Shared from the 5/26/2019 Dickinson Press eEdition


Benedictine sisters relocating to Dickinson


The Benedictine Sisters are vacating the Sacred Heart Monastery at Richardton, as shown here, and are moving to Dickinson. They lived at this monastery for over 50 years. The building is currently for sale.

Photos by Linda Sailer / The Dickinson Press


The Benedictine Sisters of Sacred Heart Monastery pose for a photo, standing at left, Sr. Marie Hunkler, Sr. Lucille Heidt, Sr. Renee Branigan, Sr. Phoebe Schwartze, Sr. Patti Koehler; front, Sr. Michael Emond, Sr. Laura Hecker; Sr. Paula Larson; Sr. Ruth Fox and Sr. Kathleen Kuntz. Not shown are Sr. Monica Thome, Sr. Janeane Klein, Sr. Carol Axtmann, Sr. Dolores Heidt, Sr. Anna Rose Ruhland, Sr. Jill West and Sr. Mary William Stadick.


Sister Paula Larson holds up a piece of wood from the Elbowoods monastery built in 1912. Elbowoods is now under Lake Sakakawea. The wood showcases the pioneer sisters and their motherhouse, along with a 15-decade rosary that the ‘old-timers’ used to wear.


Contractors are working on the landscape of the Subiaco Manor Retirement Complex in preparation for the Benedictine Sisters’ move into Dickinson.


► The Sacred Heart Monastery celebrated its first 100 years in the Diocese of Bismarck during 2010. In October 2016 they marked their centennial as an independent Benedictine community. ► Bishop Vincent Wehrle, OSB , first abbot of Assumption Abbey and first bishop of the Diocese of Bismarck, asked for Benedictine sisters from St. Joseph’s Convent in Pennsylvania to serve his new diocese. Sister Pia Tegler (superior) and three others volunteered. ► They arrived at the Sacred Heart Indian Mission in Elbowoods They lived in the same building as the Indian boarding students until a motherhouse was established. ► In 1920, the motherhouse was moved to Garrison. ► In 1925 Mother Pia resigned and Mother Cecilia Bauer was elected prioress. Crop failures and drought often made it impossible for the pastors to pay the sisters’ small salaries, and what money they had saved was lost in bank failures. ► The sisters became affiliated with St. Benedict’s convent in St. Joseph’s get back on their feet, and by 1937 they had become fully independent again. ► The sisters bought a vacant hospital in Crosby and opened an old folks’ home (St. Vincent’s Home in Bismarck) until they had nurses trained to reopen the hospital. ► An invitation came to staff the St. Leo’s School in Minot and they moved the motherhouse to St. Leo’s Convent in 1942. By 1945, the monastery numbered 51 sisters. It was not uncommon for some sisters to have only tables to sleep on. In 1949 they moved into their motherhouse and Sacred Heart Academy at Minot. ► In 1962 four sisters were sent to Bogata, Columbia in response to the pope’s calling for missionaries. ► In 1967, the Sacred Heart Priory (later monastery) was built on 50-acre plot donated by monks of Assumption Abbey at Richardton. ► The post-Vatican era shifted the sisters from education and health care to areas of spirituality, social work, teaching and parish work. A Spirituality Center was developed to provide retreat opportunities at the monastery. ► In 1994 the Sacred Heart Benedictine Foundation was established as fewer sisters were drawing salaries. Programs were established for associates, oblates and volunteers. ► In 2018, the decision was made to move the monastery into Dickinson.

The packing is underway, the monastery’s artifacts were donated to the N.D. Heritage Center and the llamas are going to new homes. It’s nearing time for the Benedictine Sisters of the Richardton Sacred Heart Monastery to move to their new monastery — the former Subiaco Manor Retirement Complex in Dickinson.

“We made the decision to vacate this monastery and to make it available for someone else to use, and for us to relocate to Dickinson, so we are closer to all the health care and services we need at this stage of our lives,” said Prioress Sister Paula Larson. “We had the option of moving east or west, so we decided to go west.”

“The times are different,” continued Sister Renee Branigan. “Our sisters are aging, the place is too large. It’s too beautiful and too functional to be wasted, because this a great place of peace. Those who come after us will be able to provide for others. It’s almost wrong to hang on to something like this.”

The move will likely take place in July or August, depending on when the contractors finish the renovations on the Dickinson property. Until then, the sisters remain busy.

Historic artifacts

Sister Marie Hunkler has been sorting through and donating the monastery’s artifacts to the North Dakota State Historical Society and other museums in North Dakota. Yearbooks from the Sacred Heart Academy at Minot went to the North Dakota Archives.

“They didn’t have such a thing as a coif maker machine, and they were very curious about it,” she said.

Sister Marie described the machine as creating the white pleating around the neck of a nun’s traditional habit.

“We also gave a couple of coifs we found in the house and were totally preserved, plus we gave them a nun doll,” she said.

“We feel really good about all that we gave them because they have climate control and everything is under one collection from us,” she said. Any time you can go there, ask for the Sacred Heart Monastery collection.”

The sisters worked with the collections committee within the heritage center, and it took months of waiting and votes by the committee members to accept the artifacts. At some point Sister Marie is hopeful the collection will be on display for the public to see.

“We also have some very ancient books,” she said, referencing Bibles and divine office books. “We are working to put them online because we need a world-wide audience for some of them,” she said.

A few of the artifacts were also donated to the Divide County Museum at Crosby and the museum at Garrison — places where the sisters have served.

“One thing we’re taking is Mother Pia’s desk. She was our first prioress,” added Sister Marie.

Items such as spare linens and kitchenware were donated to House of Manna in Dickinson.

“They have a great reputation of helping out families in need,” Sister Paula said. “We’ve had two or three rummage sales — everything everybody has stored in their closets, and think they may use at some time. We’re like everybody else.”

Then there are the statues and art. The monastery has from 200 to 300 pictures and original pieces of art for sale.

“Some of the statues are going with us and some may stay here, depending (on) who purchases the building,” Sister Paula said.

And the llamas?

“Sorry to say, Dickinson doesn’t allow llamas in the city,” said Sister Paula, who manages the herd of the seven animals. “Two went to a place between Minnesota and Wisconsin, they’re as happy as they can be. They have a little herd of lambs to take care of. The owners sent me pictures of them getting sheared. The other five are still here until the end of the month. They are going to Badger, Minn. near the Canadian border. One nice thing about Minnesota, they have lots of green grass.”

Sister Patti Koehler has been spinning the llama wool into yarn for sale.

“If somebody would like some yarn, they can find it in the Abby’s gift shop. I’m still doing spinning and probably will attend some fiber shows… and I still like to do art,” she said.

But what about Zena, the barn cat? She went with the llamas. Molly, the monastery’s canine senior citizen, is going with the sisters, as are three other cats.

The monastery’s garden will be reduced to several raised garden beds. If anyone misses the canning, it will be Sister Michael Emond.

“Making chokecherry jelly is a big thing for her,” said Sister Paula.

“... and her caramel is the greatest,” added Sister Renee.

Letting go

“The hardest thing to let go is our history,” said Sister Marie. “We showed the sisters what we were going to be giving away and where everything is. If anybody wants to see it, we know where it is.”

“Another thing I will miss,” she continued, “is the groups and guests. It was such a blessing to see all the people who came through the doors all these 50 years. It’s been a tremendous feeling to share our Benedictine hospitality. At the moment we no longer have room for outside guests and that’s going to be a real big change.”

The monastery’s Spirituality Center activities ended in December, said Sister Phoebe Schwartze.

“We wanted to give them a chance to find another place to go. There’s been some tears. They said they were going to miss us… are you sure? Are you sure? It’s been hard,” she said.

Sister Patti will miss her walks on the grounds.

“I’m not going to miss this building so much, but I’ll miss the land, being able to go out for walks. You see the rabbits, you breathe in the pine trees, it’s being out in the open space,” she said.

“The thing is I’ll miss is the country living, because when I lived at Subaco, we had prairie back of us and now its built up to the hilt,” said Sister Renee.

Sister Phoebe added, “I’ll also miss the courtyard. We have everything from goldfinches to blue jays and squirrels… there are generations and generations of squirrels.”

And Sister Paula said, “One thing not being sold is our cemetery. We’ll all return there one day… we’re temporarily absent.”

Sister Ruth continued, “The thing I will miss the most is our cemetery, because I know most of the sisters buried there… my teachers, my companions, my mentors are out there. It’s a holy place to walk among them and be inspired. That’s our heritage lying out there.”

The sisters will miss their closest neighbors — the Assumption Abbey brothers and priests, while Sister Marie will especially miss their chapel.

“It will be the first time in community life of 50 years we won’t have an organ,” she said.

“It’s too big for the space we have,” added Sister Ruth.

Looking forward

The sisters are looking forward to taking care of a smaller space, the accessibility of health care and for an easier time interacting with the community. They are moving from 87,000 square feet to 13,000 square feet.

“We’re putting in walk-in showers, handicpaped accessible, and to accommodate people we added two more bedrooms, plus we have an office space, a chapel, exercise room and storage. The other end will have a fourcar garage, and it’s all connected, and all on one level, which is perfect,”said Sister Paula.

No strangers to moving

“As Benedictines we’ve gotten around,” said Sister Renee Branigan said. “This is our fifth move. Many of us moved here from Minot over 50 years ago. This is the longest we’ve been in one place.”

They are excited to take along eight stained glass windows for their new chapel. These windows were inherited from St. Joseph’s Hospital during its renovation. One original window will remain in the Richardton chapel.

“Our new chapel will be smaller, 14 chairs in it. It’s going to be teensy,” said Sister Renee.

The sisters have ideas for volunteering and service.

“We intend to help in a spiritual way wherever the need arises. Some parish may tap us for something or we’ll tap a parish for something,” Sister Paula said.

“People tell us ‘we’ll miss you and what you do,’ but I always say no matter where we are we are monastery and the first thing is prayer,” added Sister Phoebe.

The monastery is keeping its Sacred Heart Benedictione Foundation and will continue four fundraisers, including Giving Hearts Day. In turn, the monastery supports community causes such as Domestic Violence.

In placing the Richardton monastery for sale, potential buyers have the option of using their two wind turbines.

“We sisters were pioneers of wind energy for the state of North Dakota, but we don’t know if the new occupants will want to use wind energy,” said Sister Paula

Part of the Richardton monastery is heated by geothermal energy and another part by a hybrid heat pump system. Portions of the east wing have been decommissioned, but the monastery still has occupancy for 31 people with private baths.


Because the Subiaco property is considerably smaller, several celebrations are planned after the move.

“We wouldn’t be Benedictines if we didn’t have some sort of celebration,” said Sister Paula.

“I think we have two feelings (about the move),” she said. “One is excitement about the new place and the other feeling is a kind of muted sadness about leaving here.”

Sailer is lifestyles editor at The Press;

call her at 701-456-1209.

See this article in the e-Edition Here