Good Zeal

Mother Benedicta Riepp

Recently, I attended a meeting at St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, Minnesota. The Sisters’ cemetery contains the grave of Sister Benedicta Riepp, OSB. Sister Benedicta is credited as the first Benedictine woman to bring the charism of St. Benedict to America. She is the first of a long line of Benedictine women who, by living and ministering as monastics, helped this country to grow and flourish by providing education and healthcare to immigrants and the poor from 1852 until the present.

We know few details of her story, but they were enough to inspire generations of Benedictines over the past 171 years and will continue to inspire Benedictine vocations for years to come. I am not a Benedictine scholar, so in the account that follows, I have borrowed heavily from The Reshaping of a Tradition by Ephrem Hollermann, O.S.B. Direct quotations from the book are followed by the relevant page number.

Sybilla Riepp was born in Waal, province of Swabia, in the kingdom of Bavaria. We are accustomed to thinking of her as German, as Bavaria is a German state today. Johann and Katharina Riepp celebrated her birth on June 28, 1825. She had three siblings – all girls.  Waal is approximately 80 miles from Eichstätt, where she would eventually enter and profess vows at St. Walburg Convent on July 9, 1846, at the age of 21.

At the time of Sister Benedicta’s monastic profession, St. Walburg Convent, established in 1035 at the tomb of St. Walburga (C.E. 710-799), was among the monastic houses experiencing a revival after years of government-mandated secularization stemming from the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars. St. Walburg participated in the monastic renewal by joining the essential elements of the Rule of St. Benedict with the oldest historical traditions.

One effect of the period of secularization on St. Walburg Convent was that it passed into the hands of the Bavarian government in 1805.  In 1831, the Cabinet proposed that St. Walburg not be allowed to continue its existence. Eventually, the government gave the nuns three options: 1. Seek revenue through votive stands and sell the oil of St. Walburga. 2. Manage a brewery. 3. Assume teaching responsibilities at Eichstätt’s school for girls. The community chose the third option.

By the time Sister Benedicta Riepp made her profession, she was already being prepared to teach in Eichstätt’s school for girls. Her life was soon to take an unexpected turn because of a visitor from St. Vincent Monastery in Latrobe, PA. In April 1851, Boniface Wimmer, the abbot of the 5-year-old St. Vincent’s Monastery, asked St. Walburg Convent to send teachers to staff a school in Marys, PA for German immigrant. For different reasons, both the Bishop of Eichstätt and the Prioress of St. Walburg were hesitant about his endeavor. The idea was foreign to Prioress Edwarda Schnitzer because the Sisters were accustomed to a life of strict enclosure, which would not be possible at the American mission. Secondly, the Sisters were already burdened with the responsibility of staffing the local school in Eichstätt.

In the spring of 1852, Wimmer persisted with his request by writing a letter to the Prioress begging her to send nuns immediately. She read the letter to the Sisters gathered in the monastery dining room and asked for volunteers. From their number, she chose three: Benedicta Riepp (26 professed in 1846), Walburga Dietrich, the senior member of the group (professed in 1841), and Maura Flieger (professed 1848). With money donated by the Ludwig-Missionsverein for travel expenses, they set out on a train to the port of Bremen and embarked on a ship there on their way to New York via Southampton.

There are a couple of beautiful stories from the oral tradition of the Eichstätt Convent (now Abbey) and the former St. Joseph Monastery, St. Marys, PA. The first is about a dream of Sister Benedicta’s about a large flowering tree with beautiful white blossoms. She believed the tree was a symbol of her future community, and her dream has proved to be extremely prescient.

The second story told of the three Sisters’ sea journey from Southampton to New York. Because of a raging and life-threatening storm, the captain ordered that all personal belongings should be thrown overboard. The three Sisters complied, but they begged to keep an 800-year-old wooden statue of the Madonna and child Jesus. “One of the sailors lowered the statue with ropes to the turbulent water, planning to retrieve it later when the waters calmed. Legend has it that the storm subsided when the statue reached the angry sea.” (p. 63-64) That same statue graced St. Joseph Monastery in St. Marys, PA.

When the three women disembarked in New York on July 4, they found no one there to meet them as Boniface Wimmer had promised. They managed to set out on their own by train and farm wagon for St. Vincent’s Monastery, where they were unexpected. How frightening it must have been to arrive in a foreign country, unable to speak the language, with no one there to help them!

Upon their arrival in St. Marys, they found “a few scattered farm houses, or rather log huts, completely surrounded by primeval forest land. Giant trees … looked down forbiddingly on all sides.” (p. 65) However, they accepted the hardship and poverty that was their new condition and set about accomplishing the mission of educating the children of poor German immigrants.

Eventually, more Sisters from Eichstätt joined them, and they received new American vocations. They went on to found new communities in Erie, PA, St. Cloud, MN, Covington, KY, and Newark, NJ. After Benedicta Riepp’s untimely death in 1861 at only 35 years old, other communities were established in Chicago and Nauvoo, IL, Elizabeth, NJ, Richmond, VA, Carrolltown, PA, and Creston, IA.  Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman, AL is a daughter house of Covington KY community along with the community of Benedictine Sisters in St. Leo FL.

Benedicta Riepp’s brief life was one filled with trials and heartache, but as in her dream of the blossoming tree, her efforts bore abundant fruit.

By Sister Karen Ann Lortscher, OSB

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