Good Zeal

Feast of St. Benedict–July 11th

Cover of On Good Ground, the community history by Sister Mary Ruth Coffman, OSBHappy Feast of Saint Benedict to everyone!

Have you ever wondered why Benedictines celebrate more than one feast of St. Benedict? St. Benedict is one of the few saints in our liturgical calendar to receive the honor of having more than one feast day designated for them. St. Benedict served as the first abbot of Monte Cassino until his death on March 21, 547. Thus March 21st became the day on which the Church annually remembers and celebrates his final holy surrender into the hands of God.

The other feast day occurs on July 11th. In 1947 Pope Pius XII named St. Benedict the “Father of Europe.” Then in 1964, Pope St. Paul VI declared St. Benedict the “Patron Saint of Europe.” It is under this latter title that the Roman Church and all Benedictine houses celebrate the Feast of St. Benedict on July 11th. (For non-Benedictine communities and parishes in the United States, the day is recognized liturgically as a memorial rather than a feast.)

Benedictines, who always enjoy a good liturgical celebration, have the privilege of celebrating St. Benedict twice each year, as well as annually celebrating the Feast of St. Scholastica on February 10th.

The Rule written by St. Benedict carefully integrates prayer, manual labor, and study into a well-rounded daily routine that continues to shape Christianity even today. It has been the guiding light for the women and men of the Benedictine Order for over 1500 years.

In honor of the Feast of St. Benedict, I would like to share with you a very small part of our Benedictine Family Tree. For this journey I am using Sister Mary Ruth Coffman’s history of our community, On Good Ground: Benedictine Women of Alabama, and the history timeline on our website.

The deepest roots of our Benedictine Family Tree can be traced back to Bavaria, Germany and the Abbey of St. Walburg in Eichstatt who had suffered greatly under the rule of Napoleon and subsequent rulers. St. Walburg Abbey is the great-great grandmother house of Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman, AL.

Following a succession of wars and other hardships, thousands of German immigrants fled Europe, braving the difficulties and dangers of overseas travel to the promised land of America. Soon after getting settled in their new “home” these immigrants began petitioning the Church for German speaking priests and nuns to minister to them and to educate their children.  After much discernment and prayer Sister Benedicta Riepp, Sister Walburga Dietrich and Sister Maura Flieger were chosen to leave the security of their beloved St. Walburg Abbey and their home country on June 12, 1852 and to travel into the unknown of America with all the uncertainties this entailed.

Following a long, difficult ocean trip and a significant overland journey, they finally arrived in St. Marys, Pennsylvania on July 22, 1852.  Within seven short years of their arrival in the United States, the community at St. Marys numbered forty sisters and had established four convents in other locations—in Erie, PA (1856), Newark, NJ (1857), St. Cloud, MN (1857), and Covington, KY (1859). The increased numbers included more Sisters who traveled from Eichstatt and new vocations from the America.

In 1870, the Prioress of St. Marys answered a request from the Bishop of Pittsburgh for Sisters to serve as teachers. Three Sisters were sent to Pittsburgh, and by 1880 an independent monastery was established there.  In 1889, five Benedictine Sisters from Pittsburgh, PA traveled to East Pasco County in Florida at the request of the pastor and immigrants in the area. Upon arrival the group founded Holy Name Priory.

The pattern of one motherhouse establishing one or multiple independent daughter houses is very familiar in Benedictine history. But the origins of the Benedictine Sisters of Cullman, Alabama diverges from that familiar pattern. Our monastery has TWO motherhouses!  Benedictine Sisters from Covington, KY had two mission houses in Alabama, one in Tuscumbia (1881) and one in Birmingham (1886). The Benedictine Sisters who first arrived in Cullman in 1898 were from Holy Name Priory in Florida. By 1902 an official merging of the two groups took place, eight from one group and eight from the other.

The merging these two groups of strong, passionate and creative women truly was the work of the Holy Spirit. Many compromises had to be made. Yet, in spite of tremendous challenges, these women rose to the occasion with courage and tenacity.  Through dedication to the monastic tradition and obedience to the Rule of St. Benedict, these pioneering women established a solid foundation for faith and life to thrive and spread. St. Benedict would be proud of what has become their legacy for future generations.

May the good zeal of our Holy Father Benedict and the pioneering spirit of our Benedictine foremothers continue to guide and inspire our prayer, our community, and all that we do so that God may be glorified in them.

By Sister Janet Marie Flemming, OSB

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