The nuns who shaped Duluth: Benedictines observe 125 years since answering call to 'rough-and-tumble' village
Sister Judine Mayerle stood in a basement passageway, one hand on a massive white column.
"I think this is really cool," the Benedictine nun said, with almost the same respect in her voice with which she might speak of a religious icon. "This is holding up the building."
The column, accessible down a corridor lined with excess furnishings, is one of the footings holding up Tower Hall, built as "Villa Sancta Scholastica" in the first decade of the 1900s and now the landmark building on the campus of the College of St. Scholastica.
The footings are as solid as the rocky land on which the college, St. Scholastica Monastery and Benedictine Living Community are built off Kenwood Avenue in Duluth. Mayerle, the monastery's in-house historian, said that in the 1980s engineers were asked to see if the library could support two additional floors.
"They said you could add ... more than that if you had the space because the footings went so deep into the ground," Mayerle said.
Those footings could be seen as a metaphor, of sorts, for the Benedictines themselves as they quietly celebrate 125 years in Duluth, a span of time during which they've influenced everything from education to health care to social services to the arts.
"Long term, I would say health care and education — great contributions to that," said Duluth publisher and historian Tony Dierckins, when asked to consider the place of the Benedictines in Duluth.
It's hard to imagine what Duluth would look like today had not 32 nuns from St. Benedict's Convent in St. Joseph, Minn., established a new foundation here in 1892. Their St. Mary's Hospital eventually helped lead to what is now Essentia Health, with all of its medical district buildings and outlying clinics. The property on Kenwood Avenue that began as what the sisters called the "Daisy Farm" has grown to 186 acres including monastery, co-ed college and three modern nursing facilities.
But in an interview in a sitting room of the monastery, three of the current Benedictines said their order has gone far beyond that, and far beyond Duluth. They have ongoing relationships with Benedictine communities in Tanzania and Chile, and they've staffed schools in Chicago, Cincinnati, Phoenix and Washington, D.C., as well as in Minnesota communities from International Falls to the Twin Cities. They've established "daughter houses" in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Crookston, Minn.
"We've had sisters in social work; we've had sisters visiting in the Central Hillside, for example," Mayerle said. "We also have sisters who are writers, who are artists."
Among the latter was Sister Mary Charles McGough, whose work is seen in Temple Israel, Glen Avon Presbyterian Church, Twelve Holy Apostles Orthodox Church and in the wall-of-granite sculpture outside of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, among other places.
"They were big on art and aesthetics," Dierckins said of the Benedictines in Duluth. "That's why you have the beautiful architecture up there. That's why you have the wonderful art."
During a tour, Mayerle pointed out the arches that serve as a theme of the Romanesque architecture of Tower Hall, Our Lady Queen of Peace Chapel and Stanbrook Hall, home of the monastery. Sister Beverly Raway, the monastery's prioress, pointed to prize artwork and furnishings along the halls.
All of this started under the leadership of a diminutive spark plug of a nun who historical accounts say would have preferred the contemplative life in the cloister.
Catherine Kerst was a spiritual descendant of three Benedictine sisters who left Eichstatt, Bavaria, in 1852, for St. Mary's, Penn., to serve the needs of German-Catholic immigrants. They spread west, including to St. Joseph.
Also in 1852, Peter and Anna Kerst, a well-to-do German couple, moved from Bremerhaven, Germany, to St. Paul with their three young children, including 5-year-old Catherine. Both Catherine and another sister eventually served together as Benedictine nuns, taking the names Scholastica and Alexia.
The frontier village of Duluth evidently wasn't on Mother Scholastica's places-to-live list.
"She wanted more of a quiet religious life, and she wanted to go back to the East Coast and be in St. Mary's, Pa.," Mayerle said. "Our whole history would have been different had that been allowed to happen."
Instead, she was asked to come to Duluth, making an overnight trip in December 1880 to explore starting a Catholic school. That led to the winter of 1881-82, during which she and other nuns lived and taught 200 children in the cold of a converted livery barn and carriage house.
Duluth's population in 1880 was 3,483.
"They came by themselves into what essentially was a wilderness," Mayerle said. "And this was a very rough-and-tumble city."
The Kerst sisters started St. Mary's Hospital at Twentieth Avenue West and Third Street in 1898 in response to a typhoid epidemic, Dierckins said.
St. Luke's hospital already was in existence — established because of an earlier typhoid epidemic — but it was a Protestant hospital. The distinction mattered then, Dierckins said.
"They started (St. Mary's) when somebody needed to build a hospital for poor Catholic people," he said. "Think of the Catholics back then the way we think of other minority groups today — the poor, the uneducated, the marginalized. That's what the Catholics were back then."
St. Mary's moved to East Third Street in 1898. Decades later it merged with the Duluth Clinic and eventually came to serve as the flagship hospital for Essentia Health.
The original heritage is virtually lost, Dierckins said.
"You can't look at Essentia today and say that is the history and the legacy of the Benedictines," he said. "Essentia is the history and the legacy of economic realities."
But a Benedictine, Sister Joan Marie Stelman, holds a vice presidency with Essentia Health, Raway noted. Some chaplaincy positions at the hospital also are held by Benedictines, Mayerle added.
'She built my diocese'
Meanwhile, the monastery formed in Duluth in 1892 with Mother Scholastica as prioress from then until her death in 1911. By then, the nuns had moved from rented space in Munger Terrace, set up Sacred Heart Institute (later St. Mary's Hall) at Third Avenue East and Third Street, and moved again to their permanent home in what at the time was a pastureland well beyond the city limits. They also were staffing 18 elementary parish schools, four secondary schools, five hospitals, an orphanage, a retirement home and a nursing school, Mayerle wrote for the monastery's newsletter, Pathways.
"She was a very take-charge woman," Mayerle said of Scholastica, adding that at her funeral, Bishop James McGolrick said of Scholastica, "She built my diocese."
Their nursing school grew into the College of St. Scholastica. Although now a liberal arts institution with an array of course offerings, it is still the second-largest nursing school in the state. The community's Benedictine Health System includes more than 40 senior care facilities spread across five states.
The present monastery sits in what was built in 1938 as a girls high school known as Stanbrook Hall. It was part of a major building project led by Mother Agnes Somers, known as "the builder," Mayerle said.
"The chapel-library complex, the cloister walk, Stanbrook Hall — when war was breaking out," Mayerle said. "You think, well, for heaven's sake."
Added Sister Grace Marie Braun, who served as prioress from 1975-87, "Well, that's where the courage comes in."
Mother Scholastica, Alexis — who succeeded her as prioress — and their mother, Anna Kerst, all are buried on the grounds of Gethsemane Cemetery, a peaceful spot on a hill above the monastery and college. They're among 502 Benedictines whose remains or cremains are there, each marked by a simple stone.
But the Benedictines in Duluth, who reached a population of 456 in 1959, have dropped to 62 today. They've ceded some of their space to the college and have been turning over some of their work to lay people, Raway said. This year, they spent $150,000 to convert some of their unused space at the monastery to a spiritual retreat center, adding to the service provided at the McCabe Renewal Center, 2125 Abbotsford Ave.
The declining numbers are true everywhere in this country, Raway said. It's in Africa, now, where monastery populations sometimes number in the hundreds.
But she's confident the Benedictines will remain in Duluth to celebrate their 150th anniversary here.
"We'll be here. We'll be here in one form or another, I think," she said.
"We'll be smaller, but we'll be here."
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The Sisters of St. Scholastica Monastery will host a celebration of their 125th anniversary as an independent Benedictine monastery from 1-3:30 p.m. Sept. 16 at the monastery's Rockhurst dining room. Tours, refreshments and conversation will be provided. RSVP to email@example.com.
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By the numbers
502 — Sisters in Gethsemane Cemetery on the monastery grounds
1 — Man in Gethsemane Cemetery (a monsignor)
62 — Sisters at the St. Scholastica Monastery today
456 — Sisters at the monastery in 1959
$8,000 — Price of the purchase of the first 80 acres of the land on which the monastery and the College of St. Scholastica sit today, in 1902