General Questions

What does the word 'cloister' mean?

The term comes from the Latin ‘claustra,’ which means ‘enclosure.’ Its traditional religious meaning refers to the living space of a religious community whose members live their day-to-day lives within the walls of their convent or monastery. ‘Cloister’ can also refer to a portion of a monastery or convent that is closed to the public. At Sacred Heart, guests are welcome in some parts of the monastery, yet we do have cloistered living areas. These private spaces provide a place apart in which the monastic community can share deeply the commitments of their common life of prayer and work, and engage more readily in monastic practices such as silence and solitude.

What is the difference between a monastery and a convent?

A monastery is a specific type of convent. The term is used for religious communities that follow a monastic rule such as the Rule of St. Benedict. It is not, properly speaking, applied to non-monastic communities. The term convent is related to the word convening, or coming together. It is the place in which a group of priests or religious, who may live and work apart, come together. In modern American usage, ‘convent’ usually refers to a community of women, but it can apply to either women’s or men’s communities. For communities that follow a monastic rule, such as Sacred Heart, ‘monastery’ is the more proper term, although the term ‘convent’ was used early in our history and is occasionally still used.

What vows do you take?

Because of our Benedictine heritage, we use the traditional terminology of monastic profession as prescribed by St. Benedict in his 6th-century Rule: stability, obedience, and fidelity to the monastic way of life. Fidelity to the monastic way of life includes and presumes poverty and celibacy. The specific vow formula of poverty, chastity, and obedience taken by members of most other religious communities did not come into existence until several hundred years after the time of St. Benedict.

How is the leader of your community chosen?

Our elected leader is referred to as a Prioress. The current term of office is six years. As this period nears its end, the community gathers for a period of discernment. The discernment focuses around the questions of what type of leader the community needs at a given time in its history and who might God be calling to fill this unique and challenging role. It is a prayerful and introspective time for the community. The period of discernment is followed by a canonical election. Only those members who have made final monastic profession are able to vote.

The election process is governed by canon law and the Constitution of the Federation of St. Scholastica, the organization of Benedictine women’s communities of which we are a founding member. The discernment process and the election are facilitated and moderated by representatives of the Federation.

How do you support yourselves?

We support ourselves through income earned from our public ministries and the generosity of donors. As Benedictines, we embrace simplicity, wise stewardship, and sensitivity to the poor in the management of resources entrusted to us. A traditional Benedictine motto – “ora et labora” (“pray and work”) – is inscribed in our chapel and is taken to heart by every Sister. All share in the responsibility for supporting and maintaining our common life as a monastic community.

A common misconception is that we and other religious communities are financially supported by the Church. This is not the case. Like most religious communities, both historically and presently, we are financially autonomous from the Church, diocese, or other religious or secular institutions.

In 1922, we united with other communities of Benedictine women in the United States to form the Monastic Congregation of St. Scholastica. The Monastic Congregation exists to help its 17 member monasteries preserve and express their spiritual heritage and the Benedictine charism. The Monastic Congregation has a Constitution which, together with the Rule of St. Benedict and each community’s own norms, govern the Benedictine Sisters’ way of life. The President of the Monastic Congregation, elected from one of the member houses, is our official liaison with the Vatican.

The Monastic Congregation of St. Scholastica is one of four canonical bodies of Benedictine women in North America. The elected prioress from each member monastery of these four groups comprises the Conference of Benedictine Prioresses, an organization which collaborates on many endeavors to help support and sustain our Benedictine charism.

Our prioress is an active and involved member of the Conference of Benedictine Prioresses, and several of our Sisters are active in roles within the Monastic Congregation.

Retreat Center Questions

How are meals served for groups visiting the Retreat Center?

Meal being served to a retreat guest.Home-cooked meals are served cafeteria-style at a designated time. For groups, meal times are established with the group leaders prior to the retreat. Our dining room is bright and spacious.  It can accommodate up to 108 individuals.  We are able to accommodate the following special dietary needs if notified of them in advance: vegetarian – no fish, vegetarian – with fish (pescatarian), gluten free, and many common food allergies. Our ability to meet other special dietary needs is considered on a case-by-case basis.

How are meals served for private retreatants?

Silent meals are a time to savor God’s bountiful goodness and remain in contemplative communion with our loving Creator. Private retreat guests dine in the Retreat Center dining room at designated times. When groups are present, a separate alcove of the main dining provides an area in which private retreatants may maintain their silence. We do our best to accommodate special dietary needs (see question above).

May I join the Sisters for prayer and Eucharist?

SHMChapelwithguestsThe monastic Community gathers in the chapel morning, mid-day, and evening to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and to celebrate Eucharist. Guests are always welcome. To enrich your participation in the Liturgy of the Hours, a Sister will provide a brief orientation and assist you in finding a place to sit.  For groups attending the Liturgy of the Hours, a Sister will meet with the group to provide an orientation.

May men stay overnight in the Retreat Center?

We welcome men as guests of the Retreat Center both day and overnight, whether as private retreatants, as part of a mixed retreat, or with a men’s retreat group.

How do I arrange for a Sister to lead our group retreat or come speak at our church?

Several of the Benedictine Sisters are able to lead group retreats or give presentations of varying lengths to a variety of audiences.  This can be done here at the Retreat Center, or they can come to your church or parish.  The range of possible topics is broad and includes such areas as scripture studies, Benedictine spirituality, prayer, women saints, poetry and spirituality, and many more.  Please contact the Retreat Center office for more information or to ascertain whether a Sister is available to help lead your retreat.

Is there a dress code? What should I bring?

We suggest comfortable attire, appropriate for the season. We also suggest comfortable walking shoes. Many find a light sweater helpful for the meeting rooms. If you plan to join the Sisters for the Liturgy of the Hours and Eucharist, we prefer that shorts not be worn in the monastic chapel.

In addition to seasonal clothing and comfortable shoes, please bring all toiletries, medications, and other personal items you may need. Other suggested items include an alarm clock and an umbrella. You may also wish to bring a journal and a book or two for spiritual reading. If attending a group retreat, there may be additional items suggested by your group leader. We provide sheets, blankets, pillows, towels, and wash cloths.

Will I have a private room?

All private and directed retreatants have private rooms.

For  overnight retreat programs sponsored by the Retreat Center, you may choose to have a private room or your may choose to share a room with someone you know. For silent or centering prayer retreats, private rooms are required.

For church groups and other organizations that use our facilities, you will need to check with your group leader about room assignments.

Will I have a private bath?

For those on private retreat:
Subiaco, our area dedicated for private retreatants, features a private bath with each private bedroom.

For those attending a group retreat:
Mary Guest House and St. Joseph Guest House each contain twelve semi-private rooms with en suite bath. If you share a room, you will share a bathroom with your roommate.

Benet Hall contains 18 beds in 11 bedrooms.  Four restrooms, each containing a toilet, sink, and shower, are located down the hall from the bedrooms in Benet. These restrooms are shared.


Vocation Questions

How does one know she is called to the monastic life?

There is not a “one-size-fits-all” answer to this question.  For some, it is simply a certainty that they feel within. Others may be aware of a general compatibility of monastic values with their own values and inclinations.  Yet others may be drawn to a specific aspect of the Benedictine monastic vocation, perhaps the vow of stability, or the priority of community life.  Generally, it is a matter of trust coupled with careful and thorough discernment. Once an initial “yes” to monastic life is made, the initial formation period offers a sustained time of continued discernment as one lives, prays, and works within the community.

What characteristics do you look for in those seeking entry to your community?

We value the rich diversity of personalities in our community, yet there are some common qualities that help one adjust healthily to the demands of monastic life.  Among the characteristics we look for are:

1) A woman who seeks God through prayer, is active in the liturgical, sacramental, and community life of her parish, and desires to be of service to others

2) Someone who is well-adjusted with a positive view on life, has a sense of humor and the ability to be flexible

3) A woman who is congenial and relates easily with many types of people, and is able to balance this with an appreciation of silence and solitude

4) A healthy individual – in body, mind, and spirit

5) Someone who is able to live simply

6) A woman who is able to make and keep commitments, particularly as they relate to the promises of monastic profession and the commitments of community life

Normally, we expect women to be at least 20 years of age and not more than 45.  Exceptions can be made but more discernment is required.  She is expected to have completed high school or a GED and have at least two years of college or work experience.  Concerning a convert to Catholicism, or someone returning after an absence from the Church, she must be a practicing Catholic for at least two years.

How long is the discernment process?

The call to monastic life is realized over a period of time. There are no fast answers or quick steps. For each individual, the length of time is unique to her situation. Much depends on the person’s psychological and spiritual growth and whether she is able to enter into serious discernment. Practical considerations such as distance from the monastery, overall health, and financial status (such as the need to pay off debts, or to sell a home or property) also impact the discernment process. Normally, a person is in contact with the community for a year or two prior to entry.

What are the living arrangements like for the Sisters?

Each Sister has her own bedroom. They are all simply furnished, and generally contain just a single bed, a desk, a dresser, a chair, and bookshelves. Because of our emphasis on community living, Sisters do not have personal areas other than their bedroom. Instead, there are community rooms on each floor in which Sisters can gather to read the newspaper, work a puzzle, crochet, visit, or engage in other forms of recreation. For those who have assigned work or ministry within the monastery, space and equipment appropriate to the task is provided.

What is your relationship with family like after entering community?

The community recognizes the importance of family and family relationships. Home visits to see family are allowed for each Sister but the frequency and length of these visits varies based on distance and cost of travel. As with everything else, in the Benedictine Rule, moderation is key to building healthy relationships. The Benedictine Community forms its own “family” and becomes one’s primary network of relationships. Remaining in touch with parents, siblings, children and other family members becomes secondary. The family of community members are welcomed as extended family of the community with much love and affection.

What do you do during a typical day?

Times of communal prayer are the focal points of each day–morning, midday, evening, and nighttime. Each Sister also spends time in private prayer and spiritual reading. Sisters who are able to serve in full-time ministries usually spend the major part of their days engaged in these ministries.  Most of these ministries are outside the monastery, such as parish work, nursing, or other forms of service.  Some have ministries within the monastery such as community administration, liturgy, initial formation, and retreat work. Some Sisters have multiple part-time ministries in which they serve.

Those who do not have full-time ministries fill a variety of roles within the monastery – answering the telephone, preparing the chapel for liturgy, washing dishes, assisting with office work, and many other community tasks. While we have times of recreation together as a Community, most leisure activities depend on the interests of the individual Sister. Many enjoy reading. Some crochet or work on other hand-crafts. Most engage in some form of exercise. In all we do, we seek to have a balance of prayer and work.

Sisters also engage in activities outside the monastery when appropriate, such as volunteer work, participating in community music ensembles, attending cultural events, and other forms of sharing in the life of the broader community.

What is the difference between a Sister and a Nun?

According to canon law, the religious law of the Church, the distinction between a Sister and a Nun involves solemn vows and the requirements of being cloistered, that is, enclosed.  Traditionally, nuns do not go out from their monastery, priory, or convent to participate in external ministry or engage in social activities.  Sisters, even those who take perpetual simple vows, are more free to participate in forms of external ministry and engage with the public in general.  Sisters can belong to apostolic, missionary, or monastic communities. In cultural areas where forms of religious life are less familiar to the general public, it is common to use the terms Sister and Nun interchangeably.


This is just a sampling of the questions we are sometimes asked. If you have other questions, we will be most happy to respond.  Just give us a call or send us an e-mail.