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Opening 99-year-old time capsule doesn’t go as planned

Subiaco monks attend celebration with nuns from St. Scholastica

Published: July 6, 2023   
Brother Francis Kirchner, OSB
Abbot Elijah Owens, OSB, of Subiaco Abbey, and Sister Kimberly Prohaska, OSB, prioress of St. Scholastica Monastery in Fort Smith, open a 99-year-old time capsule that had been embedded in the cornerstone of the former monastery building on Founders Day, Jan. 23.

FORT SMITH —The Benedictine Sisters of St. Scholastica celebrated the 144th anniversary of their founding by opening a special gift from the past: a time capsule retrieved from the cornerstone of the six-story Tudor Gothic monastery that was the community’s home from 1924-2019.

“We had originally planned to open the capsule on our 145th Founder’s Day, 100 years after it was buried,” prioress Sister Kimberly Prohaska, OSB, said, “but we had been through so much with the demolition of our former home, and I thought this experience would help the sisters heal from their grieving.”

Monks from Subiaco Abbey, who had shared their history since the first four Benedictine sisters arrived from Ferdinand, Ind., in 1879, were there to celebrate with them Jan. 23. After Mass was concelebrated by Abbot Elijah Owens, OSB, chaplain Father Joseph Chan and other priests, Abbot Owens leant his muscle to open the fragile copper container with Sister Kimberly. To their surprise, most of the contents were damaged beyond recognition.

“I called Sister Elaine Nadeau, OSB, the archivist from Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Atchison, Kan.,” Sister Kimberly said. “She asked me, ‘When you opened it up, did it look like a muddy mess? That happened to us, too.’”

Sister Elaine gave the prioress some advice about drying the damaged documents, following up with an instructional video. Sister Cecilia Brickell, OSB, monastery archivist, and Sister Kimberly have been working to salvage as many documents as possible.

According to an early community history written by Sister Mary Agnes Sanders, OSB, the contents included the Holy Rule of St. Benedict, medals of Sts. Benedict and Scholastica, photographs of Pope Pius XI, Little Rock Bishop John B. Morris, Father Basil Egloff, OSB, and the monastery’s first three prioresses—Mothers Meinrada, Agatha and Perpetua. A short history of St. Scholastica was accompanied by a Silver Jubilee monastery history, published in German in 1904.

“There were some coins, holy water and a little vial with a piece of paper that is unidentifiable,” Sister Kimberly said. “The photographs are completely gone, and as we sort through the papers, it seems that most won’t be recovered.”

While some time capsules contain predictions and expectations for the future, 100 years hence, the Benedictines in 1924 kept their dreams to themselves, but their new home left a visible clue to their hopes. Sister Mary Agnes wrote, “The building was planned as a unit of three distinct parts.”

The south wing of the monastery was completed in 1924. The second wing, facing South Albert Pike, housing the permanent chapel, five floors and a sixth-floor tower, was completed in 1929. The thrifty sisters didn’t use buff brick on most of the north side of the second wing; instead, it was temporarily finished off in cream-colored cement. The third wing was never built.

In 1924, the monastery overflowed with sisters and students of St. Scholastica Academy during the school year, and in the summer, students would be replaced by sisters who had been teaching across Arkansas as well as in Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas. Most sisters were serving in schools and hospitals, and each year there were new postulants and novices, increasing their ranks.

After Vatican II, fewer and fewer women were called to religious life as lay opportunities to serve God’s people increased. Many of the students taught by the sisters are now working in the diocese as priests, deacons, in religious education and other ministries. Both St. Scholastica Monastery and Subiaco Abbey have active oblate groups who seek to follow the Rule of St. Benedict in their personal lives. The retreat center and spiritual direction training programs have allowed people to deepen their faith, and spiritual directors trained by the monastery share the Holy Rule with their directees.

The sisters built a smaller convent on the same grounds and moved into it in 2019. With no buyers and a $15 million price tag to renovate the building, the 1924 monastery building was demolished in 2022.

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