Sister Mary David Olheiser and Sister Helenette Baltes professed their vows together in 1936 as two of the 21 new sisters to join the Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict that year. At the time, their central Minnesota Roman Catholic monastery was overflowing with youth and energy.
Sixty-two years later, the classmates and old friends are together again. St. Benedict is taking St. Bede back into its fold. The smaller group is facing demographic realities by closing its Wisconsin monastery and moving 29 remaining sisters back to Minnesota.
"It's just a blessing," said Helenette, 94, of her reunion with the 92-year-old Mary David.
It also reflects the massive changes in the lives of nuns in their lifetimes, as once-flourishing orders merge or close. A 2009 Georgetown University study for the National Religious Vocation Conference found the median age in Catholic women's orders to be in the mid 70s, and that 34 percent of religious women's orders surveyed had no new candidates for the sisterhood. About half of those orders with new candidates had at most one or two in the pipeline.
When 83 nuns including Sister Helenette departed for Eau Claire in 1948, they left about 1,200 Benedictine nuns at the monastery in St. Joseph. Today there are about 250, a number that drops by about a hundred every 10 years. But it's enough to make it the biggest Benedictine women's order in the United States. The median age at St. Benedict is 77, the youngest nun there 39 years old.
"In the larger church, vocations to religious communities tend to rise and fall, and right now in most of the world there is a decline in young people entering religious life," said St. Benedict Prioress Nancy Bauer, 57. "I would say there's numerous factors. It's just how it is."
Helenette and Mary David are typical of the women once so common to sisterhood. Helenette was born in 1915, the seventh of 12 children in Sleepy Eye, where her father had recently moved the family after landing a job at a dairy.
A new Catholic Church had just opened there, and when the family couldn't find a house, the priest offered room in the old church. "So that's where I was born, right there in the church," Helenette said. By her teen years, various relatives were urging Helenette to join a convent.
Mary David was born in 1918 in Dickinson, N.D., the third of five children; her mother died when she was still a girl. "I was the middle child, with the middle child psychology - I was the assertive one," Mary David recalled. She devoured books and loved learning, and took strongly to the Benedictine nuns who taught her at school.
By the time she was 14, Mary David informed her father she wanted to attend the Benedectine-run boarding school next to the monastery in St. Joseph. By 17 she was a novice, after she convinced the nuns who ran the school to bend the rules that she was supposed to wait until she turned 18.
Mary David and Helenette took their vows together in 1936. Soon after, Mary David left to work in a Benedictine monastery in Washington state, where she would remain until 1950; she's spent most of the rest of her life in St. Joseph, where she was a dean at the College of St. Benedict and a canon lawyer for the nearby Diocese of St. Cloud. "Only because I was in a religious life could I have done all that," said Mary David, who at 92 is still fit and sharp.
Helenette spent the next dozen years in St. Joseph, teaching music and playing the organ, before she decided to join the group that was headed about 170 miles southeast to start a new monastery in Wisconsin.
"That was a very difficult decision, the attachment to the convent where I made my vows," Helenette said. "But the holy spirit led me there."
The group started from scratch, building first a monastery that won architectural awards, then a secondary school and a health care center. By the mid-1960s the monastery reached a high point of 115 sisters.
Then the numbers started to fall. The group closed its school in 1978 and converted it to a retreat and conference center that the sisters operated until earlier this year. Those facilities are now up for sale.
In recent years, leaders of St. Bede's began to discuss their options in the face of what Prioress Michaela Hedican called "some basic sociological shifting." The dwindling group last took on a new member in 1995.
The group approached several larger monasteries, but the historic connection to St. Benedict made it a good fit. The sisters of St. Benedict voted last August to absorb St. Bede. "We really felt it was a gift, to get that sort of infusion of new members all at once is something we haven't experienced for many years," said Sister Kara Hennes, 63, the St. Benedict treasurer.
Recent years have seen mergers by numerous religious orders around the country; Sister Michaela called it "the wave of the future." So far, six sisters of St. Bede, Helenette among them, moved to the Benedictine long-term care facility in St. Cloud; by August, most of the rest are scheduled to move into the monastery in St. Joseph, after which St. Bede will be formally "suppressed" in a mass at the St. Benedict Chapel.
The Washington, D.C.-based National Religious Retirement Office started tracking the merger of Catholic orders in 1989, and in that time reports that about 130 female orders have merged and are now operating as about 45 orders, director Sister Janice Bader said.
Mary David, who still lives at the monastery in St. Joseph, said she can't wait to spend more time with her old friend. "Pretty soon I'll probably be joining her there," she said.
Of the 29 returning St. Bede sisters, 11 were from the original group that moved to Wisconsin in 1948. Besides Helenette, another was Sister Therese Roth, who at 94 moved into the St. Scholastica care facility in Minnesota a few weeks ago.
There, in her new home, Sister Therese died on May 22, and the number of remaining St. Bede sisters dropped from 29 to 28.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)