by Jack Figge
Special to The Leaven
ATCHISON — A family of seven eagerly waved from the Holiday Inn’s hallway window, trying to attract the attention of the 40 pilgrims carrying lanterns across the Fifth Street bridge.
One pilgrim, Ronald Rodenbaugh, seeing that it was his grandchildren waving, held his lantern high above his head and waved back.
Rodenbaugh and the other pilgrims were marching from Benedictine College in Atchison to Mount St. Scholastica Monastery to commemorate the 160th anniversary of the Benedictine Sisters’ arrival in Atchison.
Seven Sisters arrived in the tiny town on the Missouri River in 1863, where they were met with hostility and violence. Local citizens were opposed to having a group of Catholic Sisters settle in the town. Threatening to burn down the Sisters’ new convent and chase them out of town, Lambert Halling and James Kennedy, employees of St. Benedict’s Abbey, led the Sisters to safety with lanterns.
In her opening talk, delivered before the march, Sister Judith Sutera, OSB, reflected on the symbolism being undertaken by the pilgrims.
“Tonight, we use lanterns as a symbol of that first night. It was not a night of happy welcoming by joyous townspeople as is sometimes portrayed,” said Sister Judith. “It was a night that was dark and uncharted, a night that would begin a very long journey — a procession, if you will — that has brought us to tonight.
“We do not just come to commemorate something that happened long ago and far away. Tonight is only a marker in a journey that continues.”
The story of the Sisters’ arrival fascinated Rodenbaugh, who is from Allen, Texas, and was in Atchison visiting his son, a senior at Benedictine. He could relate to the Sisters’ story of persecution by the locals.
“I did not know the story of [Mount] St. Scholastica and the nuns coming into town, and it was not a very welcome place,” said Rodenbaugh. “Growing up in Texas, where I did, there were fewer Catholics, so not being welcome was something I had seen before, and I could relate to the Sisters’ story.”
As the pilgrims walked the mile-and-a-half journey, they chanted the Litany of the Saints, prayed a rosary and spent time in prayerful silence. Occasionally, conversation would break out as the pilgrims shared their lives with one another.
Through it all, the lanterns shone out their witness to the world.
“This procession is to build awareness that we are here. We’ve been here 160 years,” said Sister Susan Barber, OSB. “This procession is an opportunity to share our history, pray with the wider community and be with one another, which is what we’ve been doing for the last 160 years.”
As the procession approached Mount St. Scholastica chapel, the Mount’s handbell choir greeted them, lining the path into the chapel. Inside, the 86 Sisters, including prioress Sister Mary Elizabeth Schweiger, eagerly greeted the group, touched by the number of students and locals that made the journey.
“Seeing the students come in, it was really touching to reflect on that. There is something about seeing the lanterns that speak of support — of the people that have belief in us and that are grateful to us,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth. “We are so grateful for this opportunity to just be in community with others.”
At the end of the cold procession across town, Benedictine freshman Rose Palermo was touched to see all of the Sisters awaiting their arrival and the serene church that awaited them.
“I really liked when we walked in with the bells and the singing; it was so welcoming, and they were all so sweet and hospitable,” said Palermo. “They just seem so happy here and radiate joy, creating a great atmosphere for prayer.”
Once inside, those gathered joined the Sisters in praying Compline, or night prayer, and heard two reflections by the prioress and Sister Jennifer Halling, OSB, the great-great-granddaughter of Lambert Halling, one of the men who led the original seven Sisters to safety.
“My great-great-grandfather’s act of service was among the first of many, many ways that God has used the good will of others to deal mercifully with the Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica in its 160-year history,” said Sister Jennifer.
Many of those gathered saw the Sisters’ service on full display. Maria Humphreys, a freshman at Benedictine, had a powerful prayer experience during Compline as she prayed with the Sisters.
“Compline was so peaceful. I haven’t been feeling a lot of peace at college the past few months, so praying with the Sisters was so nice and peaceful,” she said.
After Compline, that famous Benedictine hospitality was on display as the Sisters invited the participants to join them for hot chocolate and homemade cinnamon rolls in the cafeteria.
During the reception, those gathered shared with the Sisters how much the community meant to them. One woman approached Sister Mary Elizabeth with a package, saying that it had a letter from her elderly father, who was unable to make it, yet had been deeply impacted by the Sisters.
Inside the package was a hand-drawn card with a roller coaster on the front, reading: “A happy, crazy, joyful ride for 160 years.” On the inside, there was written a personal note: “Only the Mount and the Marine Corps have the same anniversary. You both have to be pretty tough.” (signed) Dan
As they ate and talked, locals such as David Glynn, a parishioner of St. Benedict Parish in Atchison, shared stories about how the Sisters have impacted their lives.
“I’ve had the opportunity to know these Benedictine Sisters my entire life. To be able to be with them on a night like tonight when they are celebrating 160 years is so special,” said Glynn. “It was so beautiful remembering that even as a young boy, I just saw the joy in these women, and to experience it now is amazing.
“It is difficult to not come in here and just smile at their joy. The Sisters carry a joy and a peace that is just beautiful.”
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