Ninety years ago today, on the feast of Saint Walburga, Feb. 25, 1931, Mother Leonarda Fritz O.S.B. and nine Sisters arrived at Saint Vincent Archabbey and College, Latrobe, Pennsylvania to begin their 56 years of ministry of cooking and serving in the various dining rooms. Several times I heard the late Archabbot Egbert Donovan, O.S.B., describe how as a Prep School senior, he asked when the Sisters were coming and watched them step foot into Saint Vincent’s heart. Every year Archabbot Egbert remembered their anniversary and told me what a difference the Sisters made at Saint Vincent.
By 1939 the Sisters numbered 40. Why did the Sisters come? For a reason with which many people can identify: to earn money! They came to earn money to support the Benedictine Sisters in their motherhouse, Abtei Sankt Walburg, Eichstätt, Germany, where vocations were flourishing, inflation was out of control and Hitler was on the horizon.
As the first women on campus, our Sisters added the first feminine expression of “glorifying God in all things” (Rule of Saint Benedict 57:9; based on 1 Peter 4:11). The Sisters offered hospitality in the way they cooked and served in the various dining rooms.
Most of you who attended Saint Vincent from 1931 – 1987 have stories about “Mother Bearcat” (Mother Leonarda) or “Sister Potatoes,” or “Sister only-one.” Many students, seminarians – yes, and monks – heard the Sisters call them, Spitzbuben! The Sisters’ tone of voice added to the English equivalent of “rascal!” The monks during those decades remember how the Sisters welcomed their guests and made their Vow days and Ordination days special.
In the brochure which accompanied the Founders' Day art exhibit in 1989, the late Brother Nathan Cochran, O.S.B. aptly summarized the indelible mark that the Sisters left on the communities at Saint Vincent:
They came with the gifts of youth: vibrancy, enthusiasm and first fervor. Time and grace matured these gifts into steadfastness, dedication and true service. Whenever they dished out meat, poured coffee, baked cakes, washed dishes, dropped buns from balconies or decorated Christmas cribs, they gave us the feeling of family, home, rootedness and sisterly (and sometimes motherly) love. Their gentleness rubbed off on us so that we have become a little more gentle. Yet they also taught us perseverance, because who but dedicated and God-seeking individuals can smile and serve people for more than 50 years?
In the Saint Vincent Review in 2002, Fr. Donald Raila, O.S.B., wrote an article, “The Sisters of Saint Benedict – Earnest in prayer and mighty in their labor of love.” Another monk asks, “Who can ever forget the colorful Bavarian flower boxes which adorned their windowsills spring, summer and fall?” (The nuns resided in what are now the faculty offices in Placid Hall.)
Having entered our Community in 1962, I have the great blessing of knowing all but five of our founding Sisters; these five all died under the age of 53 and are buried in Saint Vincent cemetery. As the first American Prioress elected in 1993, it was so humbling to hear the twenty-three original Sisters address me as “Mother” on the very first day of my election. “Well, that is what we are supposed to do,” said Sr. Gaudentia who worked in the monastic refectory for 53 years and died at age 98; “after all, you are now our superior.” Our founding Sisters never gave conferences but were amazing teachers in this “School of the Lord’s service” (Rule, Prologue, 45), one of the names Benedict gives to a monastery.
Vergelt’s Gott (May God reward you), Um Jesu Willen (for Jesus’ sake), and Rosenkranz beten (to pray the rosary) sprinkled their speech. After a day especially filled with work, Sr. Walburga spoke about offering it up and putting “another bag” into heaven.
We nuns at Saint Emma Monastery in nearby Greensburg, strive to continue this legacy of being “earnest in prayer and mighty in our labor of love.” We invite you to check out our website listed below to follow the legacy that our founding Sisters gave us and how we live it today so it becomes our future as well.Mother Mary Anne Noll, O.S.B.; PrioressSaint Emma MonasteryGreensburg, Pennsylvania
For more information on the history of these Benedictine nuns, read our Benedictine Touchstone at www.stemma.org
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