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University Students Connect with Benedictine Spirituality

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University Students Connect with Benedictine Spirituality

Guest Commentary by Julie A. Ferraro

It might seem, to some, that the generation gap between aging Catholic Sisters and students attending colleges in the Pacific Northwest would be unbridgeable.

The university students who come to the Center for Benedictine Life at the Monastery of St. Gertrude in Cottonwood, Idaho, would disagree.

Encouraged by the “Rule of St. Benedict” to welcome all guests as Christ, this evolving Benedictine community of Sisters, oblates, employees and others enjoys the presence of students from universities across the Pacific Northwest during their academic year. The visits are organized by the staff of the Spirit Center, the Sisters’ retreat ministry, on an annual or biennial basis, providing the groups with comfortable accommodations, hearty meals, diverse opportunities for volunteer service and fun.

“When we host college groups, the 1,500-year-old Rule of St. Benedict comes to life for them,” said Tim Oberholzer, coordinator of the Center for Benedictine Life and Spirit Center director. “We believe the values and practices of the Rule are for everyone and we are grateful to share this treasure with those who are so eager to learn.”

Benedictine Scholars of St. Martin’s University

The Benedictine Scholars from St. Martin’s University, Lacey, Washington, make the trek to Cottonwood each May. Chosen “for their commitment to leadership, service and promoting the common good,” according to their website, these students serve as ambassadors of Benedictine values.

In turn, they appreciated the chance to see those values lived within the monastery walls. One of the members of 2023’s Cohort 10 reflected on the trip’s anonymous assessment, “I really just loved getting to help the Sisters because it was a great way to meet them and learn more about them.”

Members of the St. Martin’s University Benedictine Scholars program collected twigs in the monastery’s orchard during their visit to the Center for Benedictine Life in May 2023. / Photo by Julie A. Ferraro (Monastery of St. Gertrude)

Impressed with how the Benedictines are conscious stewards of the land as they lent their youthful energy to a variety of outdoor tasks, from gathering twigs to pulling weeds in the flower beds, this student’s assessment continued, “The most meaningful part of this experience to me as a Benedictine Scholar was when we got to talk to Sister Carol Ann [Wassmuth] and Sister Placida [Wemhoff] about the grounds of the monastery, how Sister Carol Ann cares for the trees and wildlife as a forester and helping Sister Placida clean/prepare the orchard by removing the sticks and leaves.”

The Benedictine Scholars interact with the Center for Benedictine Life community during Morning and Evening Prayer, daily Mass and meals in the dining room.

Another student wrote, “For me, the highlight of this week’s experiences was going to Mass. Every time we joined together in the chapel, I was amazed at the beauty of the sanctuary: the colors and the details.”

For his part, St. Martin’s University Director of Campus Ministry Nick Coffman remarked, “Our time with the Sisters of St. Gertrude’s was a crystalizing moment for our students and advisors. The intentionality, love, faithfulness and relationships shared by the community taught our students priceless lessons.”

Gonzaga University’s Concert Choir

Each September for more than a decade — except during the Covid-19 pandemic — the Concert Choir from Gonzaga University, Spokane, travels three hours to the remote area of the Camas Prairie for a weekend retreat.

“The opportunity to spend a weekend at the monastery is typically one of the highlights of the year for our choir students,” said Meg Stohlmann, DMA, Assistant Professor and Gonzaga’s Director of Choirs and Vocal Studies. “We go the second week of school and use it as a way to grow in our community and really set the tone for the upcoming school year.”

Stohlmann supervises more than 50 talented singers during their time at the Center for Benedictine Life. “The grounds are peaceful and allow for reflection and time to really center ourselves both musically and spiritually,” she related. “Additionally, the connection with the sisters and their hospitality is a great introduction for our students into the Jesuit ideals of ‘cura personalis’ and intentional care of the land and others.”

The choir’s journey is capped off by a special concert performed in the monastery’s acoustically rich chapel, much appreciated by the Sisters and the local community.

Whitworth University’s Monasticism Program

Students signed up for “Monasticism: Old and New” — one option among a slate of “Jan Term” on-campus and off-campus faculty-led programs from Whitworth University in Spokane — spent more than two weeks at the Center for Benedictine Life this January. Assistant Professor Samantha L. Miller, Ph.D., of the theology department guided the group of eight through the content of the course: history, theology and spirituality. Beyond the book work, Miller explained why it is important that the students get a real experience of monasticism.

“The students are better able to immerse themselves in the prayers and life and meals and service with the Sisters,” she said. “They get to apprentice themselves to these women, who’ve been praying longer than we’ve been alive.”

Besides a few days of extreme sub-freezing temperatures, another aspect of their adventure involved spending a full day in silence and giving up their cell phones for the duration of their stay at the Center for Benedictine Life.

“I’m enjoying the life, the life apart, outside of the super-fast, modern day world,” said Jacob Robblee, a senior business major from Bellevue, Washington. “It’s really nice to slow down and just appreciate the normal, ordinary life and find God in all of the little mundane things we do.”

Whitworth University student Megan Necochea (right) helps Sister Placida Wemhoff, OSB, separate shells from the walnuts at the Center for Benedictine Life during her stay in January. / Photo by Julie A. Ferraro (Monastery of St. Gertrude)

Sharing game night, for example, the students learned to play Rummikub, and got to listen to the stories of Sisters joining them at the tables.

The young people participated in a variety of expressions of Benedictine hospitality, including joining Sisters in the monastery kitchen, creating trays of “Heavenly Hash,” “whacky cakes,” and dozens of waffle cookies that would be served to guests.

Lewis-Clark State College Nursing Students

Students from other institutes of higher education find their way to the Center for Benedictine Life, as well. Nursing students from Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho, come for the practical experience of caring for older adults.

“It is imperative for nurses to demonstrate competence in caring for individuals, groups and populations throughout the lifespan and across all health care settings,” said Dr. Krista Harwick, DNP, RN, CNE, who serves as Associate Dean of the School of Professional Studies. “Learning experiences at the monastery provide valuable service opportunities for students to identify education and wellness projects within this unique setting.”

The clinical setting offered at the Center for Benedictine Life, Harwick added, helps the college’s nursing students to identify specific needs of community members, and to develop interventions to help meet the needs, as well as engaging in holistic nursing care that can impact the physical, mental and spiritual health of the community members.

Whatever the purpose of their time at the Center for Benedictine, “Our visiting college students have the unique chance to experience contemporary monastic life,” explained Sister Teresa Jackson, prioress of the Benedictine community. “The students get to meet women with substantial years of commitment to the monastic way of life,” which can be a means of enriching their faith even beyond their college education.


The views expressed in this opinion column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FāVS News. FāVS News values diverse perspectives and thoughtful analysis on matters of faith and spirituality.

Julie A. Ferraro
Julie A. Ferrarohttps://stgertrudes.org/
Julie A. Ferraro is director of communications at the Center for Benedictine Life at the Monastery of St. Gertrude, Cottonwood, Idaho. Originally from South Bend, Indiana, she is a mother and grandmother. She has been a journalist for more than 35 years and continues her studies of both Benedictine and Franciscan spirituality.

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