Equipped with only a few pennies and the conviction they were meeting a need, four Polish-speaking American nuns began a tradition of hospitality, prayer, peace and service in Manitoba that has continued for a century.
"They had 27 cents. That was their capital," explains Sister Irene Burzynski, of the four Benedictine sisters from Duluth, Minn., who founded St. Benedict's Monastery in Winnipeg in 1912.
From those humble beginnings in Winnipeg's North End, where the Benedictine sisters established an orphanage and a school, the order has adapted to meet changing needs in the province. They've founded hospitals, nursing homes, high schools, a retreat centre, and most recently, seniors housing.
On Sunday, the sisters celebrate 100 years since they were first incorporated as a Roman Catholic religious order in Manitoba. They're planning to extend their famous Benedictine hospitality to their families, friends and larger community with an afternoon program and reception on the spacious monastery grounds just north of Winnipeg.
"The theme that runs through is that the sisters have a deep faith," says Burzynski, treasurer of the monastery, which has an annual budget of $1.5 million.
In 1961, the sisters moved to their current location at 225 Masters Ave., about 25 minutes from downtown Winnipeg, taking on a $1-million mortgage to build a monastery, high school and student residence.
They moved from Winnipeg to Arborg in 1915, clearing 50 acres of bush to for farming so they could provide food for the children in their care.
"When these orphans started coming in, they needed a bigger space," says Burzynski. "They took on a mortgage. That's our history. We take on mortgages."
Not only are they not afraid of taking on debt, the sisters are also fearless in changing course to accommodate new circumstances and needs. Only nine years after their Masters Avenue complex was completed, the sisters changed course and converted the Catholic girls school to a retreat and conference centre. About a decade ago, they renovated a former dormitory into 20 suites for seniors.
"I think the thread that really runs through our life is that in all things, God may be glorified, so whatever the need is, we do it," explains Sister Gerarda Pura.
"Benedictines weren't established to do any specific work. Whatever the need is, we want to meet them according to Gospel values," adds Sister Mary Rose Hammerling.
The 19 remaining sisters have witnessed many changes in their lifetime. They no longer wear habits, eat their meals in silence or sing and pray in Latin. Guests are welcome in the sisters' dining room, although the monastery still offers a separate eating space for retreat participants. And instead of running the kitchen and keeping the grounds themselves, they employ more than 30 people.
Most visibly, their numbers have diminished. At their peak, about 130 women were part of the monastery, but no one new has joined them at St. Ben's for years, a fact that concerns Sister Virginia Evard, prioress of the monastery.
"We've gone through huge changes. We are older," says Evard, referring to the community members, who range in age from 60 to 92. Three elderly sisters died earlier this year, including one who was about to celebrate her 100th birthday.
"The emphasis is on our way of life, what it is to live life as Benedictine. That's what we're ready to celebrate."
That way of life continues to attract visitors to the retreat and conference centre, who are welcome to participate in scheduled events, take spiritual direction offered by the sisters, or pray with the sisters under the striking parabolic ceiling of the monastery's chapel.
"We are small, but people come here to experience (the community)," says Hammerling, former principal of the academy.
"They hunger for relationships, for ways of living together and solitude."
Most religious orders in Canada are experiencing the same issues in terms of aging demographics and few newcomers, says Sister Victoria Dunne, provincial leader for Sisters of Our Lady of the Mission, which celebrates its 150th anniversary in Regina this weekend.
"I believe in religious life. I believe it's an important option for some people," says Dunne, one of 20 Manitoba-based members of the order.
"So whatever is happening now, whether it is permanent or temporary, I feel it is in God's hand."
For the Benedictine sisters, celebrating their 100th anniversary means looking back at their past work, as well as trusting God in whatever challenges lie ahead.
"The words 'risks, step in faith,' to me, these words are part of our future," Sister Joan Mormul says.
Life of community
THE sisters of St. Benedict's Monastery live according to 1,500-year-old guidelines set out by their founder St. Benedict. Compassion, community life, prayer and peace are the basic principles of A Little Rule of St. Benedict.
The sisters live in community, contributing wages earned inside and outside the monastery to the common good.
They pray three times a day, sitting in rows opposite each other in the chapel. The sisters also spend time alone in silent prayer each day before breakfast.
The Benedictine sisters are marking their anniversary with a 56-page book, 100 Years of Prayer & Work: Women of Vision, Daughters of Faith.
-- sources: 100 Years of Prayer and Work: Women of Vision, Daughters of Faith; www.stbens.ca