One of the joys of welcoming new members into the monastery is the enlivened retelling of familiar stories from years gone by at meal times. Eventually, new members will read and study the community’s history, On Good Ground, written by Sister Mary Ruth Coffman, but the oral tradition of the community continues to impart the juiciest bits over which to laugh, cry, and rejoice in God’s blessedness.
Since the major renovation of the monastery in recent years and the demolition of the old kitchen, Sister’s Dining Room, Joseph Hall and Mary Hall, some of the familiar stories have begun to lose their context. The infamous “Cookie Room” was a small closet lined with shelves on two sides, but no one ever remembers having stored cookies there. It was where you would find napkins, paper plates, plasticware, and in certain seasons you might find a case of bananas or tomatoes (but never a cookie)!
The “Peeling Porch” was the back porch of the kitchen where Sisters gathered after breakfast to peel and slice fruits and vegetables before the kitchen staff’s arrival for the day. Lots of other activities happened on the Peeling Porch—pecans were sorted and picked out of their shells, Easter eggs were decorated and dyed, Christmas goodies were prepared by individual Sisters, etc. One often repeated Peeling Porch story was when a chicken truck overturned on the highway, a whole bunch of chickens were donated to the community. The young Sisters were summoned from their various duties to the Peeling Porch to help draw chickens. One of the young Sisters from Birmingham showed up with her sketch pad and a pencil ready to “draw chickens,” not realizing that the task at hand was to draw out the innards from the chickens in preparation for cooking. (I probably would have done the same thing.)
Having entered in 1996, I am one of the last of the community who spent hours with the elders on the Peeling Porch as a postulant and a novice. I learned so much about monastic life working elbow-to-elbow over stainless steel bowls and chopping boards with the retired Sisters who continued to contribute to the work of the monastery in the ways that they could well into their 80s and 90s. (Who knew there were so many different ways to peel and chop celery, carrots and potatoes?) I learned that monastic work is to be done the best you can with what you have and to do it with love. If it took a Sister 45 minutes to peel one potato with her severely arthritic hands, then her work was done well. She contributed her part, and God was pleased with it.
It amazes me now to realize that I have been in the community long enough (almost 25 years) to be able to retell these and other stories as my own. As the archivist of the community, I thoroughly enjoy sharing our rich heritage with the newer members as well as rekindling the memories of the elder members. If I can name one passion in my life, it is this: to preserve the living legacy of our monastic community in whatever ways possible. The Sisters whose bodies rest in our cemetery remain alive within and among us today as we pray and work with the same fervor for Christ and the Benedictine charism as they did. Empty nostalgia is useless. Knowing, retelling, and continuing the story that is uniquely ours is nothing less than priceless.
By Sister Therese Haydel, OSB
Photo: Sisters Monica Vogt, Ursula Weiss, Edith Ann Cotton Price, and Lucy Barrett, Silver Jubilarians July 27, 1952