by Cori Hilsgen
The Sisters from the Order of St. Benedict recently celebrated its 150th anniversary of moving from St. Cloud to St. Joseph. The nuns recently hosted parishioners to cinnamon rolls and coffee at a post-Mass reception in the Church of St. Joseph Heritage Hall. Two nuns shared how they joined the convent.
Sr. Joyce Iten grew up on a farm near Luxemburg. She often came with her parents to visit her aunts, who were nuns and who worked in the convent kitchen. She was impressed with their religious garb, the spirit of prayer and silence. She spent several days with them while she was growing up. One day when she was 7, she told her father she wanted to become a Benedictine Sister when she grew up.
“It seemed to my young heart that God was very present at the monastery and, for the rest of my life, I wanted to be where God was,” Iten said.
She also had Benedictine nuns as grade-school teachers. When she was in seventh grade, she said she knew she wanted to attend St. Benedict’s High School because she intended to join the monastery after graduation.
“I loved the Sisters’ way of life,” Iten said. “I loved to pray, sing and chant the daily prayers. I had come to appreciate daily Mass, and the Sisters’ regular, common life appealed to me, although I had to get used to living with lots of different personalities over the years.”
Iten entered the monastery in 1956 and attended the College of St. Benedict. She became an elementary teacher.
“My dream was to teach second grade for the next 50 years and get a medal,” Iten said. “My dream was short-lived, however, when I was assigned to teach various grades in various parishes over the next 18 years. Although I loved teaching, I became restless and was looking for a new challenge.”
Iten was director of faith formation in two parishes, worked in pastoral ministry for several years and was a chaplain at St. Cloud Hospital for 20 years. Since 2010, she has done pastoral ministry for the Church of St. Joseph.
“Pastoral ministry is very compatible with a monastic way of life and working in a smaller parish in my own back/front yard is very appealing,” Iten said. “It is only 200 steps from my back door to the door I enter at the Heritage Hall when going to work. It never entered my mind 50-plus years ago that I would one day be working at the Church of St. Joseph, but here I am, and I am enjoying my ministry. Maybe one day I will get that medal after all.”
Sr. Julie Schleper grew up on a farm north of St. Joseph. Both of her parents had relatives at the monastery. She remembers attending Sunday Mass and purchasing pieces of penny candy from Linnemann’s Store afterward.
Schleper said she always looked forward to the annual July 4th parish festival. She remembers receiving her sacraments in the parish and attending Saturday morning catechism classes taught by the Benedictine nuns.
Schleper remembers, in 1951, learning about becoming a soldier when there were no female soldiers.
“Sr. Brigitta Stang was the sixth-grade teacher and she taught us that by accepting the gift of confirmation, we would become ‘soldiers for Jesus Christ’,” Schleper said. “I recall three of us girls took her aside one day and asked her how we could become soldiers. Her immediate response to us was, ‘One way is to become a Benedictine Sister.’ Well, that I did seven years later.”
Schleper attended her first three years of high school in the Holdingford district. Her great-aunt, who was a nun, suggested to her parents she come and work at the monastery kitchen for the summer because she felt her parents needed the extra income. Schleper worked at the monastery kitchen for three summers and said she became aware of the nuns’ happiness.
“I remembered my confirmation experience and felt the call to join the community,” Schleper said. “Therefore, I entered after my senior year, which I attended at St. Benedict’s.”
She professed her vows in 1960. Schleper taught elementary students in diocesan schools for 15 years, six of those at the St. Joseph Lab School.
She earned a master’s degrees in both elementary social studies and religious studies with an emphasis in Scripture.
“After that, I felt a call to work more directly with adult faith formation,” Schleper said.
She worked three years with the Little Falls Franciscan Sisters, eight years with the St. Cloud Diocesan Office, 10 years as director of St. Benedict’s Monastary Spirituality Center and 13 years as faith-formation director at the Catholic Church in Becker. She currently resides at St. Benedict’s Monastery in the Studium program working on several projects for adult faith formation.
Throughout the years, about 60 women from St. Joseph have entered the monastery. Currently, there are five nuns who are from the parish. They are Srs. Schleper, Dalene Schindler, Martina Schindler, Theresa Lodermeier and Tamra Thomas. Thomas is the newest nun. She made first monastic profession this summer.
The first nuns traveled from Bavaria to St. Cloud in 1857. They rented rooms from John Tenvoorde’s hall, teaching English, religion, music lessons, needlework, drawing and painting to support themselves.
St. Mary’s parish restored the upper floor of their church, hoping the nuns would be asked to teach in St. Cloud. However, it was poorly constructed and very cold.
Money was sent by King Ludwig of Bavaria to build a new convent for the nuns, but Abbot Boniface Wimmer used the money to purchase land for his monks.
After struggling for six years, the nuns accepted an invitation from Father Bruno Riess, OSB, from the parish in St. Joseph (then known as Clinton) to give them a home and teaching positions.
Seven nuns and two candidates moved to St. Joseph in 1863. At the time, the parish consisted of a log church and a small attached house that served as the school and parsonage. The school operated as a district school, run by a school board. After a year, the board turned the school over to lay staff, leaving the nuns in a bind.
They had no income, could not teach at the school and owed $1,700 for their lodging. People in the area had just endured the grasshopper plagues and had very little they could offer the nuns.
At first, the nuns tried to live a cloistered life as they had in Bavaria, but could not do that if they wanted to teach the country children. They were often forced to travel from farm to farm begging to survive. They earned a small income from choir work and sewing and doing laundry for the monks of St. John’s Abbey. The heavy physical work was hard on the nuns.
In 1863, the bishop of St. Paul put the convent under the patronage of St. Joseph. It became known as “St. Joseph’s Convent and Academy.” The prior of St. John’s remembered the money Abbot Wimmer had taken and compensated the nuns by building a new convent building for them.
The three-story building adjoined the church and parsonage. In 1868, Abbot Rupert Seidenbusch turned the school back over to the nuns. They once again taught school and also boarded some students who lived long distances away.
The 150 years of the Sisters’ influence in St. Joseph surrounds the city. After very meager beginnings, the Sisters continue to thrive and prosper.
Hilsgen is a contributing reporter for the Newsleaders. The central Minnesota native is a wife, mother and grandmother. She has a Bachelor's degree in Organizational Management and Communication from Concordia University – St. Paul, MN and enjoys learning about and sharing other people's stories through the pages of the Newsleaders.