Monastic transformation

Benedictine sisters sell sprawling West St. Paul monastery; it will live on as First Nations wellness retreat


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As the sisters of St. Benedict’s Monastery pack up decades of memories at their West St. Paul monastery, they’re confident they’re leaving their longtime home — and their strong practice of hospitality — in good hands.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/06/2021 (727 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

As the sisters of St. Benedict’s Monastery pack up decades of memories at their West St. Paul monastery, they’re confident they’re leaving their longtime home — and their strong practice of hospitality — in good hands.

The 13 remaining Roman Catholic Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict have sold their 88,000-square-foot monastery and retreat centre to Southeast Regional Development Corp. for use as a wellness centre.

The multimillion-dollar deal will close sometime this summer.

Sisters Dorothy Levandosky (left) and Mary Coswin say the decision to sell St. Benedict’s Monastery wasn’t driven by COVID-19. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

“It’s business as usual under new management,” said Sister Dorothy Levandosky, administrator of the monastery.

“Where we leave off, they continue.”

Since January, the sisters have rented their retreat and conference centre to SERDC to run a pandemic isolation-accommodation service following COVID-19 protocols for people from the eight First Nations communities — Brokenhead, Berens River, Bloodvein, Hollow Water, Black River, Little Grand Rapids, Pauingassi and Poplar River — that make up the council.

Most of the communities are located on the east side of Lake Winnipeg, and have a total population of about 15,000.

Once they take over the property, the development council plans to use the space to offer overnight stays to people in the member communities travelling to Winnipeg for medical appointments, said Pam Grenier, director of health services.

“It’s kind of the best of both worlds,” she said of the eight-hectare property on the Red River.

“Our folks get to enjoy the grounds and space but it is close enough to Winnipeg.”

She said the centre will offer wraparound care, including meals, airport pickups, transportation to and from appointments and culturally based practices.

Although the shutdowns due to the global coronavirus pandemic closed the monastery’s retreat and conference centre business for much of 2020, Levandosky said their decision to find a new home preceded COVID-19.

“This isn’t shocking to us,” she said of their upcoming move out of the large complex, which has 124 bedrooms, a large chapel, commercial kitchens and several large meeting rooms.

“We’ve been on this trajectory for a number of years.”

In 2017, the sisters sold off more than 20 hectares of their property to a land developer to support the monastery’s operations.

The 88,000-square-foot monastery will be transformed into a health and wellness clinic run by South East Resource Development Council. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

The order has a 109-year history in Manitoba, dating back to 1912 when four Polish-speaking Benedictine sisters moved from Duluth, Minn., in 1912 to establish a presence in the province. The sisters initially taught in Winnipeg and then moved to Arborg in 1915, where they constructed an orphanage and a residence.

In 1961, they moved to a new monastery and girls’ boarding school at 225 Masters Ave. in West St. Paul. Nine years later they closed the school and opened the retreat and conference centre, hosting thousands of people annually for meetings, seminars or silent retreats. They renovated surplus sleeping quarters into 20 small suites 15 years ago and opened St. Benedict’s Place as an independent-living option for senior citizens.

Now with their numbers dwindling and their population aging — some of the sisters are well into their 90s — it is time for them to find a new home, said Sister Mary Coswin, sub prioress of the monastery.

After the last remaining residents of St. Benedict’s Place move out, the plan is for the sisters to move in and live there for about a year until they can find another location near Winnipeg to establish a smaller monastery.

“We have two options: find a piece of property and build or find a building that would be suitable for a monastery,” said Coswin, who joined the order in 1961.

She said they are searching for a large building with multiple bedrooms surrounded by green space and mature trees.

“We want (open) space,” she said. “We’ve lived with space and we need it.”

Although they will miss their former home, Coswin and Levandosky insist their emphasis on hospitality, education and spirituality will move with them, wherever they go.

“The soul of the building is its people,” said Levandosky. “It’s not the bricks and the chapel.”

Coswin knows their many supporters and friends would like to visit one more time to say goodbye to the facility, but those visits will depend on public-health restrictions.

One regular visitor and retreat facilitator planned her own farewell to the monastery, stopping by last week to get photographs of the chapel’s high-arched ceiling and the beautiful abstract windows created by the late French stained-glass artist Gabriel Loire.

The old layperson residence that will be the new residence for the Sisters of St. Benedict. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

“To me, the (stained) glass and this space are some of my deepest memories from coming here for 20 years,” said Rev. Rachel Twigg Boyce, an Anglican priest and oblate, or associate, of the monastery.

Boyce plans to use the photographs to produce cards, framed prints and calendars to sell on behalf of St. Benedict’s Foundation, which raises funds for the sisters’ work.

The sisters will move their three-times-a-day prayers to a temporary chapel for the next year and have arranged with SERDC to use their former chapel for weekly mass, said Coswin.

The owners may be changing, but the work the sisters have carried out from their West St. Paul monastery will carry on, said Blake Russell, project manager with SERDC, who has worked on-site for the last five months.

“SERDC looks to continue the good community service of the Sisters of St. Benedict by using the facility in much the same capacity of the last 50 years, as a destination for hospitality, wellness, and traditional healing,” he said.

“The park-like serenity of the natural aspects of the property and the riverfront will be maintained to provide guests with a quiet retreat on their health journey.”

He expects about 25 to 30 new jobs will be created once the wellness centre is fully operational. The council expects to complete some minor renovations and boost their internet capacity once they take possession of the property.

Brenda Suderman

Brenda Suderman
Faith reporter

Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.

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