Ecumenical monastery in Wisconsin charts a new way


Benedictine Fr. Dan Ward, the canon lawyer who handled legal matters, said the two Catholic nuns “risked a lot”–the risk of the hierarchy saying no, the risk of violating the tradition of the Benedictine order, the risk of misusing the resources they had. He also commended Smith “for the risk she took in sharing in the crazy vision of these women and then joining with them.”

Ecumenical monastery in Wisconsin charts a new way

When members of Holy Wisdom Monastery, on the outskirts of Madison, Wis., gather for prayer, they appear much the same as women in Benedictine monasteries throughout the country. But this is monasticism with a singular ecumenical twist. The three members — two Catholics and a Presbyterian — are charting new waters in the world of religious community.

When St. Benedict wrote his Rule for Monks in the sixth century, it was one of many such rules that existed for monastic communities throughout the Christian world. Overtime, complex canonical structures developed between Catholic religious communities and the Vatican. Canon law outlines certain aspects of their governance, for example, or their methods for admitting or dismissing new members.

Today, however, Christians of all types are rediscovering monastic spirituality and living it out in creative ways. For instance, there are many monasteries of Anglican Benedictines. There’s Taize, in Burgundy, France, an ecumenical community of brothers who make lifetime vows of celibacy and simplicity. In Texas, St. Benedict’s Farm is a community of celibate lay Catholics who live according to the Rule of Benedict. The Community of Jesus, in Orleans, Mass., has about 275 members of various Christian faiths who follow the Rule of Benedict.

what makes Holy Wisdom monastery in Madison significant is that it went from being a traditional Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery to an ecumenical community that legally renounced its canonical status in order to open its doors to new Christian members who are not of the Catholic faith. It was a daring move that took tedious attention to the details of canon law and the sensibilities of local ecclesial authorities. Even as distinctions are being drawn more stringently between Catholicism and other denominations, the members of Holy Wisdom received enthusiastic affirmation from the worldwide leader of the Benedictines.

In early May, Abbot Primate Notker Wolf traveled to Madison to hail the success of the Holy Wisdom project, which took some 15 years to complete. Wolf is the abbot of San Anselmo Monastery in Rome and official representative of the Benedictine order in the Vatican.

At an afternoon prayer service and concert to mark the first year of the new arrangement, Wolf said that the newly named Holy Wisdom Monastery represents the fin-st monastery of its kind in the world. He and some 250 supporters of the monastery acknowledged the creators of Holy Wisdom, Benedictine Srs. Mary David Walgenbach and Joanne Kollasch.

Walgenbach and Kollasch were longtime members of the Benedictine Monastery of Madison, which began in 1953 when Benedictine sisters came to Wisconsin to establish a girls’ high school, when in 1966 the monastery closed the school, the six remaining sisters (two of whom are now in retirement and two deceased) used the buildings for retreats and for interfaith dialogue and prayer. “Praying with people is subversive,” said Walgenbach, 67. “It gives you new ideas.”

One of those ideas was to open the monastery not only to Catholic women but to women of other Christian denominations. In 1992, Walgenbach and Kollasch sought the counsel of the Federation of St. Gertrude, an association of 16 Benedictine monasteries of women mostly situated in the West and Midwest, of which their monastery was a member. They formed an ecumenical advisory board to oversee their efforts, and they gained the services of a canon lawyer to work on the church and civil requirements of creating something that had not before existed.

By June 2006, Walgenbach and Kollasch had got themselves dispensed from their vows as members of the Benedictine Monastery of Madison and then retook vows as members of the newly formed noncanonical community known as the Benedictine Women of Madison. The sisters remain Catholics in good standing.

The steps taken to bring about the transformation aroused some hostility among Madison Catholics, said Kollasch, 76. At one point prayers were offered at the University of Wisconsin chapel that “the Benedictine sisters would return to the Catholic church.” But Walgenbach insisted, “This was the only way we could move the organization into a new place. We had to unhook it from canonical restrictions and become a fully open, non-canonical community.”

In 1998, Lynne Smith, an ordained Presbyterian minister, joined the monastery during its process of change and in 2004 made her fmal profession as a Benedictine while retaining her identity as a Presbyterian. Smith, now 53, was pastor of a Presbyterian church at the time. In 1996 she read an article about the Madison Benedictines and decided to take a leap of faith. During her years of formation, four other women also joined the community for a time but didn’t stay to make their final vows.

Said Kollasch, “It’s very hard to explain what it is to be monastic and Benedictine and ecumenical all at the same time, and even harder to learn to live together and learn to love one another.”

Currently, the three follow the regular Benedictine way of life with some changes to the liturgy. The sisters gather for communal prayers five times a day, offer retreats at Holy Wisdom and work on restoring the environment of the prairie, oak savanna, woodland and wetland areas around the monastery’s 130acre property. They are joined by oblates, friends, neighbors and hundreds of volunteers.

Madison Bishop Robert Morlino gave guarded approval to the Holy Wisdom project in a letter to priests last June. “While this community fulfills our call for stronger efforts in ecumenical dialogue,” he wrote, “I must stress that this is an experimental . community and will not necessarily be Roman Catholic in belief or practice.”

Morlino told the Madison sisters that they are not to celebrate Catholic Mass “or a substantially similar liturgy” at the monastery, or to reserve the Blessed Sacrament on the property. He was also concerned that participation in the activities at the monastery “would not be suitable for Catholic school religion classes, parish religious education classes for young people through completion of high school, and surely not for catechumens and candidates in RCIA programs … lest the basics [of faith] become confused in the complexity of this ecumenical setting.”

The sisters are complying with these requests. They hold each Sunday an ecumenical worship service presided over by a rotating team of ordained Christian ministers, though never, as Morlino instructs, by a priest. About 120 people, Catholics and others, attend weekly.

Benedictine Fr. Dan Ward, the canon lawyer who handled legal matters, said the two Catholic nuns “risked a lot”–the risk of the hierarchy saying no, the risk of violating the tradition of the Benedictine order, the risk of misusing the resources they had. He also commended Smith “for the risk she took in sharing in the crazy vision of these women and then joining with them.”

Will others join this new venture? Walgenbach said, “I believe others will pick up on the idea we have here,” even, she added, if no one else joins this particular community. As women’s religious congregations continue to get smaller in North America, they are exploring a variety of options for what their communities might look like in the future, and the Madison Benedictines offer one example.

At the celebration in May, Wolf said he wasn’t too optimistic about the achievement of corporate unity among Christians. “We don’t have any idea what that kind of unity would be like,” he said. He recalled that even after some 40 years of ecumenical progress, there is still resistance. In his own hometown in Bavaria, he said, Catholic women persist in hanging their laundry out on Good Friday to protest Protestant emphasis on the crucifixion as the sole source of salvation, while Protestant women hang laundry out on Corpus Christi to show their disagreement with the Eucharist as central to Catholic faith.

Ventures like Holy Wisdom, said Wolf, can brIng something beyond formal, corporate unity. Here in this monastery, women may be able to experience “a deeper unity than a juridical one–a unity not so much in the head as in the heart and in life.”

Ecumenical monasticism “is an expression of unity in diversity,” he said. “In learning to live together and work together and respect each others’ differences, perhaps we can overcome our problems.”

Ecumenical monastery in Wisconsin charts a new way
National Catholic Reporter
August 17, 2007
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