Healing and saving are truly integral components of Benedictine life
wherever and in whatever form it is being lived.
In the Rule, Benedict instructs the cellarer to “take the greatest care of the sick, of children, of guests, and of the poor, knowing without doubt that she will have to render account for all these on the Day of Judgment”In commenting on chapter 36 of the Rule, On the Sick, Sr. Joan Chittister states “The point for us all perhaps is never to give up on life and never doubt that every act of kindness, every tender touch we lay upon another in life can heal what might otherwise have died, certainly in them, perhaps even in ourselves.”
There is mutuality in Benedictine hospitality -it is the gift of one person to another - both are changed by the experience.
Often the one who practices hospitality to the stranger, the poor, the marginalized, receives more than they give.In the ministries of our community we are evangelized by the poor. They are special places where we encounter Christ.
Since 1856, the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania, in the United States, have been responding to the needs of the local people. Our original mission involved educating the children of German immigrants, but as times have changed so have the needs. Our ministries have expanded to reach out to people of all ages and all needs, yet all of them involve a special caring for the poor, the marginalized, and the vulnerable.
After Vatican II, like all communities involved in renewal, we experienced a tremendous shift from institutional works to individual ministries. Our community was no longer defined by the specific ministry of teaching. In 1979 we developed a corporate commitment statement as a way of focusing our communal witness. The corporate commitment is a vision that we agree to promote as a community and as individuals no matter where we are or in whatever diverse ministries we might be engaged. Every four years we evaluate the corporate commitment in light of the perceived needs around us.
In 2007, our community adopted this corporate commitment: ” As Benedictine Sisters of Erie we commit ourselves to be a HEALING presence and prophetic witness for peace by working for sustainability and justice, especially for women and children.” This commitment has called us to be a strong presence in inner-city Erie, the site of our former monastery. This building now anchors the “Benedictine Block” where many of our ministries are located.
Emmaus Soup Kitchen has been feeding the poor of Erie for 36 years. It is a welcoming place for the forgotten and faceless. Here they find dignity and respect and individualized attention along with a hearty, home - cooked meal. Over 1000 hot meals are served each week and a food pantry distributes over 30,000 food bags each year. Emmaus is the largest single on-site food distribution center in the state of Pennsylvania.
Many of our ministries reach out in a special way to children. Erie County has the highest poverty rate for minority children in the United States, so the need is great!
Sister Gus’s Kids Cafe was started 10 years ago. This is a wonderful place for children, ages 6-17, to come and enjoy a healthy meal after school in a kid-friendly environment. Mentors, good food, and recreation make it a popular place for about 60 children each day.
In 1995 our community opened the Inner-City Neighborhood Art House because we believe “that the need for the arts in the lives of the poor is as real as the need for bread.” Five sisters and a legion of volunteers coordinate and teach free classes in the visual, performing, and literary arts. The opportunities have grown throughout the years. Visual arts include crafts, ceramics, fiber arts, watercolor and acrylic painting. Music, singing and dance classes are offered to groups as well as individual lessons on piano, drum and guitar. The literature component involves poetry, composition and a specialized reading program Hooked on Books. The mission is to enable children to experience beauty, grow in positive self- awareness and self-discipline and to develop into full and productive human beings. This ministry is a special outreach to at risk children. They come from families where there is little or no parental control since many of the parents are themselves involved with drugs, crime and violence. Every year 600 children flock to this oasis in the city where for a few hours they are mentored by caring adults in a safe environment. The talent that emerges from these children gives testimony to the power of feeding the soul with art and beauty. Music recitals, art shows, poetry celebrations provide wonderful opportunities for the children to showcase their creative achievements.
Gorgeous landscaped flower gardens surround the building bringing beauty, hope, and healing to all who pass by. The Art House has become a true gem in the city of Erie and one of its most valuable resources.
St. Benedict Child Development Center was Erie’s first accredited early child care facility. They provide day-care and preschool programs for low-income working families. They also administer the East Coast Migrant Head Start program which adds a special outreach to a large Hispanic population. Five sisters and 38 lay staff create a space where children of different races and cultures can become friends, where they play, solve problems and learn together.
St. Benedict Community Center is an old school gymnasium and parish hall that our community bought and transformed into a recreational facility that is available for physically, mentally and emotionally challenged people and at risk youth. Connections and services to local agencies that serve the developmentally disabled is a major commitment of the Center. It is a place of “re-creation” for those who are often excluded in our society.When we closed our Academy that offered high school education to local girls in 1988 the community created a new way to use the building and continue the ministry of education. St. Benedict Education Center began in 1989. Working in collaboration with the city and state governments, we were able to fund a program for parents who were struggling to live on public cash assistance. Nine sisters, along with 60 lay staff, work there today teaching basic job skills and helping them find employment. Erie has become home to a large immigrant population. This past year a new program teaches English to these refugees as a first step on the road to self-sufficiency. Over 800 clients are served each year. This program has become a model for educational and employment training programs throughout the country and has been recognized with numerous awards.
In 1981 our sisters opened Benetwood Apartments, a federal housing and urban development program for the elderly and disabled, low-income adults. Located on property behind the monastery, this three story 75 unit apartment building is a government subsidized nonprofit facility administered by four of our sisters. They have created a beautiful, safe space where senior citizens can enjoy their golden years in peace. The sisters also offer a variety of social and educational activities designed to build community and heal the loneliness that often plaques the elderly.
A community long-standing committee, Benedictines for Peace (BFP), carries the ancient quest for peace into contemporary times. Sisters and oblates advocate for nonviolence and social justice by direct action, public demonstrations, and prayer. In 1999 we started “Take Back the Site” vigils that have become an important public witness against violence in the Erie area. Prayer vigils are held at the site of any death in the city that resulted from an act of violence. Neighbors, friends, and family members are invited to join in prayer as we reclaim the place for nonviolence. We pray for the loved ones of the person who was murdered as well as those of the person who committed the murder. These public prayer vigils have become known in the city as opportunities for healing and reconciliation.Hospitality has always been a hallmark of Benedictine spirituality and this ministry is alive and well in Erie. Mount St. Benedict Monastery, on the shore of Lake Erie with 120 acres of woods, fields and gardens has become a spiritual center for more than 1000 guests a year from all over the world.
Twenty three years ago we built three hermitages in the woods surrounding the monastery that have become popular retreat sites. Here guests find a quiet place to reflect, renew and appreciate the beauty of God’s creation - a healing balm for those who are burdened with heavy responsibilities. Many guests who come are leaders in their own communities: clergy, religious, parish ministry directors, peace and justice activists. Others come with heavy hearts struggling to come to terms with the loss of a loved one, a divorce, or a personal crisis. All come to be spiritually refreshed, renewed, to center themselves and reconnect with the peace they can carry back to their professional endeavors. Most of them join us for community prayer and are grateful for the nourishment they find with us.
We also offer “Women in Transition” retreat days for women who are experiencing a change in career, marital status, death or loss. These days of reflection offer healing and hope for facing life’s many challenges.
One of our newest ministries is an outreach by four sisters who have moved into a part of the city that is in need of neighborhood revitalization. Working with neighbors, businesses, and religious leaders these sisters have formed the Trinity Square Foundation, a non-profit group committed to renewing a neglected, deteriorating neighborhood. They have purchased and renovated six houses that are now providing safe, affordable housing for families. They created a community garden and established a neighborhood gathering space where children come for classes and holiday celebrations. Currently they are developing a poetry park, a place of beauty on the block where residents can come and share dreams as they write their poems on the recycled artwork there. This year we celebrate the 20th anniversary of hosting the AIM USA secretariat in Erie. This ministry has expanded our hearts to embrace monastic life as it is lived in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Communion with this worldwide community of brothers and sisters has truly been a blessing for all of us.
In addition to these our corporate endeavors a number of our sisters work as hospital chaplains, nurses, social workers, hospice caregivers, and teachers. Through their daily work and direct service they also incarnate the healing presence of Christ.
The Benedictine Sisters of Erie have tried to listen faithfully with “the ear of our heart” to the needs of the people around us. Our ministries, as well as our hearts, have expanded as we respond to these needs. As we reach out in healing love to others, especially the poor, our own hearts have been healed.For more information see our website: www.eriebenedictines.org