The crew of Shalom at the Monastery spiritual ministry: Peggy McGurn, Evelyn Wemhoff, Benedictine Sr. Dorothy Jean Beyer, Holy Names Sr. Jane Hibbard and Benedictine Sr. Joan Pokorny. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
The crew of Shalom at the Monastery spiritual ministry: Peggy McGurn, Evelyn Wemhoff, Benedictine Sr. Dorothy Jean Beyer, Holy Names Sr. Jane Hibbard and Benedictine Sr. Joan Pokorny. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)

MOUNT ANGEL — At Queen of Angels Monastery here, spiritual ministry is thriving.

The Benedictine Sisters last year closed a nearby former college building that served as a retreat center. But they moved spiritual direction, Scripture study, retreats, workshops and overnight solitude stays right into their monastic enclosure.

The venue change only has increased interest as the public hungers for a taste of monastic life to counter current cultural imbroglios. 

Benedictines have known through their 1,500-year history that spiritual growth happens best in a communal setting.  

“I think people today are really looking for community, looking for that place where they belong and they can call home,” says Benedictine Sister Dorothy Beyer, a former Queen of Angels prioress who has led the monastery’s spiritual ministry. “We want people to come to our monastery to experience monastic life, the silence, the beauty of this place and the beauty of the monastic spirituality.”

The aging classroom building hosted the spiritual ministry for 35 years. To mark the transition, the sisters and retreat leaders held prayers of gratitude in the old space and then had a procession into the heart of the monastery.

Increased offerings

Called Shalom at the Monastery, the ministry uses space like the chapter room, where the nuns meet to discuss their life and discern the will of God. Also open to guests is the nuns’ famous chapel, full of windows facing nature.

Guests come from all over the region, including eastern and southern Oregon.

The monastery is increasing offerings. Workshops and retreats cover a lot of spiritual ground, including contemplative prayer, meditation, dreams, the inner child, consciousness, journaling and aging.

Shalom at the Monastery has established a niche in spirituality for the second half of life. Peggy McGurn, a longtime retreat leader, held a weekend in March called “Becoming a wisdom elder.” Most participants had never before been to the monastery.

“The self is always selfing,” McGurn told the group, explaining that once their roles as parents and grandparents fade, they tend to develop new ways to nurture and guide others.

“We want to awaken older people that they can be of service in the church,” said Sister Dorothy Jean.

Spiritual direction

Many visitors come for individual spiritual direction, a kind of mentorship on responding to God’s work in their lives.

Benedictine Sister Joan Pokorny was a teacher for decades before becoming a spiritual director. Like the other retreat leaders and spiritual directors here, she earned a master’s degree in the field.

“We meet people and groups where they are and who they are or whatever denomination or way of being or questions or struggles,” says Sister Joan. “Every element of humanity somehow enters into our ministry here, our ministry that is so ancient and so rich.”

The monastery’s work is certified by Spiritual Directors International. The experienced crew here even supervises new spiritual directors.

Evelyn Wemhoff, a retreat leader and spiritual director who lives in Keizer, says the monastery — with its woods, orchards, gardens and paths — is a good place to dwell with God in God’s creation. But the monastery is not a park, Wemhoff explains; its holiness is linked to the presence of the monastic community, which arrived here in 1882. 

“This is just such a holy place. It’s such sacred ground,” says Wemhoff.

McGurn says three topics rise to the top in her meetings: People are too busy, their relationships need help and they have not resolved childhood pain. “The average person is carrying all this,” she says.

“Our conversations about issues in the psychological realm come around one way or another to, ‘Where is God in this for you?,’” says McGurn. “I think it’s better than visiting a psychologist. It’s more rounded.”

“Some people come very wounded,” says Wemhoff. “They need to realize that is not their whole story. We are letting them come into their inner self where they can find a person who is very loved by God.”

Why go on retreat?

For private overnight retreats, the sisters have four small houses. They range from a bungalow used by visiting bishops to a tidy but simple mobile home that originally housed Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s.

Why come to a weekend retreat instead of watching football?

“You get a sense of harmony if you tend to your spiritual side,” says McGurn.

“Balance,” Sister Joan says simply. She likes football, too, but knows that entertainment is no replacement for deep rest and spiritual exploration.

“Everyone suffers,” says Sister Dorothy Jean. “We are hurt. We grieve. We are disappointed by many things — our children, our spouse. You can either be numb to that suffering and just be glued to your computer or your television screen or you can live life more to the full and open yourself up.”

Catholics had best experience monastic life while they still can. Monasteries in the United States are closing, including a Trappist abbey in Utah and a Benedictine foundation in Arizona.

Mary Gaughan of Beaverton has been coming to Queen of Angels for retreats and workshops for 15 years.

“For me, retreats at Shalom have provided an atmosphere that is conducive to self-reflection and finding inner peace,” Gaughan said. “Without a doubt, the retreats at Shalom have been part of an overall process of growth, healing and self-knowledge.”

Society benefits from having spiritual ministry like that offered at Queen of Angels, said Gaughan.

“The sisters at Queen of Angels monastery have created a peaceful and welcoming space for visitors,” she explained. “I’ve found the monastery and its grounds to be a beautiful and serene location to get away from the routines, distractions and stresses of daily life. Shalom at the Monastery provides a place to unplug both literally and figuratively.”

Holy Names Sister Jane Hibbard, a longtime educator and administrator, was invited to help the Benedictines with management and development. She lives at the monastery during the week and comes home to Portland on the weekends.

“We form a solid spiritual base for the church by having the monastic way of life,” said Sister Jane. “You don’t realize the spiritual juice and energy that provides to everything else.”