Tiniest of stories say much about St. Ben nuns

Susan Sink
Susan Sink is pictured at her home on Nov. 13, 2012, in St. Joseph, Minn. Sink wanted to tell the stories of the Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict in St. Joseph by just using a few words. The poet offers an intimate look at the lives of the nuns from the 1920s to the 1990s by putting their oral histories to paper in her latest book, "Habits."
AP Photo/The St. Cloud Times, Jun-Kai Teoh

By FRANK LEE, St. Cloud Times

ST. JOSEPH, Minn. (AP) -- Susan Sink wanted to tell the untold stories of the Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict in St. Joseph by just using a few words.

The poet offers an intimate look at the lives of the nuns from the 1920s to the 1990s by putting their oral histories to paper in her latest book, "Habits."

The book is a collection of 100-word stories, some written in a poetic style.

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"I'm interested in storytelling, and so my poems tend to be very accessible," Sink, an administrator at the Episcopal House of Prayer in nearby Collegeville, told the St. Cloud Times.

The collection of more than 40 stories chronicles the nuns' lives beginning with their entrance into the covenant.

The Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict is the largest women's Benedictine monastery in the U.S., according to Sink, who was the communications director for the nuns.

"People have been saying about the book that 'It took me to a place that I would have never gotten to otherwise. It really showed me their lives,'" she said.

Tales range from the nuns' "complex arrangements" when it came to sharing a ride with priests after dark to hopes about greater inclusion of women within the church.

Her book delves into details of "the rich history of change in religious life during the 20th century," including stories about new identities and changes in attire, such as the iconic habits.

"I like the compressed form of it -- the fact that you can say more in a few words and kind of leave things open, to read between the lines," Sink said of the book and poetry in general.

The 48-year-old received a master's in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College in New York before she published the 59-page paperback last month.

"Hard work has always been a hallmark of the lives of nuns, and there are stories here of their work in hospitals and schools as well as in the mission field with Native Americans and in Taiwan," Sink wrote.

"There are also stories of their own farm operations, running a large dairy farm and caring for thousands of turkeys."

Sink actually lives on the monastery's former hog farm. She moved to the property four years ago when she got married and starting working for the nuns.

"It is part of wanting to get deeper into the history of this place that made me want to write the stories, and partly living here that gave me inspiration," she said.

"What really impressed me was the quality of this way of life, and the fact that they were ordinary women living in an extraordinary way."

The nuns arrived in Minnesota in 1857 to minister to German immigrants, and in time they staffed more than 80 schools, founded the College of St. Benedict and hospitals.

"At their peak in the 1950s, they had 1,278 members and were the largest women's Benedictine community in the world," Sink wrote.

"Stories about when they started pasteurizing milk or when there was a typhoid outbreak were fascinating to me. And they're really specific stories about Cold Spring and St. Cloud Hospital."

Sink also is the author of "The Way of All the Earth," a book of poems, and three volumes of "The Art of The Saint John's Bible."

"Most of us don't have access to their stories or really understand what they're about," Sink said of the nuns. "So I wanted to find not just the funny stories or unusual stories, but stories that would convey coming from that rural background in Minnesota and doing hard work."

Sister Katherine Kraft was supportive of Sink's book. The 74-year-old nun told Sink the story "Crows," about people in St. Cloud yelling "Caw! Caw! Caw!" after the nuns in their habits.

"I didn't have any reluctance because we got to know Susan as she worked here for three years, so there would be informal times of conversation," Kraft said.

The historical vignettes convey what monastic life was like, according to Kraft, who has been with the nuns for 53 years.

"What comes through, I think, in those stories is the individual person, so it can break down some of the stereotypes that are still out there about what nuns are like," said Kraft, who goes dog sledding every February in addition to spending two hours every day in prayer.

"I have to say that I find most media representations of Sisters horribly inaccurate; they either present us as so naive ... or that we are these stern disciplinarians with the rulers."

Sample stories from "Habits" can be found on Facebook.

"When I talk to people in the community who know the Sisters, the No. 1 response I've gotten is 'It's so great that you're getting these stories down and that they won't kind of go away when these sisters go,'" she said.