Mary Howell, Special to The Catholic Virginian

This May marked the sesquicentennial of the first Benedictine sisters’ arrival in Virginia.

It was the spring of 1868 when two of them traveled from Pennsylvania to Richmond. They were on a mission to re-open St. Mary School to teach the children of German immigrants who were working to rebuild the war-torn capital of the Confederacy.

“One of the sisters’ first acts was to attend May devotions at St. Mary’s,” said Benedictine Sister Joanna Burley, director of mission integration and communication at St. Benedict Monastery in Bristow. She explained that the Commonwealth’s hot, humid climate fostered diseases that devastated those early arrivals, many of whom died young.

Relief came from a benefactor, Sarah Elliot Linton, who chose the name Sister Mary Baptista when she took her religious vows as a Visitation sister prior to the Civil War. In 1894, wishing to help educate disadvantaged children, Sister Baptista donated her family’s 1,700-acre estate in Prince William County to the Benedictine order. There, at Linton Hall near Bristow, Benedictine monks from Belmont Abbey, North Carolina, established St. Joseph Industrial School for boys, while the Benedictine sisters established St. Edith Academy and St. Ann School for girls.

In 1901, the Virginia Benedictines moved their motherhouse from Richmond to Bristow, but pledged to continue serving residents of the capital, with several sisters remaining to serve as teachers.

Commitment to education

In the 1920s, declining interest among parents for a girls’ boarding school model led the order to close St. Edith and St. Ann in Bristow, and establish Linton Hall Military School for boys.  St. Edith’s program was transferred to Richmond to launch the all-girls educational program known today as Saint Gertrude High School. As enrollment grew, the 1913 building was expanded in 1956, 1972, and 2005.

“The story of our early years is a great testimony to our sisters and the support they received from the communities they served throughout Virginia,” said Sister Joanna, who is coordinating communication efforts for the Benedictine order’s jubilee celebration. “Our theme is ‘150 Years and Building,’ and we want to welcome all to our monastery to learn more about the struggles, joys and triumphs of our community, and from our story find inspiration in their own lives.”

Of the generations of students who attended Saint Gertrude High School, Angela Adams of Mechanicsville, who graduated in 1959, recalled a decades-long friendship with one of the Benedictine sisters who taught her.

“Sister Damian’s pet German shepherd was always very protective,” she said. “I remember having to hold onto Queenie so the ice cream vendor could complete his deliveries!”

After starting her family, Adams continued to visit Sister Damian until she retired and moved to the motherhouse in Bristow.

Susan Kopecko, Saint Gertrude class of 1968, has been the school’s receptionist since 1994.

“I lived on Southside while I was growing up and either my parents drove me or we carpooled,” she said, noting students still come from across the Richmond area to attend.

Looking back on her school days, Kopecko remembers the Benedictine sisters instilling a loving sense of discipline and respect.

“We were expected to always keep a neat appearance, with no shirt tail untucked or shoelace untied!” she said.

Adams added, “Attending an all-girls school and having uniforms meant being able to focus on our studies without the distraction of boys or trying to figure out what to wear.”

The Saint Gertrude High School choir performs at events and liturgical celebrations throughout the Diocese of Richmond. They are pictured here during a service at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Richmond. (Photo/Benedictine sisters)

Responding to community needs

In addition to Saint Gertrude High School, which today enrolls more than 200 students, the Benedictines also provide an oblate program for men and women interested in embracing Benedictine values and supporting the prayer and work of the sisters.

Continually responsive to the needs of their community, the sisters established Benedictine Counseling Services (BCS) in 1988 to provide school counseling, guidance services, as well as case management for homeless women and children in Prince William County, using a sliding scale based on ability to pay. BCS expanded to Richmond in 2012, with St. Bridget Catholic Church providing its first home. Benedictine Sister Kathy Persson directs the program located at the sisters’ convent on Monument Avenue.

Other Virginia Benedictine ministries include Linton Hall School, an independent Catholic school for boys and girls from pre-K through eighth grade; the BEACON literacy program for adults; BARN Community Housing, a residential program for homeless women and  children in Prince William County; the Appalachian Mission, providing clothing and household goods for the poor; and the Place of Peace Columbarium.

Woven through the Benedictines’ decades of service to the Commonwealth are the themes of community and hospitality. Their pastoral center at St. Benedict Monastery has become a popular setting for individual and group retreat programs.

“Helping the communities we serve with various challenges has yielded much fruit through the grace of the Spirit and the generosity of so many people of faith,” Sister Joanna said.

In celebration of their founding on May 1, 1868, in Richmond, a Jubilee Mass of Thanksgiving was celebrated Tuesday, May 1, at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. Bishop Barry C. Knestout welcomed the sisters and expressed his gratitude for their service to the diocese.

The sisters’ celebration will conclude May 4, 2019, with a Mass of Thanksgiving at their monastery. That will also mark their 125th anniversary of establishing it in Bristow.