WINNIPEG — Roman Catholic nuns known for their hospitality may soon be welcoming hundreds of new neighbours after the sale of a large part of their West St. Paul property to a developer.
“We’re doing it because we need to do it. We need the funds,” says Sister Virginia Evard, OSB, prioress of St. Benedict’s Monastery.
Last month the sisters announced the sale of 52 unused acres of their 74-acre property at the corner of Main St. and Masters Ave., including some river frontage.
Evard says proceeds from the sale will support the monastery, now home to 17 sisters ranging in age from 57 to 95. Another 20 senior citizens live in St. Benedict’s Place, an independent-living retirement community. The monastery also houses a retreat and conference centre.
“We chose the land we were selling to maintain privacy,” says Evard, adding the monastery campus remains intact, except for the outdoor labyrinth, which has been relocated to the west side of the buildings.
“We know people are probably asking what will happen to the centre,” adds Sister Mary Coswin, OSB, director of the retreat centre. “We are here and we are committed to being here as long as we can.”
Evard declined to provide the sale price, but a municipal official says the land became more valuable because of infrastructure improvements. The monastery recently decommissioned its outdated waste water treatment plant and connected to the municipal system.
Faced with strong financial reasons to sell, Coswin says the sisters deliberated before making a deal to ensure they were making the right decision for the monastery and the people they serve.
“We tried to hear God say ‘Move on and sell what you don’t need,’ “ Coswin says of the process. “We have one ear listening to what are the needs of people in our area. We still believe we have something to offer in spiritual formation and hospitality.”
She says visitors attending retreats or conferences won’t notice any significant changes inside the buildings, although they might hear noise from heavy equipment if and when construction begins.
“There will definitely be a change (outside),” Coswin says. “There will be construction noise and there will be neighbourhood noise. Inside, it won’t be different.”
That’s welcome news for Wolseley-area spiritual director Laura Funk, who appreciates both the indoor and outdoor spaces when she visits the monastery for personal renewal or to lead retreats.
“In winter, you cozy up in the little nooks of the monastery, but in summer it’s nice to wander the paths,” Funk says. “Part of St. Benedict’s charm is being out of the city.”
The other attraction is the simple, even austere, atmosphere away from distractions, says Steve Bell, a Winnipeg singer-songwriter who visits the monastery to write and reflect.
“I go there for a cloistered experience and I only leave my room for my meals,” Bell says. “I want the four beige walls with the one Bible verse on the wall and a quiet space, and the ambience of prayer.”
The daily prayers continue, but the land sale signals the Benedictine sisters are adapting to changing circumstances and needs. Originally designed as a private girls school, the sisters closed the school in 1970 and reopened as a retreat and conference centre. In 2006, an unused part of the monastery was converted into seniors’ housing.
“There are more people in our building (now) and in the chapel and in relationships,” Coswin says. “We moved from teaching girls to providing spiritual formation for adults.”
And the lessons of adaptation and transformation they impart in spiritual formation are ones they continue to learn for themselves, Coswin says.
“Change is about the past. Transformation is about the future. It’s about what you’re becoming,” she says. “We hope we’re transforming in the process of changing.”
Evard adds, “Our way of life is about transformation.”
This article first appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, Nov. 18, 2017.