By now, it is well known that the Benedictine Sisters will soon be leaving St. Marys. While their story in St. Marys is drawing to a close, how it began and the legacy they left will always be a part of the community's history. Much of their early story was documented by historian Charlie Schaut in his book 'History of St. Marys: The Formative Years,' which was published in 1968.
Schaut knew at least one of the founders personally and was able to base his account on information provided by sources such as conversations he had with Alois Schaut, son of founder Jacob Schaut, and narratives by George Schaut, Jacob Schaut's brother. He also had access to data supplied by his father, Ignatius Schaut, as well as papers belonging to Ignatius Garner and his son Louis.
The story of how the Benedictine Sisters ultimately ended up in St. Marys begins, interestingly enough, with a German Redemptorist priest in Baltimore. The year was 1938 and Fr. Alexander Zciwtowictz, Prior of the Parish of the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer in Baltimore, became acquainted with a recently arrived immigrant who was helping repair some of the church’s furniture. The immigrant was Jacob Schaut, who would go on to be one of the founders of St. Marys a few years later in 1842.
With the new community lacking a religious leader, Schaut was sent back to Baltimore in the spring of 1843 to ask Zciwtowictz for assistance. According to Schaut, “a missionary, Father Saenderl of the Redemptorist Order, was accordingly sent to the little colony and at his arrival spirits began to rise and hope was again high.”
Zciwtowictz himself would also make several trips to St. Marys in the community’s early years and played an important role in helping it begin to thrive. He also invited nuns from Notre Dame Academy in Munich to join the colony as teachers in 1845, and several elected to do so.
In 1846 Father Boniface Wimmer, O.S.B., came to America and located in Latrobe. Schaut noted that Wimmer “had heard of the colony [in St. Marys] when [Ignatius Garner and Jacob Schaut] visited Munich the year before and decided to pay the settlement a visit at first opportunity.” Wimmer did visit later that year and was “impressed with the zeal and piety of the inhabitants.” While Wimmer’s visit gave St. Marys a connection to the Benedictine Order, the community still relied on Redemptorist priests until 1849 when Zciwtowictz was recalled to Baltimore and told that the order would no longer be able to aid St. Marys. Schaut added that the Sisters of Notre Dame left soon after the removal of Zciwtowictz.
Schaut reported that “Father Alexander had been the mainstay of civic activities and spiritual comfort and it was a great loss to have him leave so unceremoniously.” Still, he added that, “stunned but not disheartened [the residents of St. Marys] turned again to their friend at St. Vincent, Father Boniface Wimmer who turned a charitable ear and provided both spiritual as well as financial help without delay.”
It is through this tie with Wimmer that the Benedictine Sisters ended up in America and in St. Marys.
According to Schaut, “in 1852 three nuns from the Convent St. Walburga in Eichstadt, Mother Benedicta Reip and Sisters Walburga Dietrich and Maura Flieger, who had been contacted by Fr. Boniface on his mission to Europe in 1851, decided to come to America to St. Marys as missionaries.”
The nuns first traveled to St. Vincent in Latrobe, and Schaut noted that "one of the fathers seeing them alighting from the conveyance called out to his superior that "a wagonload of trouble had arrived."
It was July 22 when the nuns finally made it to St. Marys, and they set about fixing up their living quarters, which Schaut referred to as being "anything but an inspiring sight."
He continued though that "they went ahead, however, with courage undismayed and soon had the buildings in shape and comfortable style; for their own use as well as for others who would require shelter and help."
The Sisters began the school that would eventually be known as St. Benedict's Academy and received salaries of $25 per month for teaching area residents.
More nuns began arriving soon after.
According to Schaut, "three additional Sisters arrived soon after the school was started in 1853 with Sisters Scholastica, Alexia, and Lidwina making up the group in addition to two postulates, all from the Motherhouse at Eichstadt."
Another group arrived two years later. "On Dec. 15, 1855, three more Sisters, Willibalda, Emmerana, and Philomena together with two additional postulates, arrived to bring the total number to thirteen."
Schaut noted that during this time a number of women were also applying to join the order, and by the end of that year "the number of occupants in the convent and school had reached the total of 39 and a healthy growth was to be expected and was indeed realized."
The following year the nuns began to disperse. Schaut indicated that the first group left for Erie at the invitation of the Rev. Father Hartmann, who was looking for teachers for a school that had been established there. Schaut stated that Hartmann's "invitation was received with joy and on June 21, 1856, Mother Scholastica Buchard, together with three of the Sisters left St. Marys for Erie to the new field of endeavor, and this was in effect the beginning of the movement of the Benedictine Sisters in the United States, which reached ultimately into Minnesota, Kansas, New Jersey, Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, Illinois, Colorado, Florida, and Louisiana."
He added that Mother Benedicta Reip left St. Marys soon after. Schaut reported "Mother Benedicta Reip was not too optimistic as to the prospect of the local field being of a promising nature for the location of a large unit of Sisters as a permanent proposition and began to look for greener fields where their work could bring comfort and education to those in need and so moved to Minnesota with six of a picked number to establish another convent."
The remaining Sisters were encouraged to stay though, and many of them did, with Sister Theresia Vogel being appointed as the new Mother Superior. According to Schaut, "under her prudent regime, with the help of Father Aegidius, the work continued with increasing success and healthy growth."