Benedictine Sister Agatha Meissner, who died in 2015, reads a book with a child at St. Joseph Shelter in Mount Angel. (Courtesy Queen of Angels Monastery)
Benedictine Sister Agatha Meissner, who died in 2015, reads a book with a child at St. Joseph Shelter in Mount Angel. (Courtesy Queen of Angels Monastery)
MOUNT ANGEL — In recent years, the Benedictine Sisters of Mount Angel kindly have directed interested vocations elsewhere. It’s a step toward a sad yet graceful transition.

Queen of Angels, on the outskirts of this Bavarian-themed town in the Willamette River Valley, is hardly alone when it comes to religious communities shrinking toward closure. In 1970, there were about 161,000 religious sisters in the U.S. In 2021, there were about 39,000. As for Queen of Angels, the high point came in 1964 with 144 nuns. Now there are 18 Benedictine women here.

The reasons for the decrease are many. Women now have more opportunities in careers, including as lay ministers in the church, said Holy Names Sister Jane Hibbard, who has been helping the Benedictines administer their monastery. The Benedictines also cite smaller families and a tendency among younger people to keep life options open. Benedictine life, by contrast, calls for the nun to make sacred vows to spend her life in work and prayer in one place.

“We may minister elsewhere for a time, but Mount Angel is home to us,” said Sister Joan Pokorny, who became a sister in 1964 and was a teacher and coach for decades. “This is home base. We always come back to Mount Angel.”

The cemetery here, one of the favorite places of prayer, is testimony to that promise of stability. More than 200 women rest there, having prayed, worked and offered guidance for Oregon Catholics since 1882.



Called to education

The sisters, who live according to the 1,500-year-old Rule of St. Benedict, came to Oregon from Switzerland, led by Mother Bernardine Wachter. They lived for a time in Gervais in an abandoned saloon. By 1888, they had built their original spired building in Mount Angel, which still stands. At the start, their main task was perpetual adoration of the Eucharist.

But out of prayer comes service and so the Benedictines answered the community’s desperate call for teachers. They began in Grand Ronde at the mission for indigenous children.

Then Benedictine women taught over the decades not only in their own academy and college but in the town of Mount Angel, including the local public school. They also traveled to Catholic schools around the region, including in Albany, Oregon City, Shaw, Woodburn, Silverton, Lebanon, St. Paul, Portland, Salem and Gervais.

“Education was the need of the time,” said Sister Christine Rausch, who entered the monastery in 1949 and became a longtime teacher. “The immigrants arriving needed teachers.”

Eventually, other sisters worked in parish ministry. That includes Sister Dorothy Jean Beyer, a longtime minister at St. Mary Parish in Mount Angel.

In recent years, the sisters have hosted a youth center and now an alternative Catholic high school.

Early on, the sisters cooked and did laundry for their schools, inglorious but vital work. Into the 1960s, the monastery housed cows, pigs and chickens. There is still an orchard and a large garden. One nun kept bees while others plowed fields. A fruit-drying building still stands on campus. Novices picked vegetables and fruit and milked cows.

Many of the sisters never ventured far from the monastery. One of the kindest of the Benedictines is Sister Mechtilde Fennimore, 92. She entered the monastery 75 years ago and mostly stayed close.

“My title could be jack of all trades,” said Sister Mechtilde. “I’ve accepted the changes as they came. When I look back, I see that there was need for them.” As is typical with her, Sister Mechtilde thinks of others.

“We need to pray for the people out there because life is so difficult,” she said. “They don’t have everything needed to help them.”



Hospitality a way of life

For many visitors, Queen of Angels Monastery has been a cherished spiritual oasis. Women’s retreats started early on; the minis-try reaches back to 1934, when women were invited to come during the summer to spend five days.

Sister Donna Marie Chartraw, a former prioress, recalls her mother coming to retreats for almost 30 years. Starting in the 1970s, Shalom Prayer Center long offered quiet space for anyone, no matter their gender or faith, as well as spiritual direction, conferences, group retreats and regular spiritual groups.

Hospitality is a key part of Benedictine life. Even now, retreatants who go to Queen of Angels are welcomed as if they have a dozen mothers. And for decades, the welcome has been extended beyond retreat-goers.

Always with prayer as their chief calling, the Benedictines expanded their outreach starting in the 1950s. In 1957, the community opened a care center for seniors with many sisters earning degrees in nursing and gerontology. After the academy and college closed in the 1960s and 70s, the sisters used some of their school buildings to serve people in need. St. Joseph Shelter and Mission Benedict provided emergency and transitional shelter and assistance to people without homes.

In the 1970s, the women began on oblate program. Still going, it welcomes people interested in abiding by Benedictine values while living outside the monastery.



Resilient

The monastery has responded to damage and trials with grace. In 1893, a sister found a seedling near the rail tracks and planted it next to the new monastery. The women watered the little plant with used dishwater. Surprisingly, it turned into a giant sequoia.

In 1969, a group of college boys scaled the tree and hacked off branches, hoping for a Christmas tree. The wounded sequoia be-came a symbol of healing and endurance for the Benedictine women. It’s even part of their logo.

The chapel — with clear instead of stained glass — has a view out at the tree, plus the monastery grounds to which the women are vowed.

“The sisters of this community are of the earth, of the soil and attached to beauty,” said Sister Joan. “Saving the earth was an early work here.”

The 1993 spring break earthquake seriously damaged the buildings, making it necessary to tear down some buildings and put some new ones up, including the chapel, home to the sisters’ prayer.



Prayer is the anchor


Prayer always has been the anchor and center of Benedictine life. The women keep a regular schedule in the chapel and pray on their own in many ways. Evenings are covered by Grand Silence.

“I think we are more conscious right now in our role of prayer for the world,” said Sister Joseph Fennimore. “Prayer for the needs of the world is very very important. What you do in the world emanates from what happens here.”

Prayer and laughter sometimes go together. Sister Donna Marie said that on occasion, something would strike one sister funny and then the whole pew or table would get laughing. For example, at one prayer session, the sisters were to turn one way to receive a blessing; one nun turned completely the wrong direction and holy hilarity ensued.

Novices were known to shortsheet beds as a joke.

Once, when Sister Donna Marie’s parents came to visit and asked for her, the elderly nun at reception misheard the name and thought they had asked for a sister who had died not long before. “I am so sorry to say,” the older sister responded. “But she’s down in the cemetery.” Once the mistake was discovered, guffaws filled the grounds.