Benedictine Sisters integral part of area's heritage

FOX TWP. – On Friday evening at The Red Fern in Fox Twp., the Benedictine Sisters of St. Joseph Monastery were honored with the Heritage Award from the Elk County Catholic School System for their many contributions to the community over the years. The Heritage Award is given annually to individuals, living or deceased, who have made a significant impact on Catholic education in St. Marys. At the Heritage Gala Friday evening, guests were treated to a slide show that told of the history of the sisters and their many contributions over the years. ECCSS Director of Advancement Mary Meyer provided narration and explained that in 1851, Benedictine Father Boniface Wimmer, who founded the monks at St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, sent Fr. Benedict Haindl to be the first pastor of St. Mary’s Church. In turn, the father petitioned Benedictine sisters from Bavaria to come to the fledgling community and teach. Upon arrival, they opened St. Benedict’s Academy in 1852 on the grounds of where Elk Regional Health Center stands today. The academy was built in 1845 and the convent followed in 1847. In 1860, the sisters moved to their present location and opened their academy on the site in 1868. "St. Benedict’s Academy was an institution where young girls from near and far could receive a good education and strong faith formation," Meyer said. As the slideshow progressed, Meyer talked about the academy and how the sisters filled many roles in addition to teaching, including coaching the basketball team. One of the graduates was Sr. Jean Marie, who died in September 2011 and was the last living sister who was an alumna of St. Benedict Academy. A number of other area residents were visible in the slides and were mentioned as they appeared. According to Meyer, each graduate was accompanied by a flower girl, one of which was Ruth Heiberberger Baumgratz Hasselman. Area residents Rita Jane Cassady Selle and Mary Martha Fehley Halloran were others featured in the slideshow as some of the area residents who graduated from the academy. Halloran, who died last month, was believed to be the last living alumna of St. Benedict’s. Meyer explained how the sisters’ work is entwined in the fabric of St. Marys throughout its history. She said when the Andrew Kaul Memorial Hospital burned in 1934, the sisters offered their academy to serve as a hospital while rebuilding took place, and it served as hospital facilities for the next seven years. Something many area residents may not have known is that the Benedictine Sisters also taught in the public school, located on the corner of Maurus and Church streets, from 1867 until 1895. When the Smith Garb Act was passed that year disallowing those dressed in religious habit from teaching in public schools, St. Mary’s and Sacred Heart parishes opened their own schools the next year, and both schools were staffed entirely by Benedictine sisters. The sisters also taught in other schools across the Commonwealth. Meyer said the sisters had two main purposes for coming to America: to serve as teachers for the many German immigrants also arriving and to spread Benedictinism throughout the country. They were very successful in this endeavor-– eight Benedictine foundations were established from the home base of St. Joseph Monastery, and 52 monasteries in 26 states, six countries and the Bahamas and Puerto Rico were established directly or indirectly through their efforts. Meyer said not only was it important to acknowledge those sisters who were teachers and administrators in the Catholic schools, and those who worked in health care and other roles visible to the community, but also those who did the cooking, laundry and other necessary activities back at the convent that freed up their colleagues to be out and about in the community. She noted that the large garden the sisters maintained was located where the ECCSS track now stands. The sisters also founded the Music Academy, which is still in operation today. Instructors included Sr. Beatrice Wimmer, Sr. Cyrilla, Sr. Rita, Sr. Aurelia, and Sr. Margaret Mary, and today Sr. Helen carries on this tradition by instructing students in piano and organ. Art was taught over the years by Sr. Marie, Sr. Rita and her sister, Sr. Bernadine, and today by Sr. Mary James. Additionally, Sr. Rita at one time hosted a day care and Sr. Loretta established the first special-needs school in St. Marys. Pick up a copy of the Monday, April 2, 2012 edition of The Ridgway Record for more.