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Forty former sisters return to St. Scholastica for reunion

They left the convent but not friendships, Benedictine thinking

Published: September 24, 2018   
Benedictine Sisters Rosalie Ruesewald (left), Madeline Bariola and Stephanie Schroeder, OSB (right), reconnect with former member Lillian Mae Wolf Rife (second from right) during the the Sept. 6-7 reunion with former community members at St. Scholastica Monastery in Fort Smith.

FORT SMITH — Benedictine nuns who left St. Scholastica Monastery over the years were welcomed back to the monastery for a reunion Sept. 6-7.

Forty former sisters joined the professed members for a reunion immediately preceding the triennial St. Scholastica Academy reunion. Most of the former nuns left the community during the early post-Vatican II years, a time of turmoil for the Church, which led many American priests and religious to reconsider their vocations.

The timing of the reunion was scheduled as the monastery moves to smaller quarters on the grounds and ponders what to do with its current building.

St. Scholastica Monastery has kept in contact with the women and was happy to see that many of them continued to live Benedictine lives of prayer, service and hospitality as lay people.

“We’re proud of all that they have done and are happy that they’ve carried a lot of the values they learned here wherever they go,” Sister Elise Forst, development director, said.

Jacksonville, Fla., resident Mary Ann Knaebel, known in the community as Sister Raphael, said, “(Former) Sister Jean (Albracht Kennevan) wrote a great poem after leaving the monastery. She described her leaving as being ‘sent out’ and said we were new pieces of life starting out in the world, the ‘little starts.’”

Leaving the monastery was very difficult for the former sisters.

“We left with nothing,” said Knaebel, who was a member from 1960 to 1981. “I had a degree in Christian ministry, which wasn’t very marketable. I had to go home to live with my parents for a while. I went to St. Louis University and got a degree in social work.”

When she completed her education, she started a program for battered women. She is now retired but still active volunteering in causes to further human rights.

One of those causes is the monastery’s “Forward in Faith” capital campaign.

“As hard as the sisters worked, they don’t need to worry,” Knaebel said. “I want the people who were helped by the sisters to step up and help out so that they will have a place to live. The memory and what the sisters are about is sacred. I’ve already made phone calls and hope to do a whole lot more.”

Missouri resident Berniece Bock Evers, formerly known as Sister Paula, remained a part of the Benedictine community through her biological sister, Sister Barbara Bock. After leaving religious life in 1969, she taught school for 10 years, married a farmer and had three children.

“Sister Barbara visits us in Missouri more than we visit her,” Evers said. “I really enjoyed getting together with the present nuns and former members, seeing the old building again before it won’t be lived in anymore, seeing the new building and enjoying the good food and camaraderie.”

Two former members — Sisters Kevin Bopp and Joyce McNerny — moved to different religious orders. Two other former members — Mary Adams of Fayetteville and Alice Stuff of Little Rock — are St. Scholastica oblates. During the overnight reunion, the former sisters joined the current sisters in the liturgy of the hours and a special prayer service Friday morning.

Adams, a member of St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish in Fayetteville and a former music minister, said her years in St. Scholastica “have remained an indelible part of my life.”

“Lasting values remain: love of silence, prayer, seeking God, justice, peace, humility and simplicity of life,” she said. “I strive to be of service to those around me and the Church.”

One of the highlights of the reunion was the Thursday evening social and sing-a-long.

“We enjoyed sharing stories and talking about where we were today,” Knaebel said. “Later we went down to the cemetery. It was so much bigger than when I was a member, but it was just wonderful and we shared stories about the sisters we knew. On Friday we went to the nursing home where some of the sisters live. We had so much fun talking and sharing with Sisters Miriam (Hoffman) and Andrea (Loran).”

The former sisters all spoke of the lasting impact being a sister had had upon their lives.

“I never apologized for being in the convent,” Knaebel said. “I always talked about the values and said it was a great part of our lives.”

New York resident Faye Kershen Spitzer, formerly known as Sister Mary Faith, was not able to attend the reunion but sent her good wishes.

“I’ve never for one moment regretted my years of religious life,” she wrote. “But I’ve never regretted my (difficult) decision to pursue another path — one of independence. Indeed, I’ve lived a blessed life.”

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