An outpouring of love, gratitude and respect for the Benedictine Sisters of Elk County was evident on Sunday during a special community celebration honoring those who have served at St. Joseph Monastery in St. Marys, the oldest Benedictine monastery in the U.S. which is slated to close after 162 years of service.
A large crowd gathered at Queen of the World Church for a vespers service, program and social. The guests of honor included the remaining 17 sisters serving at the monastery, their family and friends along with sisters visiting from surrounding monasteries.
The Rev. Fr. Richard Allen of Queen of the World Church opened the service stating the sisters "have done so much for so many people that are here [Sunday]." He noted there were sisters in attendance from nearly every state, showing wonderful tribute to the local sisters.
Sr. Mary James Dippold offered a reading followed by a spiritual reflection from Sr. Nancy Fischer, SSJ, director for the Office of the Religious of the Diocese of Erie.
"As their foremothers opened the monastery here in total faith, so they have been called to close their home, their monastery, something they love deeply, also in total faith," Fischer said.
"I am sure you could never have dreamt the scenario before you, but as we seek God alone we never know what God might ask. Living this out is not always easy, many times when called it is difficult to say yes to the plans of God because it may mean saying no to dreams and to hopes we have for our lives."
She added these new movements will require some letting go of what the sisters have known and to create a new future.
"We are sad at the closing of the monastery, yet we are rejoicing at all that has been accomplished in the last 162 years by the Benedictine Sisters of St. Marys," Fischer said. "They have served this diocese beyond our wildest expectations. We are forever grateful for these women of faith."
More than 50 other monasteries have life as they stemmed from St. Joseph Monastery.
"We are better for their having been here and we praise God for this blessing," Fischer concluded.
Sr. Jacinta Conklin then offered the responsory followed by Fr. Thomas More Sikora, OSB, of St. Mary's Church led the crowd in the Lord's Prayer.
At the conclusion of the vesper service Attorney Jake Meyer, advisor to the Benedictine Sisters, introduced each of the programs's numerous speakers.
Meyer said he has known the sisters his entire life as they taught him as a student from Sacred Heart through Central High School, during piano lessons and now as their advisor.
"Most of all I appreciated their wonderful, spiritual witness and treasure the friendships we've formed," Meyer said.
Fr. Earl Henry, OSB, Prior at St. Vincent Archabbey offered brief comments stating the Archabbey is proud of the sisters in this community and gave thanks for their presence.
"I'm sure everyone has a special story or memory of one of the sisters," said Fr. Eric Vogt, OSB, pastor of Sacred Heart Church.
Fr. Eric went on to share a whimsical story of his experience as a student of the late Sr. Benigna Bauer while attending Sacred Heart School.
"The sisters essentially are the history of Catholic education in this region. For the past 162 years they were that connection between faith and academics and for that we thank you," said Sam MacDonald, president of the Elk County Catholic School System.
MacDonald said it is humbling and an honor thinking the torch is being passed to those who teach in the Catholic school system and is thankful the sisters have set the bar so high for many years.
Mary Agnes Marshall, recently retired consultant to the ECCSS president and former principal at St. Marys Catholic Middle School, said she was grateful to the sisters from a parents' perspective.
"While they gave our bodies to doctors to take care of, they gave our souls to the sisters to take care of," Marshall said.
Rose Campbell, Penn Highlands Elk chief executive officer, said the sisters played a significant role serving in administration, management and pastoral care.
"For over 80 years you were there to deliver our children, to take care of our sick and to provide comfort and prayer for our loved ones," Campbell said.
She also detailed the sisters' history to the hospital, which she said was quite impressed with.
Several government officials were on hand to present proclamations and citations honoring the Benedictine Sisters. They were St. Marys Mayor Bob Howard and City Councilman Lou Radkowski, Diane "Sue" Braward, representing State Rep. Matt Gabler (R-Elk/Clearfield) and Congressman Glenn "GT" Thompson (R-5). Meyer recited a citation from Senator Joe Scarnati (R-25) presented from the Pa. Senate.
"We were all saddened to find out that you would be going, but please know that your spirit will always remain here with us and will be a guiding light for us in the future," said Councilman Lou Radkowski. "You will be missed, but your impact is forever etched upon our community."
Following the program the sisters visited with community members, family and friends during a social.