Photo credit to duluthnewstribune.com
"With the College opening a new campus in Arizona, will you have to send sisters there?" Matthew's question took me completely by surprise. The Sisters are deeply involved with our College and also with our health care ministries - but the idea that it would require us to "send sisters" never occurred to me. For decades, we DID send groups of sisters to staff grade schools and hospitals around the region. The groups were big enough to maintain community life and prayer. Some missions had a cook along with teaching sisters. At St. James Orphanage in Duluth, Sister Paschal (of blessed memory) ran the kitchen and cooked three meals a day for all the children as well as the sisters.
"Why don't you do that anymore?" Matthew asked. "It's complicated," I said, "society changed, and our monastery changed with it." "Like what," he asked, "and why?"
There is no way to explain the 1960s and 1970s in a few sentences. The surprising events of the Second Vatican Council - and the different interpretations of what they meant. Some sisters left religious life because it was changing too much and others because it wasn't changing fast enough. The Women's Movement offered young women exciting new options, which they explored instead of becoming teaching or nursing sisters. At St Scholastica, the number of sisters decreased dramatically, especially the number of younger sisters.
"So what happened to the schools and the College and the hospitals?" he asked. At the time, I just gave him the short answer - lay people were hired to fill many roles and carry on the mission. If you take a walk along the Presidents' Hall, you see the pattern: after 1971, except for a one-year interim period, the College president has not been a Benedictine sister. Sisters continued to teach and work in health care, but there might be only a few or even just one sister where there used to be a busy mission house. Sometimes, the organization changed hands. In Duluth, Cathedral High School became The Marshall School and St. James Orphanage became Woodland Hills. The sisters don't talk much about those years. There was a lot of heartache on all sides when the last sister left a school, parish or hospital.
Matthew's original question is still valid. It's one that both the Sisters and the College spend a lot of time thinking about. The College has grown continuously for the last 50 years, and opened campuses around the state and online in the last 10 years. The Sisters sponsor the College, and have particular concern and responsibility for the Benedictine values and mission. CSS is equally concerned: it created an office of Mission Integration (you may have met Sister Mary Rochefort, who has traveled to campuses all over Minnesota to carry the mission) and is developing new ways to help new faculty, new staff and new students catch the Benedictine spirit in intentional ways.
But send a group of sisters to Arizona? Surprise would be the right word for that! (If you don't know the name of the town with the new CSS campus, check it out on COR.) With online students spread all over the globe, and a campus half a continent away, the sisters and the College will have to think and work together to figure out how to build that strong heart connection with people who may never meet a Benedictine sister.
The one thing we've got going for us? The Benedictines have been around since the Roman Empire. We're pretty good at adapting to change.