Sisters of Benedict of Red Plains Monastery in Piedmont, Okla., join the Benedictine Sisters of Atchison
ATCHISON — The question asked in the chapel of Mount St. Scholastica Monastery here on March 20 was first spoken by Peter the Apostle:
“We have given up everything and followed you. What will there be for us?” (Mt 19:18)
The answer during that Friday evening vespers in the chapel was a simple one: everything. All was surrendered and all was shared.
Sister Janice Futrell, the former prioress of the Sisters of Benedict of Red Plains Monastery in Piedmont, Okla., offered a reflection based on Peter’s question, contained in the Gospel of the evening.
When she finished, she stood before Sister Anne Shepard, prioress of Mount St. Scholastica, and presented Sister Anne with her copy of the Rule of St. Benedict — the symbol of Sister Janice’s authority in Piedmont.
The Piedmont Benedictines were founded more than 100 years ago when their pioneering founders left Creston, Iowa, in 1892 to establish a foundation in Guthrie, when Oklahoma was still a territory.
Ironically, even then they had ties to Mount St. Scholastica. The Atchison Benedictines took over teaching in the Iowa schools formerly cared for by the Piedmont Benedictines.
More moves were still to come. From Guthrie, the Sisters moved to Tulsa, and then to Piedmont. There they established a monastery, now the Red Plains Spirituality Center.
New members joined and, for years, the community thrived. But an important reality presented itself even as early as the 1960s: Numbers were dwindling, and the accompanying economic and personal demands of an aging population were on the rise.
More recently, it became clear that time was running out: Something had to be done. The Piedmont Sisters prayed and discerned, and decided to seek another community in which to integrate.
“We especially considered the prayer style and spirituality, ministry, social justice work, interest in women’s issues and the availability of an infirmary,” said Sister Joanne Yankauskis, OSB, a former member of the Piedmont community.
They liked what they found in Atchison: a compatibility in spirit and mission.
“We believe we have a good fit,” said Sister Janice. “Like us, Atchison has a long reputation for its commitment to spirituality and education, with a special focus on the needs of women.”
Some of the Piedmont Sisters attend- ed Mount St. Scholastica College, further building ties between the two communities. The Atchison Sisters, too, felt a real compatibility.
“When the [Atchison] monastic council and I first visited the Sisters at Red Plains Monastery, we were in awe of the holy place,” said Sister Anne Shepard. “The women we met were striving to be very holy and authentic.”
Sister Anne was encouraged by her conversations with Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann.
“He really understood,” she said, “and he was pleased to hear from me that the decision was a pastoral one, not just a ‘business’ one.”
They also received strong support from Archbishop Eusebius Beltran of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, who praised the Sisters for “doing this right, in prayerful deliberation, and maintaining a sense of hope and service to the church.”
The next steps involved the practical issues of integration.
Christine Dormann, a postulant from Red Plains, moved to Atchison to continue her formation. Recently, she was joined by Sister Roberta Schachle, Sister Gertrude Nagel, and Sister Elena Hernandez. Two Sisters from Mount St. Scholastica — Sister Mary Beth Niehaus and Sister Rita Claire Judge — went to Piedmont to assist ministries there.
The celebration of the integration continued on March 21, the feast of St. Benedict.
During a morning Mass, the 10 Sisters from Piedmont formalized their merger and transfer of vows to the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica.
“As the Sisters join us,” said Sister Anne, “they do not change their monastic promise; they deepen it. Our promises are also deepened as we welcome these Sisters into our community. Together we move forward.”
At the offertory, Sister Benedicta Boland, from Piedmont, approached the altar with a bowl of small scrolls, each tied with a red ribbon: the profession document of each Sister.
Some were yellowed with age, including her own made 65 years earlier. Now this altar, vocation and community, belonged to them, too.
Later, during a vespers service on March 21, Sister Esther Fangman of Mount St. Scholastica, president of the Federation of St. Scholastica to which both monasteries belong, read a proclamation.
She affirmed that, all necessary canonical steps having been taken, Red Plains Monastery would cease to exist and become one with Mount St. Scholastica. The assembly sang the “Te Deum” and processed out of the chapel, led by the newest members.
Sister Melissa Letts, the youngest of the community, said she was impressed by the courage and determination of her fellow Sisters.
“These amazing women have chosen to face their circumstances, determined to stay together and do what they needed to do,” said Sister Melissa.
She said that she never doubted that her own commitment was God’s call, despite all that has happened.
“I was looking for a small community when I first entered!” said Sister Melissa. “This is certainly different than what I expected, but it doesn’t intimidate me now as it would have then. I am just so glad that we are all together.”
The Red Plains Spirituality Center in Piedmont will continue to be operated by the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica.