The Olivetan Benedictine Sisters had a mission when they arrived in Arkansas in 1887: mold young minds through education, while staying true to “serving God and all those in need.” They came as teachers, but that mission has evolved to not just classroom instruction, but also health care and parish ministries. All roads lead to caring for each person’s knowledge, health and spirituality.
The sisters were honored for their 130-year impact on the state as inductees into the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame Aug. 24. The religious order is based at Holy Angels Convent in Jonesboro and currently has 36 sisters. Today, the sisters continue to serve in various parish ministries and stay active in administration and pastoral care at St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro that they established in 1900.
“I think there was a little shock actually. And then joy,” said Sister Mary Clare Bezner, OSB, minister for religious in the Diocese of Little Rock, of being inducted. “We think of it more historically, the vision of our fore-sisters, that they are being recognized for what they did. We are a part of it this, yes, but we are receiving this for them.”
The religious order was the organization inducted this year, along with nine other inductees. Video presentations about each honoree’s legacy were shown at the awards banquet. The Hall of Fame unveiled this year a permanent display at the Statehouse Convention Center rotunda, which will feature videos shown at the induction ceremony.
Mother Johanna Marie Melnyk, OSB, prioress of Holy Angels, said in the video that the sisters are called to multiple ministries while also living out the “foundational Benedictine life of daily prayer, daily Mass, community life which is being with your other sisters.”
“So it’s not just getting a job done, but it’s doing the job well, maintaining the Benedictine life,” Mother Johanna said.
The AWOF honors women who have changed history. Formed by the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce and Arkansas Business Publishing Group in 2015, the Hall now has a board of directors and accepts nominations from the public. Selection is based on several criteria, including a woman or women who have blazed trails, opening up new avenues for women in society. In addition to the sisters, this year’s inductees were:
• Maya Angelou
• Bernice Jones
• Elsijane Trimble Roy
• June B. Freeman
• Ruth Hawkins
• Brinda Jackson
• Pat Lile
• Dr. Joanna Seibert
• Dorothy Stuck
Chris Barber, president and CEO of St. Bernards Medical Center, said, “Their unwavering commitment and compassion to northeast Arkansas has made a significant difference in the lives of individuals for 117 years.”
“Without the sisters and St. Bernards, our community would look completely different,” both from a health care and economic standpoint, he said.
Sister Mary Clare said the award “gives a legitimate reason why religious communities are good for the world in a secular sense.”
“It’s recognizing that a religious organization was able to do something that helped the world in a way that maybe others haven’t been able to do,” especially women in the 1800s, Sister Mary Clare said. “We were accepted for the role we played even in the late 1800s.”
The Olivetan Benedictine sisters trace their origins to the convent of Maria Rickenbach in the Canton of Unterwalden, Switzerland, according to olivben.org.
Four sisters — Mother Beatrice Renggli and Sisters Agnes Dali, Frances Metzler and Walburga McFadden — arrived in Pocahontas on Dec. 13, 1887, with 83 cents. In 1893, the community was officially affiliated with the Olivetan Benedictine Congregation.
“They came to a very new community where there was very little to offer. They got there and in a few years a big outbreak of disease” plagued the community, Sister Mary Clare said. Typhoid fever made many sisters ill.
Despite widespread prejudice in the area, the sisters also started a school for black children that lasted a year or two.
The community moved to Holy Angels Convent in Jonesboro on July 4, 1898. A year later, malaria spread in northeast Arkansas and the sisters were asked to care for the sick. They purchased a large home on East Matthews Street in Jonesboro. With six rooms prepped with beds and washing areas, St. Bernards Hospital began on July 5, 1900.
“Even though they weren’t nurses, they were quickly sent to nursing school,” Sister Mary Clare said. “If it cared for the people, we would answer the call if we could. We were just answering the call of the need of the people in that area.”
In 1930, the sisters began an all-girls school called Holy Angels Academy. It closed in 1962. The sisters relocated to their current Holy Angels Convent in 1974.
“They really promoted the arts and they fostered music” education in schools, said Sister Mary John Seyler, OSB, director of the oblate program. “I see it as a great blessing, recognizing that our sisters have done heroic, Christian work.”
After 117 years, St. Bernards, named for St. Bernard Tolomei, is a leading hospital for Northwest Arkansas.
“We still are very active in the hospital in visiting the sick. Our sisters are still on all the boards and our superior is still head of that hospital, Mother Johanna, overseeing how things are being done and making sure it’s a Catholic institution and does give Catholic care to all people,” Sister Mary Clare said.
Subprioress Sister Therese Marie Kintzley, OSB, who accepted the award on behalf of the sisters, said in the video that visiting the sick is rewarding.
“I work in the hospital in pastoral care and every day I go to hospice and it’s such rewarding work,” she said. “I go in and I’m not there to convert them. I’m in there to care for them and just to visit them and be whatever they need.”
The sisters still teach at Christ the King School in Little Rock, Blessed Sacrament School in Jonesboro and in Muenster, Texas.
In recent years, the sisters have been involved in Hispanic ministry, prison ministry and other ministries.
“That’s the thing about us because we are diocesan in nature. Our ministries can rotate. There’s a little bit of flexibility to move sisters in the proper ministries and places where God is moving us,” said Sister Mary Clare, who professed vows 10 years ago. “What I love about our community is our openness to the Holy Spirit, but that stability of our prayer life. I love the structure of the Benedictine life, the prayer life, but I also love the openness to serving God’s people in so many different ways as the Holy Spirit designs.”
Sister Elaine Willett, OSB, said as a little girl, she wanted to be a teacher, nurse and missionary. She was inspired by her first-grade teacher at Blessed Sacrament School, Sister Fridoline. By joining the Benedictines, she’s done all three — a teacher, a nurse and spent time as a missionary in Mexico for four years.
“He has done it all my life,” she said of God opening doors to minister.
Sister Glorea Knaggs, OSB, a junior high English teacher at Christ the King School in Little Rock, said she felt as though the award “should go on God’s trophy shelf,” because they merely follow his will.
“I hope so,” she said of whether the award might inspire young women to look closer at religious life. “I know there’s a lot of women who want to make a difference and there’s no greater impact than uniting your life to Christ.”
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