Benedictine Sisters celebrate 150 years in Chicago

By Daniel P. Smith | Contributor
Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sister Benita Coffey sums up the work of the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago in a simple, single sentence.

“Our mission in the world is to serve where there is need,” said Coffey, a 62-year member of the order that resides at the St. Scholastica Monastery, 7430 N. Ridge Blvd.

Now into their 150th year, the community’s commitment to serving local needs remains hearty and alive. From schools and parishes to community centers and prisons, the Sisters of St. Benedict have consistently stepped up to fill voids in their local community, while embracing monastic living that inspires reflection, support and service to do God’s will.

“Today’s world is seeking spiritual truth and our monastic tradition reflects that,” said Sister Patricia Crowley, the current prioress at St. Scholastica.

Roots in education

Much like the Christian Brothers, another Catholic order celebrating its 150-year link to Chicago in 2011, the Benedictine Sisters arrived in Chicago to teach. A trio of sisters worked with the children of German immigrants at St. Joseph’s Convent and School near Chicago and Wabash Avenues.

While the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 would destroy that school, the sisters’ resilience would show as they opened Ss. Benedict and Scholastica Academy the following year. The sisters’ academic work would prevail throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century.

In 1907, the sisters opened their monastery alongside St. Scholastica Academy at 7416 N. Ridge Blvd. A century later, St. Scholastica remains rooted to its mission as an all-girls high school.

Over the years, the Benedictine Sisters have served in various Chicago parishes and schools — St. George, St John Nepomucene, St. Joseph, St. Symphorosa, Queen of All Saints and St. Hilary — as well as St. Lambert in Skokie and Mother of God in Waukegan.

“In our many years of education, we’ve helped form generations of capable men and women ready to move into the world and bring the Gospel to life. That’s a great source of pride for us,” said Coffey, herself, like many of the current and past sisters, a graduate of St. Scholastica Academy.

Moving beyond education

Following the Second Vatican Council, the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago began reflecting upon their mission and, subsequently, reclaiming their monastic heritage. The sisters merged their academic tradition in the Chicago area with new areas of social need.

“There was a lot of prayer, a lot of reflecting upon our individual gifts and how those can be carried into the world,” Coffey said.

Benedictine Sisters took their talents and serviceminded mission to schools, parishes, homeless shelters and even the Cook County Jail. The sisters have also become active in issues of social justice, including the death penalty, the militarization of the national budget, immigration and civil rights.

“We try to remember that we were founded to seek God and to form communities that could be hospitable to the world and overflow into it,” Crowley said.

The Benedictine Sisters also began a branch of oblates, laypeople who study and commit to following the order’s spiritual cornerstones. Now more than 100 strong, the oblates help ensure that the Benedictine Sisters’ charism endures beyond their presence.

Celebrating 150 years

Today, the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago claim 45 members, 41 of whom live at the St. Scholastica Monastery. The remaining four live in Colorado filling parish and social-work roles in communities there. (In the late 1800s, sisters traveled to Colorado to set up a hospital and girls’ boarding school. The school survived for 111 years and the Chicago-based order’s presence remains to this day.)

A century-and-a-half after their arrival in Chicago, a spirit of collaboration and support persists among the Benedictine Sisters. The encouragement strengthens individual members and the group as a whole to meet the needs of the world around them.

“We are a community that seeks God, one that wants to live and pray in community and help one another live the Gospels,” Coffey said.

To kick off the Benedictine Sisters’ 150-year anniversary in Chicago, the sisters joined with friends and colleagues on Aug. 23 at the place where the order’s relationship with Chicago began — the corner of Chicago and Wabash Avenues. There, a plaque commemorating the sisters’ 150 years stands as a testament to a legacy of sisters who have worked to make the city a better, richer place.

Throughout the coming year, the sisters will host various events to honor their 150-year mark, including a donors’ Mass in November, a testimonial dinner in June, an open house picnic in July, and a vespers service in August.