By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
ST. JOSEPH — Old school and new school. The Schools Sisters of Christ the King are both.
And the people of St. James Parish — with all the outside help they can muster — are doing something very old school for them in gratitude for their service to the parish school.
The parish is converting a convent, originally built in 1927 for the teaching Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica, from a preschool back to living quarters for the five sisters who are stationed at the parish.
Although the seven-bedroom convent is as solid as the Rock of Gilbraltar, it will still require about $80,000 worth of work to put it back in living condition after 17 years of use as a pre-school.
But the parish administrator, Father Evan Harkins, said the sisters are worth every dime and every drop of sweat, and more.
“It’s a tremendous blessing to have the sisters, especially in the school,” Father Harkins said as the parish held a Sept. 27 open house at the convent under renovation. “It’s been a Godsend. The parish as a whole sees young women with religious vocations acting out of something in the heart.”
And they are seeing young vocations. Sister Peter Marie is 26. Even the convent’s “leader,” Sister Mary Fidelis, is far from long-of-tooth at 46.
The order itself only dates back to 1976, when Lincoln, Nebr., Bishop Glennon Flavin established it to provide religious sisters teaching in the Catholic schools in his diocese.
They were exclusively Lincoln’s until about 10 years ago, when they grew disillusioned with the secular undergraduate educations their youngest members were receiving at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and sought a Catholic university option.
That led them to Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., just three hours drive from Lincoln, Sister Mary Fidelis said.
“The closest place with a good reputation and a good elementary education program was Benedictine College,” she said.
Mother Joan Paul and Sister Mary Michael met with Benedictine President Stephen Minnis in 2004.
“They wanted to see if we could get a break on tuition, and to see if there was anything they could offer us,” Sister Mary Fidelis said.
Apparently, the conversation went well. Minnis rolled out the red carpet.
But that left another problem — where would the sisters live while they were earning their undergraduate degrees. Sister Mary Fidelis said there wasn’t an available convent anywhere in Atchison.
But the nearest big city, just 25 miles away, was St. Joseph and the nearest St. Joseph parish to Atchison was St. James, on the south side.
Unannounced on their way back to Lincoln, they knocked on the St. James rectory door, met then-pastor Father Vincent Rogers, and told him their story.
“He met them at the door, invited them in, and in about three minutes, he said, ‘Come. We’ll find a place for you to live,’” Sister Mary Fidelis said.
The parish found a house adjacent to the parish property, but it was cramped for five sisters, and soon to be six. While three sisters are now assigned to complete their educations, two “older” sisters teach at St. James School.
When the parish decided to move the pre-school back into the school building for safety reasons, they also decided to renovate the old convent. No, it’s not a palace. It’s a convent. But it will provide a bedroom for each sister, plus a guest room, plus an updated kitchen, plus a laundry room (they iron their habits daily), and plus — most importantly — a chapel.
Parish leader J.L. Robertson also said that the convent will have a new, energy-efficient heating and air conditioning system that will replace the steam heat that supplies all parish buildings now, including the school and church.
The convent also has other features that can only be found in buildings of a certain age — such as original hardwood floors and woodwork that only needs to be stripped and refinished.
“It just made sense to move the pre-school into the school and to renovate this for the sisters,” Robertson said.
The sisters are involved in this project like they do everything that seems uncertain — with a leap of great faith that God and his people will provide, Sister Mary Fidelis said.
“Our vocation is to be a blessing to Christ’s church. We have to rely on faith,” she said.
“If our benefactors want this, if they want sisters teaching in their schools, they will help,” Sister Mary Fidelis said.
Donations for the St. James convent renovation project can be made out to St. James Parish with an annotation “Convent” and sent to the parish at 5815 Pryor Ave., St. Joseph, MO 64504. More information about the School Sisters of Christ the King can be found online at www.cksisters.org.