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The nuns of Monastery Immaculate Conception​ celebrate 150 years of sisterhood.


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The Sisters of St. Benedict monastery sits atop a hill in Ferdinand, Indiana. /Photo by Alexis Daily

The Monastery Immaculate Conception sits atop a large hill overlooking the small town of Ferdinand. A narrow, red-brick pathway leads up the hill to the monastery’s entrance. The monastery comprises 24 buildings, with the golden dome-shaped chapel as its centerpiece. The monastery resembles a castle from a storybook. Surrounded by acres of green grass and trees, it is silent other than the far-off “caw” of the crows and the gentle billow of the wind. Taking a deep breath to calm our nerves and excitement, we walk through the towering archways and open the carved doors.

A small, silver-haired woman wearing a navy sweatshirt with a giant Italian flag and “Italia” embroidered across the front greets us while a smile. Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” plays in the background.

Maybe she’s a volunteer who helps out in the main office, we think.

She asks the purpose of our visit and assures us the communications specialist will be out shortly. About five minutes later, a woman in her forties, wearing blue jeans, a pink shirt and a black fleece jacket introduces herself as Sister Briana, the first of many surprises to come. Where we expected no-nonsense nuns dressed in habits or dull, sensible clothing we found a group of welcoming and fun-loving women of all ages.

With almost 150 members, this Benedictine community of sisters is one of the largest monasteries in the country and will celebrate its 150 th anniversary this October. And while some traditions, like their dedication to prayer and service, have remained the same, their once-strict and silent lifestyles changed dramatically as social and economic forces from the outside world reached even the monastery on the hill.

Today’s Benedictine sisters bake, play instruments like the harp, organ or piano and even work in the monastery’s beauty parlor. In their free time, they might play euchre, pickleball or cornhole or even sled down the snow-covered hill.

This traditionally closed group now hosts around 12,000 visitors of all faiths, ages, races and genders annually. The monastery’s Kordes Center offers lodging for all types of guests, even those making the nine-mile drive to Holiday World in Santa Claus.

“It’s a Benedictine value that you’re supposed to treat every person at the door like it’s Christ, so it doesn’t matter who you are or what sex you are,” Sister Michelle Mohr says “We administer help to whoever is in need.”

That commitment has prompted the nuns to adapt some of their older buildings for new purposes. Benet Hall, a former dormitory, is undergoing renovations to become affordable senior housing. The 15 two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartments, equipped with living rooms and kitchens, will open this November, and though they are on the monastery property, all backgrounds and faiths are welcome.

“We try to discern where God is calling us,” says Prioress Barbara Lynn Schmitz. “We all sit in a room and discuss our personal preferences and then we make our decision. Where is God calling us and how can we respond?”

The monastery follows St. Benedict’s advice to listen to all members in the community, youngest to oldest, because everyone has a special piece of the wisdom. The sisters use “Stable Tables,” a randomly assigned group of sisters of varied ages and backgrounds, when deciding the monastery’s long-term projects. Each sister is assigned a group to sit with during planning meetings and discuss personal views. The stable tables remain in place for the entire year so the sisters can get to know one another on a deeper level.

“What’s really nice, too, is I have friends that are older, my age and younger, so it’s not like the age groups stay together,” Sister Mary Philip Berger says. “We’re all together. Society doesn’t always think of relationships like that.”

This strong sense of sisterhood is deeply rooted in the past, to a day 150 years ago when four young women left the safety of their home in Kentucky to create a new monastery in Southern Indiana.

A model of the monastery stands in the lobby. In 1938, when Mother Serafine celebrated her 50th jubilee, the 50th anniversary of her becoming a Sister, the architect constructed a cake to resemble the church. The Sisters thought the cake was too beautiful to eat, so, to give them the permanent beauty of the cake’s design, he built a model of the monastery. /Photo by Alexis Daily

IT WAS 1867, two years after the end of the Civil War, when the four Benedictine sisters traveled by boat, train and horse and buggy to Ferdinand, where the local pastor needed German-speaking nuns to teach the children of German immigrants. With very little knowledge of their new home but a lot of faith, the sisters, aged 19, 21, 22 and 33, set out to establish the Monastery Immaculate Conception.

The local community was vital to their success. Farmers gave them vegetables, dairy and meat products. The four sisters lived simple lives and wore floor-length habits.

“When they came, they started out in a little house which was at the foot of the hill,” says Sister Mary Andre, the monastery’s historian. “It wasn't long before women started wanting to enter, and so rather than keep adding on to that house, they got land up here on the hill and built what we call the Quadrangle.”

Beginning in October 1870, the Quadrangle opened the Academy of Immaculate Conception, a boarding school. Enrollment eventually reached 200 students with young women of all faiths from the United States, Japan, Mexico and Guatemala attending the four-year accredited high school.

Prior to receiving electricity in 1910, the sisters prayed by candlelight or restricted prayer to hours with sufficient daylight.

“We got up when it was light and went to bed when it was dark,” Sister Mary Andre says of her predecessors’ daily lives. “And in between, we prayed.”

The monastery structure remained the same until 1914 when Mother Serafine was elected Prioress. She oversaw the building of a chapel to accommodate the 200 sisters in the community and serve as a monument to God.

Twenty-one-year-old St. Louis architect Victor Klutho created the chapel blueprints in just one month. Construction began in 1915, but a shortage of funds and workers during World War I delayed the completion until 1924.

“There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears put into the church,” Sister Mary Andre says.

Artisans in Germany hand-carved the pews. Eighty-six angels in marble and stained glass adorn the church’s 90-foot-high dome.

“Mother Serafine loved angels, so she wanted to make sure there's enough of them in here, so we can sing and praise God with the angels,” Sister Mary Andre says.During the 1950s, the Monastery Immaculate Conception had its largest community with over 500 sisters who taught in over 75 schools in 12 states and five countries. 

The growth was mostly due to the Sister Formation Movement, which encouraged the sisters to pursue formal education. As the nuns became more educated, they grew more free-thinking and independent. They were able to perform more prestigious jobs as doctors and lawyers and interact more with the outside world.

The entrance to the chapel is permanently worn by the nuns passing through its doors since its opening in the 1930s. /Photo by Alexis Daily

However, the Vatican II reform during the mid-1960s altered religious expectations for Catholics. The church urged nuns to update and modernize their look, thus the habit was abandoned. The reform also gave nuns a more active role in the church, ultimately leading to the decline of nuns joining the monastery. Many believe this is because women realized they no longer had to be nuns to have relationships with God and the church.

“Before the reforms, there were few career options for women, and many saw being a nun as one of those options,” Sister Briana says.

The decreasing numbers of nuns across the country led to many monastery closings, and while the Monastery Immaculate Conception was able to sustain, it too faced dwindling numbers.

“People were leaving left and right because of the expectations and rules,” Briana says. “The roles of women were changing, and the world was just changing a lot, too.”The 20 groups of 10 sisters for stable tables transformed into nine groups of seven or eight sisters. Classes of postulants dropped from 20 to around five. Sisters began discussing the pertinence of keeping certain buildings open that were no longer needed.

Though the community is smaller today, the monastery remains true to its values.

“Community life is still sustaining,” Sister Briana says. “The day to day is just different.”

Today, only 110 of the 147 sisters live within the monastery’s walls, but even those who don’t live there still feel the connection.

“This is home,” Sister Briana says. “Some of us just happen to be living elsewhere. ”

At the entrance to the chapel, the original concrete floor dips at the threshold, a tangible effect of the sisters’ dedication to prayer. Each year the question of whether to fix the floor comes up, and each year they refuse. The dip represents all the sisters who have passed through the chapel doors, back and forth, back and forth, for the last 150 years.

Adjacent to the chapel is the Blessed Virgin room. Beginning in the early 1990s when new women entered the community, they were welcomed through the main entrance of the monastery into this room. Here, too, the sisters who died were laid under the same structure so sisters could pay their respects. This tradition continues today.

“It’s the beginning and ending of our lives,” Sister Mary Andre says.

Then vs. Now

The life of a nun at Monastery Immaculate Conception has changed dramatically in the last 150 years.

1867:

○ Sisters wore floor-length cotton and wool habits with a woolen belt, a rosary, large sleeves and a scapular over their belt.

○ Group prayer was seven times a day.

○ Sisters lived a life of solitude. Visitors were rarely allowed, and sisters were not permitted to leave the monastery grounds.

○ Sisters served mainly as teachers or nurses.

○ Talking was not permitted in the hallways or during meals.

○ Girls as young as 12 joined the convent.

○ If sisters did something wrong, like break a dish, they had to “kneel out,” or sit on their knees and pray for forgiveness.

○ Sisters received one-week of vacation every five years.

Today:

○ Sisters wear sweatshirts, sweaters, jeans, pants – really, whatever they want.

○ Group prayer is three times a day.

○ Sisters speak to one another and spend time playing games, like euchre, and helping with projects, like quilting, around the church.

○ Sisters have a variety of professions, including lawyers, psychologists, doctors and teachers.

○ Meals are occasionally eaten in silence for certain events, but sisters speak with one another during the day and at other meals.

○ The monastery prefers women who have college degrees or comparable life experience.

○ When sisters make mistakes, they apologize to the person or people they have wronged directly.

○ Sisters can take up to two weeks of vacation every year.

Bakery

Sisters of all ages also work together in various church projects. On a recent visit to the monastery’s Simply Divine Bakery, Sister Jean Marie Ballard, 61, is demonstrating to Sister Lynn Marie Falcony, a 29-year-old postulant, a woman in the process of becoming a nun, how to assemble and bake the sticky pecan rolls to be eaten after Sunday’s Mass. She weighs the dough prior to rolling it out, then adds a generous sprinkling of cinnamon before cutting a strip of dough, twisting it and laying it atop a sugar-pecan mixture.

Sister Jean Marie began working in the bakery 38 years ago, learning recipes and techniques from Sister Mary Jude Bouvy, a long-time baker whose photo hangs on the bakery wall. The sisters bake nine different types of cookies to be sold in their gift shop and at wholesale to other companies.

However, their Springerle cookies are their specialty. Originally made by the sisters for Ferdinand’s Christkindlmarkt 19 years ago, the dense cookies tasting of black licorice are stamped with nature or Christmas scenes on molds brought from Germany many years ago.

In 2008, the sisters and their cookies joined Indiana Artisan, a society of craftsmen and women around Indiana who create various hand-made products around the state.

Quilting

The monastery hosts quilting socials with other religious groups in Southern Indiana and Kentucky. Permanent callouses mark Sister Leona Schlachter’s fingers from not using a thimble. Sister Leona learned how to quilt after teaching school for 42 years.

“I love it because you can be as creative as you want to be,” she says.

She now spends her free time in the monastery’s craft room working on her quilts with help from other sisters. Using her mother’s old wooden stencils, Sister Leona meticulously maps each quilt’s stitching pattern. Currently she is planning a quilting social with other nearby parishes and hopes to have 30 new quilts to sell for the monastery’s sesquicentennial in October.

Spiritual Enrichment Programs

Part of the sisters’ outreach to the community is their spiritual enrichment programs. These workshops range from a four-hour session to weeklong retreats and cover topics such as “Forgiving What You Cannot Forget” and “Psalms: Prayers of the Heart.” Programs cost anywhere from $75 to $150 depending on type and length.

Sister Jane Will wears many hats. She is a teacher and a psychologist. She has two master degrees, one in education and another in Christian spirituality, as well as a doctoral degree in psychology. She regularly leads the enrichment programs with help from the other sisters.

“We look at what we did in the past that had good attendance, and then each year, too, we try something new,” Sister Jane says.

People of all age and faiths are invited to attend the retreats. The sisters hold specific retreats for visitors of different backgrounds to make it fun and engaging for everyone. For example, the monastery hosts confirmation retreats for high school students and sleep-away summer camps for younger children.

“We're always happy to have them,” Sister Jane says. “And I think that when people get here and see the campus and have a chance to experience it, they find it very peaceful.”

The sisters also have a giant prayer board where people can call in or write their prayers. Each day all of the sisters gather and pray for those on the Prayer Board, their way of repairing the hurting world. For Sister Jane, this starts with believing in the mercy of the individual and of God.

“I think that we can change the world if we're really that way and if it starts with each one of us,” Sister Jane says.


Mini-Profiles

Briana Craddock, 43, communications specialist and assistant to the bakery manager

Age when entered: 23

Why I entered: I became a sister because I felt God was calling me to religious life. I felt at home here from the first time I visited, even though I had never met any of the women before.

How my family reacted: My family was not too pleased that I chose to enter a community in Indiana since I was living with them in Southern California at the time. My mother was angry. My sister is over 10 years younger than I am, so she missed me a lot.

Favorite thing about living here: We have beautiful grounds and wild animals such as deer, foxes, opossums, groundhogs and raccoons. Additionally, community has drawn out talents I didn’t know I had.

What I do for fun: I like to draw, sew, paint, garden, walk and read. I also enjoy playing pickleball, and I like to sing with others.


Michelle Mohr, 80, music minister

Age when entered: 17

Why I entered: The reason I went to the monastery was not because I felt like, ‘Oh, I really have this calling.’ The truth was I couldn’t get it out of my mind, and so I knew the only way to get it out of my mind was to come.

How my family reacted: I came here after my junior year in high school, which, at that time, was not unusual. I came home from church one Sunday and I walked in the kitchen and I said, ‘I’m going to the convent.’ My dad said he thought I would only last two weeks. When we were driving up the hill to the monastery, my dad said, “Connie has her castle now,” because when I was younger I said I wanted to live in a castle. Connie is my given name.

Favorite thing about living here: I like the flow of life. I played clarinet in my high school band, and we played solos for the sisters. Even then as a visitor there was a peace, and I don’t know if I could have said it when I was 17, but there was a longing to be part of that.

What I do for fun: I follow the Cardinals in baseball. I also follow Peyton Manning. I watched every game that I could for him. I listen to the Pacers and IU basketball, too. I also like sewing and making things.


Barbara Lynn Schmitz, 61, prioress

Sister Barbara Lynn Schmitz, the monastery prioress. /Photo by Alexis Daily

Age when entered: 26

Why I entered: I was working for an interior design firm in Memphis, had an apartment, car and was dating a wonderful man. By most standards I had a great life, but there was a desire to grow in my faith life. I came to Ferdinand and knew God was calling me to be a member of the community and serve the church in the Benedictine way of life. It gives me the balance I need to grow personally and to support others in their vocation in life.

How my family reacted: It always seems like the last people to know you’re interested are your family and your boyfriend. My boyfriend had a fit. The people I worked with thought I had lost my mind. My parents were stunned. They didn’t really know what to say. I come from Memphis, and it’s not a really Catholic area. No one I ever knew became a nun.

Favorite thing about living here: We don’t look at birth certificates, and we administer help to whoever is in need. You don’t have to be a nurse or a teacher, and I’m glad because I have terrible handwriting. I have a degree in business and worked in administration for a long time. It’s whatever your talents are. We all have different backgrounds.

What I do for fun: If it snows, we go sled-riding. There’s lots of walking around the grounds, too. We’re very involved with the town and the community, which is fun for us. We play a lot of card games, like Egyptian rummy, bridge, sheep’s head and euchre. We also play corn hole every once in a while.


Mary Philip Berger, 74, archive assistant, volunteer director, sacristy and tour guide

Age when entered: 19

Why I entered: I felt a calling to religious life. It's hard to explain the reason. I just wanted to live a life dedicated to serving God and others in a special way.

How my family reacted: My mother was delighted that I chose the monastery. My father tried to talk me out of it, and he tried in every way to prevent me. However, as soon as I received the veil, he was overjoyed and took me around to introduce me to all of his buddies.

Favorite thing about living here: I can be present to all the sisters and participate in the daily prayer schedule of the monastery.

What I do for fun: I enjoy playing cards – bridge, canasta, sheepshead and Egyptian rummy.


Theresa Gunter, 49, vocation director

Age when entered: 25

Why I entered: I became a religious because I wanted to see what it was about, because it was different. I wanted to get it out of my system.

How my family reacted: They were supportive. Some of them thought I was a little crazy. They all had questions, and a lot of them knew a long time ago that I was going to end up doing something like that.

Favorite thing about living here: Being surrounded by people who love me. I love the peace that I feel. I love exploring all the different places, and I love that my life is different and I'm doing what I think I'm supposed to be doing.

What I do for fun: Hike, watch movies, play music, build bonfires, laugh, hang out with friends, play games, do things that you like to do for fun.


St. Benedict’s ‘Ladies of the Night’

At night, the monastery’s grotto shines by candlelight and a feeling of peace sweeps over the grounds. Inside, until about 10 p.m., the crypt on the bottom floor, three women from Winamac are painting the floor a deep red. They are St. Benedict’s ‘Ladies of the Night.’

When farmer Diane Kolish, 53, received a flyer from the monastery asking for volunteers, she searched for more information online and shared it with friends Linda Webb, 52, the chief nurse executive at Pulaski Memorial Hospital, and Julie Chapman, 55, a pharmacist.

After some deliberation, the three decided to make the four-and-a-half hour journey to Ferdinand to spend a week during the summer of 2014 living and volunteering in the monastery.

“What we thought was our getaway ended up being a blessing for all of us,” Webb says.

Tasked with painting the archive’s floor, the women began working. However, since the sisters would often walk on the floor during the day, the women painted exclusively at night, after the sisters ate dinner, until around 10 p.m. This is how they earned the nickname ‘Ladies of the Night.’

“Immediately we were impressed by how welcoming and friendly the ladies, and even the staff, was,” Webb says. “They were all so nice and funny.”

The “Ladies of the Night” paint the floors of the monastery’s archive. /Photo courtesy of Linda Webb

During the days, volunteer coordinator, Sister Mary Philip, offered small projects to keep them busy, like cataloging paintings and cleaning screens. The women also participated in daily activities with the sisters, like the three prayer sessions and meals.

“You just get a sense of peace when you’re there and you bring that back with you,” Chapman says. “It’s very uplifting.”

The women were adopted into the community and included in all activities, with sisters making efforts to learn about their experiences and lives. Sister Mary Philip taught them how to play card game dirty canasta, a game the women now call ‘canasta the Benedict way.’

“It doesn’t feel like you’re doing service,” Webb says. “You feel guilty because you’re having such a wonderful time with them.”

This is what keeps the women coming back year after year.The three already have the dates picked out for this year’s trip. Their third trip. And while details about their service project are unknown, they eagerly await their return to the monastery grounds.

“When I was looking at the pamphlet I got, it said the monastery was a sacred treasure, but surely those sisters are the real treasure,” Kolish says. “What they do for the community and how they treat each other and their guests and volunteers makes you want to go back.”


Nuns by the Number: The Numbers Behind the 147 Nuns

- 105: minutes in prayer/weekday

- 120: minutes in prayer/weekend day

- 0: average number of habits owned by each nun

- 500: Their largest monastic community

- 4: Their smallest monastic community

- 53.5: Bowls of popcorn eaten per week

- 99: Oldest Nun

- 26: Youngest Nun

- 243: bibles owned

- 315: rosaries owned