of the countdown provide a fascinating insight into the early days of the Benedictine Sisters of Virginia – with much more to come.

 A brief history

The Benedictine community of Richmond, Virginia was a “daughter house” of the original group of Benedictine sisters who came from Germany and settled in St. Marys, PA in 1852. Prior to this settlement, there were no Benedictine women in the US.

Arriving in Richmond in 1868, the sisters encountered the post-Civil War south.  But they were also invited to re-open the parish school of St. Mary’s Church, which had been closed during the war. The sisters found a great need for educating poor children, particularly the children of German immigrants.

About 25 years later, the community discerned a need to move the foundation north.  They relocated to what was then a tiny settlement along the Southern Railroad: Bristow, Virginia. In Bristow, the St. Benedict Monastery and mother house were established, along with schools for boys and girls. Eventually, a variety of ministries, all settled on gorgeous tracts of natural land, began to blossom in the true Benedictine fashion.

Over the years the ministries, and the land itself, have changed.  But the mission has always been the same: to provide a place for the surrounding community to come to be spiritually refreshed.

A great testimony

I spoke with Sr. Joanna Burley, OSB, the Director of Mission Integration and Communication at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Bristow, about the jubilee celebration. She pointed out that not only is 2018 the 150th anniversary of the Benedictine presence in Virginia, but 2019 will be the 125th anniversary of the establishment of the monastery in Bristow.

“It is a great testimony to the sisters and the community,” she says, “so we want people to join us in this celebration and share in the struggles, joys and triumphs of the past 150 years.”

Sr. Joanna is coordinating communication efforts related to the celebration, including the “Countdown 150” project (which you can sign up for here). For the 150 days until the jubilee, each day of the countdown features a different piece of the community’s history.  The messages are tied to a psalm and a prayer for gratitude for the community and its future. Subscribers receive the message emailed straight to their inbox each morning.

“One hundred and fifty is a special number because monastics pray all 150 psalms and it’s a beautiful tie-in to our life,” she explains. “Everything about our life is tied to that cycle of prayer.”

Even if you’ve missed the first few weeks, each day’s message is archived for reference. The daily emails are a fascinating look at the religious and lay individuals who brought the community to life.  Environmental factors contributing to the project’s development are also highlighted.

Life in the 1800s

While the Benedictine community in Virginia is now an established institution, its early days were filled with setbacks and doubts.  But there were also triumphs and unexpected blessings. For instance, Day 144’s post on Daily Life in the 1870s-1880s shows a reality in stark contrast to our own (thank goodness for filtered water and refrigerators).  Day 137 gives us insight into the intellect and pioneering spirit of Sr. Baptista, whose vision eventually led to the founding of St. Benedict’s Monastery.  And Day 136 demonstrates the natural barriers to building in Bristow – land that was an inhospitable tangle of blackberries, brambles and briars.

Countdown 150 puts a human face – and spirit – to the divinely-guided mission to establish a Benedictine presence in Virginia. More than anything, it shows the bravery and perseverance of all those involved, most particularly the sisters themselves.

The celebration

On May 1, 2018, the sisters will kick off their jubilee year with a Mass at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Richmond, celebrated by Bishop Knestout, newly appointed bishop of the diocese of Richmond, Virginia. Throughout the year, the community will be hosting activities and talks related to the milestone.  For instance the public is invited to view historical items from the community’s past. Historical items include religious articles such as historical prayer books, habits, and rosaries.  There’s even, an old clapper once used as a call to prayer during times when the bell was not allowed.  In addition, many practical items that played a role in running the monastery and caring for the land are on display.

“There are old bookkeeping records with entries like, ‘sack of potatoes, 5 cents,’” laughs Sr. Joanna. “The land we are on goes all the way back to the cavaliers who escaped from England to Scotland, back in the 1600s. Anyone with an interest in history will find this entire heritage very interesting.”

The Benedictine way

Most importantly, Sr. Joanna and the community hope the public will learn what the Benedictine way of life is all about.  By doing so, it’s hoped they will find value in adopting some of the practices of prayer the sisters engage in, and the values they hold dear.

“If you really practice the Benedictine values and work hard at them, you will effect a change in the world,” she says. These values include hospitality, stewardship (not just of land – of relationships, as well), community and true listening. The Benedictine motto is “Ora et labora,” or “pray and work.”

Because the monastery is designed to serve the spiritual needs of the public community at large, many people come to St. Benedict’s and join as oblates, or lay people attached to the monastery.  As oblates they receive instruction and spiritual support, and enter into the life of the monastery as volunteers. Oblates strive to grow in Christian living by leading and following the rule of St. Benedict, putting Benedictine principles into action in their own lives.

“To really live as a community means recognizing that someone in the cubicle across from you at work is your family,” says Sr. Joanna. “Those things, in the big picture, really will change the world. Look at what a small band of Christians did after the resurrection of Jesus, and now Christianity is spread across the world.”

Of course, the community is also welcoming to all women who feel called to explore living the monastic life as a professed and vowed member of the community. But Sr. Joanna sees value in sharing the Benedictine philosophy as a way of life that can benefit everyone, no matter their station in life.

In community we find God

“Benedictine monastic life is a way of living,” notes Sr. Joanna.  “It’s a little different from what the world expects. But that is also what a Christian life calls you to be, and it is especially in community that we will find God. It’s like they say in Les Miserables: ‘To love another person is to see the face of God’.”

You can learn more about the sisters at St. Benedict’s Monastery by checking out their ministries, following them on Facebook, and signing up to receive the Countdown 150 emails. If you’re interested in visiting the grounds or even staying a couple days for a retreat at their guest house, you can contact the sisters, who will welcome you with true Benedictine hospitality. And even if you are unable to participate in the jubilee celebration in person, you can always contribute to their way of life (and in return, receive the prayers of an entire community!).

Congratulations to the Benedictine Sisters of Virginia on 150 years in the Commonwealth. May God bless your community for many more.

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