Sacred Stones, Sacred Stories project rejuvenates monastery

Construction of a new, ground level entrance to the Benedictine monastery of Perpetual Adoration is under way.It will have convenient visitor parking, and “look like it’s always been that way.” (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter

CLYDE, Mo. – Despite the noise and rubble of construction, the Benedictine Monastery of Perpetual Adoration retains an air of blessed peacefulness. Surrounded by trees, flowers and century old buildings, the Sisters carry on their daily routines of prayer, labor and contemplation. But there is excitement bubbling just below the surface, excitement about Sacred Stones, Sacred Stories, the renovation and remodeling project that will bring youthfulness, convenience and technological innovation to the campus and by extension, the village of Clyde.

The monastery road curves just beyond Conception Abbey, home to Benedictine monks. Fields dotted with windmills harnessing wind energy to produce electricity stretch toward the horizon. The gates at the original main entrance to the monastery are closed, as the entrance is being relocated. Inside, the Sisters are busy at their labors — making gluten-free and regular communion breads, gardening, making soaps, cleaning, cooking and other daily routines; and always taking time out to pause, reflect and pray.

Prioress Sister Sean Douglas and Sister Dawn Annette Mills, General Councilor and Director of Development, acted as guides for a tour of the exterior construction. Beginning at the curve of the main chapel, completed in 1912, they pointed out various initiatives and forthcoming changes. One initiative that Sister Sean is quite knowledgeable about, and proud of, is the monastery’s soon-to-be completed ground source heat pump and other sources of geothermal energy.

Stewardship of all things is part of the Rule of St. Benedict, the way of life followed by the Benedictines. “We want to treat the earth and all its goods as sacred vessels of the altar,” Sister Dawn Annette said, a rule dating back more than 1,500 years.

Chapter 31 of The Rule of St. Benedict: “Let [her] regard all the utensils of the monastery and its whole property as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar.”

Sister Sean pointed to a rectangular area of dirt in the center of a grassy lawn. “Underneath that dirt,” she said, “there are 137 loops of plastic tubing, each one 300 feet long, buried lower than five feet deep. Below a depth of five feet, the temperature is a constant 57 degrees, year round. We’ve been using roof top or window units, but with the geothermal units, we’ll save a lot of energy. The roof top units use propane, a non-renewable energy source which gets expensive, especially when you’re talking heating or cooling beginning with either very hot or very cold outside air. With the loops, the system begins heating or cooling with a temperature of 57 degrees, so it takes less energy to get comfortable. We’ll be able to get rid of the window units, which we plan to donate to those who need them.”

The 137 geothermal loops will heat and cool the main building. Eventually the system will include the main chapel, also. Other loop systems will heat and cool Our Lady of Rickenbach assisted living and health care facility, which houses 25 Sisters. The initial installation has been expensive, but Sister Sean said it should pay itself off in about 7 years, because they will no longer need to purchase propane. Sister Dawn Annette added that the soil covering the loops will be planted with flowers.

The early Benedictine Sisters would be amazed at how the monastery has grown and changed over the past 137 years.

In 1874, Mother Anselma Felber, OSB and a little group of five young sisters made the long, difficult journey from Maria Rickenbach monastery in the Swiss Alps to northwest Missouri. They followed in the footsteps of two Benedictine monks of Engelberg who had recently, with the enthusiastic support of German settlers in the area, built a small two story monastery at Conception. The monks needed help ministering to the immigrants — especially teaching the children.

The sisters settled a little more than a mile away at New Conception. Although Mother Anselma wanted to establish a convent of Perpetual Adoration, she and her little flock of sisters put that desire on the back burner and began teaching the children. It wasn’t long before they opened St. Joseph Academy for girls and were running an orphanage, as well as teaching at the parish school in Conception. They gradually built up a farm to supply their meat milk and eggs.

In 1880, a post office was established, and a town meeting held to decide on a name for the town. Resident Frank Bellows had recently purchased a number of imported Clydesdale horses. He suggested naming the town after the horses, and the townspeople agreed. Clyde, Mo., was born.

The Benedictine sisters completed the building of their monastery in 1882. Almost as soon as the Sisters finished their first chapel, families who lived north and east of Conception began attending Mass in the convent chapel. The Sisters built a larger chapel, and more people came to Mass. It was obvious that the town needed its own church, rather than just be part of Conception Parish. A mission parish was established in 1885, run by the Benedictine monks from Conception Abbey. Then in 1893, Bishop Hogan approved the establishment of St. Benedict Parish at Clyde, with its own boundaries. The Sisters regained their chapel for themselves and their visitors.

The Sisters expanded their labors over the ensuing years to include the making of altar bread, sewing liturgical vestments, operating a printery and running the farm. At its peak, Clyde Hill Farms boasted a prize-winning herd of dairy cattle as well as providing meat, eggs, vegetables and grain.

The main chapel was completed in 1912, and most of the monastery was finished by the 1920s. The Sisters’ community continued to grow. At one time, 180 Sisters lived in the monastery at Clyde. The Benedictine monastery at Clyde was the first and still the largest of the Sisters’ convents of Perpetual Adoration in the United States.

Following World War I, the community raised funds to aid monasteries and convents in Europe that had suffered damage and want during the war. Those religious houses, in gratitude, sent relics of the saints and other artifacts that had survived the war to the Sisters at Clyde. Today, 550 documented relics, artifacts and several vestments are displayed in the Heritage Room/Relic Chapel.

The Relic Chapel is closed during the renovation, but the history of the Benedictine Monastery of Perpetual Adoration is visible all around the campus. Several years ago, the community determined that some critical issues of the old convent needed addressing. There were multiple uneven floors with stairways that were difficult for some of the older Sisters to navigate. Along with the costly outdated heating system, there was no central air conditioning. Summers in northwest Missouri get hot and sticky. In the beginning the Sisters slept on porches to avail themselves of what air there was. In more recent times, they made do with a few window units. Even with window units, in the large dormitory-style bedrooms, they often suffered through 100 degree nights, Sister Dawn Annette recalled with a grimace.

The boiler was obsolete and the plumbing in most of the convent was outdated. The decades old backup generator couldn’t power modern electronics, especially in a weather emergency. The bathrooms were not near the bedrooms. The main entrance and chapels were not really accessible to older guests and pilgrims, as there were many steps to climb. There was a lot of excess, little used space to heat and cool. And there was a distinct inability to access new technology for the Sisters’ educations and ministry.

The Sacred Stones, Sacred Stories project began in earnest in Jan. 2007.  The Sisters held a series of discernment meetings over the next ten months, and came to realize that the building the community had called home for more than 100 years no longer adequately met the needs of a community spanning multiple generations.

With Kansas City-St. Joseph diocesan Bishop Robert Finn’s approval, the Sisters embarked on a $10 million renovation project to resolve those issues, and provide solutions to meet their needs in the 21st century. Sister Dawn Annette said many generous friends have made donations and the community hopes to raise another $2 million.

The renovation project includes upgrading the electrical system, including the installation of new wiring and a new generator. The updating will also aid in providing improved access to wireless technology. In addition to the installation of geothermal heating and cooling systems, the plumbing and boiler will be updated, and private baths will be installed in the new bedrooms. A new south-facing entrance is being built. In the past, visitors had to climb several staircases with a total of 34 steps between the west side gates and the monastery. A system of ramps and elevators are being installed and unused areas deconstructed.

When the convent was built in the 1880s and enlarged in the 1920s, workmen built structures to last. Quality materials and workmanship were utilized.

Sister Dawn Annette said she and the other Sisters wanted “to treat everything respectfully. The workmen wanted this monastery to last, and so do we. We also would like to save some money.”

In Sept. 2008, the Sisters began work on the Marian wing, which had served many purposes over the past century. Originally built to house a girls’ academy, it later became the infirmary for sick and elderly Sisters. A few years ago it served as a living space for the Sisters at the Our Lady of Rickenbach health care facility when a fire there forced them out temporarily. In the end though, it was underutilized space that still required heating, cooling and maintenance. 

Equipped with hammers, screwdrivers and nail-pullers, the Sisters set to work pulling out nails and wood trim to reuse or recycle. Much of the material that would not be reused by the Sisters was recycled to neighboring Amish for their use.

On the backs of some of the maple trim pieces, the Sisters found “Benedictine Convent” stamped on the wood. The stamp dated back to the years immediately following World War I, when the Marian wing was completed.

They pried out window frames to make it easier for workmen to remove the windows. The wood doors, trim and shelving were carefully stored until needed again. Nails were collected for scrap iron salvage. Some of the windows were saved and stored for possible future use. The old interior bricks, unfortunately, were not salvageable, Sister Sean said. “In the old days they used a different kind of cement,” she said. “It was not like the mortar they use today, that can be cracked and chipped off. This would not come apart. So the bricks were broken up and used to fill culverts and drainage ditches in the area. Nothing goes to waste if we can help it.”

The Sisters moved out of their quarters in April 2010, moving into unused space, taking over offices and temporarily repurposing rooms. Deconstruction officially began that July, with the removal of stairways, the original main entrance and the entire Marian wing. The work is being done by Conlon Construction Company, of Dubuque, Iowa.

As the project advanced, quite a few artifacts were unearthed. In the back of a large, shadowy closet for example, a worker discovered a fragment of chalkboard patching a hole in the rear wall where plumbing had been added early in the 1900s. The piece still displays careful printing: “Our Lord has promised …for all eternity. The …all, nearness to the Sacred ….” The chalkboard dates from the early 20th century when the Sisters ran the girls’ academy. By the 1920s, they were returning to the contemplative life and withdrew from activities that took them away from the monastery, including the academy.

The tearing out of plaster and board ceilings revealed old, decorative tin ceilings. The Sisters carefully removed the tin ceilings in pieces, planning to recycle them as furniture decorations or art work. The old cast iron radiators and decorative light fixtures were saved to donate to individuals or organizations for use as decorations.

Even spaces not normally seen by visitors are undergoing a greener renovation. The old dormitories are being remodeled into individual bedrooms with private baths for 37 Sisters. Shower stalls and tiles are being reused. Even the housings for over-the-sink lights in the new bedrooms will be created from trees that were sacrificed for the deconstruction. A Sister in another Benedictine community is making 40 housings using the recycled wood.

The Marian wing is gone. The new exterior wall will be finished to closely resemble the rest of the convent. A new main entrance on the south side is in the process of construction, with level grading and a ground level entryway. “It’s all going to look like it’s always been like this,” Sister Dawn said.

A system of ramps has been created and a new elevator shaft installed in the new entryway for the use of the Sisters, in addition to the existing elevator in the temporary reception area. These will meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Portions of the porch columns from the old main entrance have been saved. Installed in the 1920s, the columns were ravaged by more than 75 winters of ice and snow. They weren’t completely salvageable, but the Sisters hope to use parts of them eventually.

Sister Sean pointed out that some of the farmland surrounding the monastery campus has been returned to native prairie land. “There are 200 acres of butterfly milkweed, wild bergamot and other native plants. It’s full of ground birds — oh, it’s beautiful!” She added that in centuries past, natural lightning-caused wild fires and herds of buffalo in the area helped keep the prairies healthy. “Now we’ll have to simulate the wild fires and buffalo herds to maintain its health,” Sister Sean said.

Across the lawns from Our Lady of Rickenbach assisted living facility sits a two-story home that was built in 1929 to house the monastery chaplain, a Benedictine monk who had previously walked the mile and a quarter from Conception Abbey, and back. Christened St. Paul’s, over the years it has also served as a guest house and now, during the renovation, it serves as temporary housing for some of the Sisters. It has also been a visible symbol of Benedictine hospitality. For a number of years, afternoon High Tea has been served to guests in three dining areas of the house, furnished with antiques and complete with a traditional Tea Service, food and gifts. High Tea will resume when the renovation project is complete.

The Sisters are hoping the main construction will be completed by the end of September. They expect a grand celebration when all is finished, however, Sister Dawn Annette cautioned that “all finishing dates are theoretical.” With the centennial of the main chapel coming up in 2012, the Sisters may combine the two celebrations.

They are beginning to see light at the end of the long construction tunnel. The Sisters look forward to moving into their new living, work and relaxation spaces. The stones and bricks of the old monastery still tell their stories and even with the rubble, noise, dust and displacement, the Sisters happily share those stories with visitors.

If you wish to donate to the Sacred Stones, Sacred Stories renovation project, visit www.clydemonastery.org and follow the links.

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Tuesday
July 25, 2017
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph