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Her ‘holy obedience’ mixed with pluck, determination


Some who watched the struggle last summer between the Vatican and Sr. Christine Vladimiroff, prioress of Mount St. Benedict Monastery in Erie, Pa., were surprised by how the Benedictine style of obedience -- of patient listening and face-to-face consultation -- differs from the top-down model invoked by Rome.

The Vatican congregation that deals with consecrated life asked Vladimiroff to persuade Sr. Joan Chittister, a member of the Erie Benedictines, not to attend a global conference on women’s ordination in Dublin, Ireland, at which Chittister, a renowned author and feminist, had been invited to speak. After many conversations with Chittister, weeks of prayer and reflection, meetings with other Benedictines, and even a trip to the Vatican, Vladimiroff said she could not, in good conscience, deliver Rome’s prohibition.

While some in the church saw her stand as defiant, Vladimiroff’s decision plumbed the core tradition lived by Benedictine women for more than a thousand years. Hundreds of American Benedictines are focusing on that tradition this year as they commemorate their founder, Benedicta Riepp, who arrived in New York 150 years ago this summer from Eichstatt, Bavaria.

Only 27, with just eight years of monastic experience, Riepp volunteered and was sent as a superior to Latrobe, Pa., where Boniface Wimmer, a German Benedictine monk, sought German nuns to staff a school for immigrant children. Wimmer, who had already established a mission in St. Marys, Pa., promised to meet Riepp and her two companions when they docked.

But Wimmer did not show up, and the sisters had to make their way to Latrobe on their own, surprising him and the bishop of Pittsburgh, whom Wimmer had not informed of their arrival. During this anniversary year, some may wonder what life would be like for Benedictine women today had Riepp and Wimmer never met.

Their relationship was fraught with “tension, difficulty and repression,” said Sr. Ruth Fox of Sacred Heart Monastery in Richardton, N.D. Wimmer insisted that the nuns be under his jurisdiction. He accepted newcomers to the order and professed sisters without consulting either Riepp or the community chapter.

Prioress deposed

He refused to recognize the sisters in St. Cloud, Minn., where Riepp and five others had gone without his consent in 1857. Wimmer deposed the prioress at St. Cloud, installing his own superior. He ordered her not to associate with Riepp, who, soon after arriving, returned to Europe to seek autonomy for the Benedictine nuns in America.

Wimmer also redirected funds -- which had been sent to the nuns by a German mission society specifically to build convents -- for construction projects for monks’ monasteries. For years the nuns had to abide squalid, crowded conditions. They endured bad food and no heat. Several died from the poor diet and from tuberculosis, as did Riepp 10 years later before her 37th birthday, but not before she took her case to the Vatican -- and later won some independence for Benedictine women. By this time Wimmer had had her removed from office and tried to have her banished, only to have the bishops of Erie and St. Paul intervene and allow her to die in Minnesota, her chosen community.

Most of her personal belongings -- including several letters written by Riepp to Wimmer and the Vatican, as well as to bishops, cardinals, abbots and prioresses in Rome, Germany, New York, Pennsylvania and Minnesota -- were destroyed. But from those that remain, biographers have reconstructed a decade of Riepp’s work in America, during which she labored for the integrity of women’s monasticism.

Riepp, it is said, had a dream while back at her former monastery in Germany. In it she saw a tree with many blossoms, symbols to her of the flowering of Benedictine life in the New World. Before journeying to America, she had spent eight years at St. Walburg Abbey, a cloistered community with a 900-year history of self-rule by women. This ancient abbey, whose authority and independence were protected by civil and church law, had preserved its autonomy, tradition, lifestyle, self-direction and public presence despite the Dark Ages, Black Death, Napoleonic wars and 1848 revolutions. It became an enduring beacon and source of strength for Riepp, especially during her dark days in America and her struggle with depression.

At her death in 1862, six independent communities of Benedictine women were thriving: in St. Marys and Erie, Pa.; Newark, N.J.; St. Cloud, Minn.; Covington, Ky.; and Chicago. Today 46 monasteries in North America, the Caribbean, Taiwan and Japan trace their roots to Riepp. A survey of these institutions indicates that more than 2 million people have been influenced by and continue to be served in centers of education, health care, social services and spirituality founded or run by generations of Riepp’s followers.

“Benedicta speaks to our time of creative tension,” said Sr. Edith Selzler of Annunciation Monastery in Bismarck, N.D. Last summer’s controversy between Rome and Erie involved two “prophetic” personalities, Selzler said. One had to do “the pushing” while the other did “the pulling,” she said, adding that nuns “can’t stagnate and we can’t fly all over the place. We have to know how to move with the Spirit and have the willingness to not be afraid to push the envelope.”

Selzler, who teaches theology at the Benedictine-run University of Mary in Bismarck, noted that half of the students at the school are Protestant. Riepp, who stood up to the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party, also taught Protestant children whose parents supported her efforts to provide quality education for poor, rural girls, Selzler said.

For Sr. Shaun O’Meara of St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, Minn., Riepp is “a model for who we are as Benedictine women in the U.S. She had the guts to stand up to Abbot Wimmer, to withstand episcopal pressure.” Benedictine women are “claiming our identity more and more,” O’Meara said, noting “we were here 32 years before we had full elections for prioress.”

Wants a broader celebration

Sr. Judith Sutera, who researched and wrote True Daughters: Monastic Identity and American Benedictine Women’s History, said she is “disturbed that we’re spending all our energy on Benedicta Riepp when we should be making a broader celebration of everyone in this community.” She hopes the anniversary can be a time to recall the heroism of all pioneering Benedictine women.

As for the U.S. founder, Sutera views her as a person of “great vision with personality failings. …We all look better on a holy card after we’re dead,” she told NCR, adding that Riepp “complicated all our lives. That’s why she was exiled.”

Sutera, of Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Atchison, Kan., thinks that Riepp’s stubbornness, bluntness and insistence on being heard can teach today’s sisters “not to bellow, but to listen,” and to have the courage to follow. “You need someone to lay out a vision and others who’ll make it work,” she said.

Benedicta Riepp’s vision that sisters should grow in holiness and be prophetic in their lifestyle are qualities that Sutera hopes will be emulated by all her followers. “Each Benedictine’s gift to the world is her personal holiness and her stewardship,” the nun said. “Our courage and our confidence can inspire us and other women to put one foot in front of the other, to forge ahead” like Riepp did.

Chittister, former prioress of the Erie Benedictines, helped launch the year of celebration with a talk on Riepp, delivered under the shadow of a larger-than-life statue of Wimmer at St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, where representatives of several Benedictine women’s monasteries gathered in late June.

“Benedicta Riepp is not a religious rebel, an uppity woman, a faithless nun, and she is certainly not the ‘tramp and good-for-nothing’ that Boniface Wimmer calls her” in a letter to the Bavarian court chaplain, Chittister said. The signal to those who claim to follow in her footsteps is “painfully apparent,” she held. “For us to refuse to do what needs to be done for others -- for women, for the poor, for peace, for truth, for justice, for posterity -- because it might threaten our own security and the success of our private projects can only deny our prophetic roots, can only redound to our eternal shame,” she told her Benedictine sisters.

In St. Joseph, Minn., and Atchison, Kan., calls for Riepp’s canonization have not been heard. But in Erie, Chittister ranked Riepp “right up there” alongside other saints who started with nothing and risked their own security for others, people like Charles de Foucauld, Fr. Damian de Veuster of Molokai, Mother Teresa.

When should Benedicta Riepp be canonized? “Now,” Chittister told NCR, calling her “a model for those women who stay in the church while they struggle against the control of their lives that is imposed on them by men who have no right to it.”

Patricia Lefevere is an NCR special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, September 20, 2002