In a uncommon step, Catholic nuns set about constructing a brand new monastery

(RNS) – Sister Mary Bede was no stranger to life in quarantine even before the coronavirus pandemic.

Sister Bede and 22 other Cistercian women who live with her in the Valley of Our Lady in the monastery on Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin, are kept in silence according to the rule of their ancient Catholic monastic orders.

The sisters who are devoted to constant prayer live simply and feed themselves by baking communion bread for churches in Wisconsin and as far as Australia.

The Prairie du Sac-Cistercians may be in sync with the isolation of Americans during the pandemic, but in every other way they are an exception to contemporary culture: as fewer people attend Christian churches and even fewer enter Catholic religious life each year this growing their community. In addition, millennials make up more than a third of their membership.

With 23 women, the community, the only one of its kind in the country, is not huge, but the current buildings are at full capacity. The nuns are now collecting donations to build a new home.

The present monastery is a paved complex that houses the summer home of a former Wisconsin governor from the 1920s. The Valley of Our Lady was founded in 1957 when six nuns emigrated to the region from a Cistercian monastery in Frauenthal. Sister Bede explained that the women who planted the congregation never intended their current space to be a permanent monastery.

“The layout is simply not conducive to monastic life. We shouldn’t be staying in a governor’s summer house for a monastery, ”Sister Bede said. “They never wanted it to be final home.”

The Cistercian Sisters of the Tal monastery of Our Lady will gather in their current chapel in May 2018 to take the last vow of one of their members, Sister Joanna Casanova. RNA courtesy photo by Katelyn Ferral

The Cistercian Sisters are working to raise $ 18 million for a 54,000-square-foot monastery that will be located on 229 acres in rural Iowa County, southwest of Prarie du Sac. It will include a chapel, living quarters for 30 sisters, offices, a guest house and a more efficient bakery room for their bread business.

The buildings are grouped around a square, a shape that is intended to promote contemplative dialogue with God. Being in nature promotes that too. “Standing still and wondering about a dragonfly, a dandelion … the miracle and the contemplation go very much hand in hand,” said the prioress of the Cistercians, Sister Anne Marie.

Rev. Andrew Showers, a priest in the Diocese of Madison who studies sacred architecture, said, “Architecture is the built form of ideas, so a building should manifest the ideas, the philosophy. So the idea is that anyone can go to a church and understand what they believe in and how they worship God based on how they build their building. “

The structure of a church or a monastery should be “based on the incarnation: that God wanted to meet us in time and space,” he added.

Building a new monastery is extremely rare, says Kevin Clark, the project’s architect who worked on it with the sisters in 2017. “Fewer than a handful of monasteries have been designed and built in the past 40 to 50 years,” says Clark, who lives in Lincoln, Nebraska. “Starting from scratch is a dream come true.”

The project is big because the convent encompasses the entire lives of the sisters, says Clark. “This is a whole city that we are building. We are building your chapel, office building, dining room, housing and industry as a factory. … It’s all they need or will need for their life, ”he said.

A thousand years ago, monasteries played a vital role in rural areas, where they served as beacons for travelers and provided running water, medical care and a safe haven, Clark said.

Today, according to the Sisters, it is still important to create a space that is evidence of prayer, where people can experience silence and peace.

Cistercians are known as “lovers of the place” and the community inside the monastery is dedicated to that outside the monastery, explained Sister Anne Marie.

“To know that there are people out there who are constantly addressing the needs of our society in prayer is great,” said Clark. “So do we need monasteries? I would say yes. ‘ I can tell you that at the beginning of the project I didn’t quite get it, but it’s pretty great to see and be a part of. “

The new monastery will be strict by nature and conform to both traditional Cistercian architecture and the nuns’ vows of poverty. Many of the techniques used by the builders of the monastery are applied to monasteries of the Middle Ages. Lou Host-Jablonski, the nuns’ sustainability architect, is looking for ways to build as environmentally responsible as possible, both in terms of the materials used and in terms of the buildings on the property.

The hope is to incorporate geothermal energy to heat water, use gray water, take full advantage of natural lighting and position the buildings in the countryside to protect the sisters from the wind while making the most of them for energy.

In the Middle Ages, Host-Jablonski said: “You designed sustainably because you didn’t have computers, smartphones and UV panels. you had no electricity; You didn’t have pumps.

“As a client, you make 10,000 decisions. Each of these decisions has ecological implications. … All of these things are about decisions that (the sisters) take seriously through the lens of the administration. Stewardship is deeply ethical and deeply moral. ”

Gail Lamberty, a friend of the sisters and volunteers, explains the new monastery project for the Cistercians to the public during an open day at the monastery Tal of Our Lady in the Prairie du Sac in October 2020. RNA photo by Katelyn Ferral

Prior to the pandemic, Sister Bede did most of the monastery fundraiser, but traveled occasionally to speak to communities and organizations across the country. Now these trips will be interrupted for the foreseeable future.

Several donors have contributed large gifts, including two in the seven-figure range, but the majority are smaller.

“We know that people are not doing well … and there are many layoffs,” says Sister Bede. “However, the response to our ongoing fundraising campaign has been encouraging. God’s ways are not our ways, and so He still seems to be blessing our efforts. “

One of those blessings is a fitting gift challenge: the monastery is now attempting to raise $ 1 million before April 2021. If the sisters achieve this goal, an anonymous donor will achieve it.

Hoping that 2021 will be a better year than this, the prayer will continue in the Valley of Our Lady no matter what.

“Isn’t it a good thing that there are bags all over the world in which the only reason for people is to praise God and stand up for people?” Sister Anne Marie said.

“Obviously we all believe very strongly in the power of prayer and the need for it here.”

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