In 1852 three Benedictine Sisters left St. Walburga Abbey in Eichstätt, Bavaria in Germany to establish the first Benedictine women's community in the United States. Sisters Benedicta Riepp, appointed superior of the group, Walburga Dietrich, and Maura Flieger made the journey that began the growth represented in this heritage tree. The profile of Benedicta Riepp that follows appeared in a 2002 publication marking the 150th anniversary of the arrival of these three women in North America. Download a pdf file of the Heritage Chart HERE.
Benedicta Riepp, OSB: her life and legacy
by Anne McCarthy, OSB
Mount St. Benedict Monastery, Erie, PA
A simple gravesite in the cemetery of St. Benedict’s Monastery, St. Joseph, MN, names Benedicta Riepp the first superior of Benedictine women in the U.S. Yet for years, U.S. Benedictine women have been drawn to that gravesite, pondering her legacy, seeking her perspective. Her story is often hidden in the cloud of controversy that enveloped her. Too often, also, her story is overshadowed by the voluminous writings of Abbot Boniface Wimmer, whose larger-than-life statue dominates St. Vincent’s Archabbey, Latrobe, PA.
In this 150th anniversary year (2002) of the arrival of Benedictine women in the U.S., we grapple with Benedicta’s story and with her legacy. We try to extract some of her story from the chronicles written by men. Much of her own writing is lost to us, allegedly burned after she died of tuberculosis—a common practice of the time. Only a handful of the letters she wrote has survived. Through these letters and through the stories of the earliest communities of Benedictine women in the U.S., this Benedictine woman founder comes into sharper focus. One hundred and fifty years after she arrived in St. Marys, PA, her legacy has become even more dear to us and her teaching even more important.
Benedicta was born June 28, 1825 in Waal, Swabia, West Germany, to John and Catherine Riepp; her father was the town’s glassblower. On July 30, 1825, she was baptized Sybilla. We know little of her family except that she had three sisters.
Benedicta entered St. Walburg Abbey in Eichstätt, Bavaria on January 7, 1844 and began her novitiate on August 4 of the same year. Her first profession, July 9, 1846, was delayed until she had reached age twenty-one. Three years later she made perpetual profession with solemn vows, July 9, 1849.
St. Walburg Abbey was founded in 1035 and named in honor of St. Walburga, the great eighth century Benedictine missionary to Germany. The relics of St. Walburga were translated in 870 – 79 from Heidenheim to the church at Eichstätt. When wealthy benefactors gave an endowment for a Benedictine monastery in 1035, Benedictine sisters were sent from Nonnberg Abbey (founded in 700) to establish it. Napoleon’s Secularization Act of 1806 closed the Abbey, the younger nuns were sent home and no new members were permitted. In a concession, the older nuns were allowed to live out their days at St. Walburg. When Ludwig I, King of Bavaria, restored the abbey in 1835, thirteen elderly nuns still remained. They immediately accepted and trained new members.
Benedicta entered eight years after this restoration. Shortly after her final profession at the age of 24, Benedicta was appointed novice director in addition to her duties as teacher in the girls’ school of Eichstätt. When Benedicta volunteered to serve in a faraway mission in the U.S. in 1852, the idea was not new. The constitutions of St. Walburg Abbey in 1846 articulate the intent to teach in girls’ schools in Eichstätt and in the U.S. (Hollermann, 61). Also, the School Sisters of Notre Dame had visited St. Walburg Abbey in 1847 on their way to America to staff a small school for German immigrant children in St. Marys, PA. By 1849, the SSNDs had left St. Marys, deciding to settle elsewhere. It was then that Boniface Wimmer, OSB, of the restored Abbey in Metten, Bavaria, was asked by the bishop of Pittsburgh to take over the mission at St. Marys. Wimmer was already established in the diocese at St. Vincent’s in Latrobe, PA. When he first appealed to St. Walburg Abbey in 1851, for Benedictine sisters to teach at the school in St. Marys, his request was denied. At the time of his second request in 1852, however, both the community and the bishop of Eichstätt agreed. Mother Edwarda Schnitzer read his letter to the community and asked for volunteers. Of those that offered, three were chosen: Benedicta Riepp, appointed superior of the group; Walburga Dietrich; and Maura Flieger.
On June 12, 1852 the three travelers left Eichstätt, arriving in New York on July 3. Oral tradition tells of a terrible storm during the passage that was quelled when a statue the sisters were transporting was lowered to the water. The statue is still treasured today in the St. Marys Benedictine community. When Benedicta and her companions disembarked the next day, they were surprised to find no welcome; Boniface Wimmer had promised to meet them. Facing the challenge, they made their way to Latrobe, surprising Boniface and the monks at St. Vincent’s. It was the Bishop of Pittsburgh, Michael O’Connor, who received the third surprise, not having been informed by Boniface of the sisters’ coming. They stayed a short time at St. Vincent’s waiting for a written document from the bishop giving permission for the establishment of a community of German sisters in St. Marys.
Mission in St. Marys
July 22, 1852 is generally agreed upon as the date that Benedicta, Walburga and Maura arrived in St. Marys, PA. From the start, they were clear about their two-fold mission: “to instruct young girls, and to spread the Benedictine Order in this part of the world” (letter, Riepp to Von Reisach, Nov. 27, 1852. Girgen, 23-24). By fall, they were able to open the school for the children, fulfilling a deep desire of the immigrant community.
The first surviving letter written by Benedicta on November 27, 1852 to Archbishop Von Reisach, president of the Council of the Ludwig-Missionsverein, contains themes that will recur in other letters: concerns about the adaptation of their Benedictine life in this new place, concern about the poverty of their condition and even greater concern and compassion for the condition of the immigrant community.
Our first and greatest necessity is a small convent so that we may the better observe our holy Rule and the enclosure, and at the same time, have a place to receive those young women who feel themselves called to the religious life. We have at present, it is true, a small building, hardly large enough for us sisters. We cannot speak of an enclosure which for us is the most important thing, and as far as the admittance of lay people is concerned, we cannot do anything since as soon as one steps over the threshold of the doorway, one is already in the center of the house. To erect a building answering our greatest needs we require immediately a sum of $2,500.…
To this my first petition there is now added a second which is more pressing even than the first. This past summer this parish started building a new church because the old one burned down about two years ago. During this time services have been held in a room which formerly served as a school. The building has progressed so far that the window frames have been set in but no further building can take place because the money for the same is wanting, and the parish is so drained of money that it cannot make any contributions at all (Girgen, 24 – 25).
In a January 8, 1853, letter to King Ludwig, she writes with the same compassion for the students, and of the sisters’ own peace amidst hardship.
In all, 60-80 girls can now attend our school. They attend irregularly; the long way to school, mostly through the woods, and the great poverty may contribute to this. I am often moved to pity for the dear little ones when I see them coming, half dressed and almost numb from the cold, and then have nothing to eat the whole day except a piece of black bread….
Years will pass before our gloomy, terrible region will be made somewhat brighter, and it will cost much perspiration, since at present, as far as the eye can see, there is only terrible woodland; between the trees here and there a small piece of land is cleared. Little has been done for our present location, but for us, poor sisters, it is, in spite of this, a paradise, because we find ourselves happy and peaceful in our vocation (Girgen, 27).
Compassion for children extended beyond the school day. In what was an unusual move for a community wrestling with issues of cloister, the community took in children who were orphaned and cared for them. Benedicta writes in a May 21, 1855 letter,
Even if we accept pupils, we must take them practically free of charge or at a very low rate of tuition. We now have 12 boarders and of these only three pay board; the others are orphans whom we have to feed and clothe. It is the same when we accept young women for the Order; we may accept four who have no property before we get one who brings a little money to the convent (Girgen, 47).
Growth and Controversy
Almost immediately, the community began accepting new members. The community also grew when a group of four was sent from St. Walburg in 1854, followed by a group of five in October 1885.
Caring for orphans was not the only risk taken by Benedicta and the young community. A new state school superintendent, appointed in Pennsylvania, demanded to examine all the teaching sisters. Benedicta refused, asking for more time to consider the request. The new superintendent was a member of the Know- Nothing Party which had earned a reputation for being anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic. Because of Benedicta’s hesitation, the small state support for the school was withdrawn. It had been the community’s only reliable income. Though desperately poor, Benedicta would not compromise her beliefs in order to protect their income.
Compounding the poor conditions of the sisters was Boniface Wimmer’s redirection of significant funds intended for the sisters. In 1853, when King Ludwig sent 8,000 florin for a decent convent for the sisters, Wimmer used it instead to build two mills: one in St. Marys and one at St. Vincent Priory. The redirection of funds became a familiar pattern.
In 1855, Boniface Wimmer petitioned Rome to have the new community at St. Marys separated from St. Walburg’s Abbey with the rationale that he knew better than the community in Eichstätt about life in the U.S. His request to the Sacred Congregation, supported later by Bishop Josue Young of Erie, also asked that the dowries of the sisters in the U.S. be transferred from St. Walburg to St. Marys. It took four years for Wimmer’s request to be answered, four years of uncertainty, confusion, and further controversy. Nothing exists in writing indicating how quickly the sisters themselves wanted to be independent from the Eichstätt Abbey (Girgen, 51). Accepting new members and opening a novitiate in the U.S., however, was itself a move toward independence from St. Walburg.
The controversy over jurisdiction was central to Benedicta’s disagreement with Boniface Wimmer. In 1855, St. Vincent’s was elevated to an Abbey with Wimmer as Abbot, and the American Branch of the Bavarian Cassinese Congregation was recognized with Wimmer as abbot president. With this, Wimmer also considered himself the head of the women’s community, evidenced by his petition to Rome. Benedicta and her community’s experience at St. Walburg was of an autonomous abbey of women with the local ordinary having jurisdiction over their enclosure. They seem to have expected the same relationship in the U.S. (Hollermann, 97). Documents suggest that Bishop O’Connor of Pittsburgh, Bishop Young of Erie as well as Bishop George von Oettl of Eichstätt had a similar understanding.
A Second Foundation
Confusion and growing controversy were the background for the foundation of the Erie Benedictine community in 1856, a move which also exacerbated the conflict. The foundation was not a surprise, but Benedicta and the sisters did it without Wimmer’s prior approval. A February 14, 1856 letter by Benedicta requesting funds from the Ludwig-Missionsverein explains her rationale for beginning new foundations. “We now number 42 in our convent, including the novices. I would not have accepted so many, if I had not realized daily more and more the great need for schools and institutes for girls…. I also had in mind when accepting them that we should spread out farther as soon as possible. For St. Marys, 10–15 sisters would have been sufficient, considering the condition the colony finds itself in at present” (Girgen, 54). In most of Benedicta’s letters, the severe poverty of St. Marys is mentioned. The sisters shared in the hardship. Two young sisters died presumably from pulmonary tuberculosis: Willibalda Koegel, age 27, in 1855 and Cunigunda Lebus, age 21, in May of 1856. The deaths of these young sisters from the severe conditions was an especially heavy burden both for the fledgling community and the young prioress.
Erie, PA, was a logical choice for the first foundation; the sisters had already been invited there as early as 1854. The bishop of the new diocese of Erie, Josue Young, had asked Benedicta to send sisters to Erie and Fr. Francis Hartmann, pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in Erie also wrote requesting sisters to teach in the parish school. St. Cloud was another possible location for a foundation after St. Vincent’s Abbey made a foundation there in 1856. On July 23, 1856, Benedicta arrived in Erie with five sisters including Scholastica Burkhardt, the novice director at St. Marys, two novices and two sisters in temporary vows. Fr. Hartmann was away from St. Mary’s Church when the sisters arrived and no one was ready to receive them. Neighbors took them in until a convent was prepared for them.
Several months later, once they were settled in a convent in Erie, Benedicta appointed Scholastica Burkhardt as superior of the new community, and returned to St. Marys. When Boniface Wimmer learned of the Erie foundation, he was upset with Benedicta for moving without his permission and for sending Scholastica, who he felt was needed at St. Marys.
Dramatic change, growth, difficulty and pain marked the year 1857. There was now a definite request for sisters in Minnesota. The newly founded Benedictine men’s community in Newark, NJ, also wanted sisters to teach. The extreme poverty of St. Marys, combined with overcrowding and disease in the community, increased the urgency for establishing new foundations. Conflicting assumptions about who had the legitimate authority to make foundations and transfer sisters erupted on March 21, 1857, the Feast of St. Benedict and the first perpetual profession of Benedictine women in the U.S. As Sister Nepomucene Ludwig recounts, “the cross, a very heavy one was to be placed on our shoulders on the very day of our profession…. It all came on us like the suddenness of a clap of thunder to rock the peace of our day. On this day we were given the deplorable information at table that [some of our] Sisters were to leave without the blessing and against the will of the venerable Mother Benedicta Riepp” (Quoted in Hollermann, 121). A later letter from Wimmer indicated that Sisters Walburga Dietrich and Emmerana Bader had asked that he transfer them to another place. Such a request seems to indicate great turmoil within the community. According to Boniface Wimmer’s account of the profession day, he informed Benedicta that he was sending four or five nuns to the West (Minnesota), but she “rejected it flatly and firmly” (Girgen, 91). Boniface called a community meeting that afternoon where he presented the case for their judgment, but “if they absolutely did not want to take into consideration my advice and wish, then I would not bother myself with them anymore. Naturally, I received a ‘yes,’ a unanimous one, from the Chapter” (Girgen, 91).
The Controversy Continues
On March 28, then, six sisters left St. Marys with Boniface Wimmer for Indiana, PA, including Sisters Emmerana and Walburga, where they would staff a school. Sister Nepomucene Ludwig’s memoirs mention that the six returned to St. Marys in late May of the same year. This same group was the core that founded a community in Newark, NJ, a short time later, arriving there on July 2. At the same time, Benedicta was preparing to send other sisters to Minnesota. An April 13, 1857 letter from Benedicta to the Ludwig-Missionsverein mentions that she would meet a request from the “prior of the Benedictines in Minnesota” (Demetrius di Marogna) asking for sisters for two schools.
The only extant letter from Benedicta to Boniface Wimmer is dated May 3 and is filled with her turmoil and suffering, and even a request that she herself leave St. Marys and go to Minnesota. It is written only days after the death of a fourth young sister at St. Marys.
You will forgive me for bothering you with my letter when you are in Newark. I cannot have peace of mind until I express my thoughts to you. I beg you to listen graciously to my earnest request and grant me your kind permission. It would be much easier here at St. Marys if there were fewer sisters. I ask you not to lose patience with me and kindly to keep this matter confidential until I receive an answer from you. I have not spoken a word of it to anyone; perhaps now you can guess my thought. I myself would very much like to go to the West and that very soon, otherwise I feel my health will be considerably impaired. I feel very disturbed and under a strain here, so much the more since I never was very happy at St. Marys and never had a desire to be here. You will be more pleased with me in the West than here; there, I shall do and work as they tell and advise me. It is not possible for me to remain here since contentment and inner peace are lacking, as well as happiness. I have tried to force myself in every respect, but I find that it is useless and impossible to do so; I can accomplish little good under these circumstances. You will perhaps smile when I say that I have become very shy and even do not wish to be among my own sisters. Here I feel inert and uninterested, I who in the past was so lively and full of zest. In the West I hope to regain this, be it from the right or from the left, on the land. There are eight or ten sisters here who would like to go with me. They can hardly restrain themselves. All of them think we should have the closing exercises here as soon as possible and leave after that. I hope to be able to pay my debts without spending the $400 for them since in connection with the closing exercises about the middle of May we want to have a small fair which would certainly bring in a few hundred dollars.
Repeating once again the above request, I remain with all respect and esteem,
Your Reverence’s and Grace’s grateful servant,
Mother Benedicta Riepp, OSB
P.S. One thing I must not fail to write, namely, that Sister Luitgardis died on April 29, at two o’clock in the afternoon; she had received Extreme Unction the previous day and made her perpetual vows. For several hours before her death she was unconscious (Girgen, 66).
In early June, Boniface Wimmer visited St. Marys and met with Benedicta. There are different accounts of the outcome of that meeting. When the St. Cloud, MN foundation was made, Wimmer was upset that it happened against his advice, while Benedicta indicates she was acting with his approval. In his correspondence, Boniface writes that he warned Benedicta against a premature departure for Minnesota. But on June 14, Prior Demetrius di Marogna received a letter from Benedicta saying, “the Most Reverend Abbot is now fully agreed to our journey and wishes me to write to you” (Girgen, 68). In June of 1857, Benedicta and a large group of sisters left St. Marys, a leave-taking that was traumatic for the sisters left behind. In her memoirs, Nepomucene Ludwig writes, “After the departure of the moving van from the convent premises, the house looked like a place that had been ransacked by bandits who held sway. All that could be packed had to go” (Quoted in Hollermann, 141).
When the group arrived in Erie, six sisters and “an orphan girl” continued on to St. Cloud, MN while others remained in the Erie community. Bendicta named Willibalda Scherbauer superior of the St. Cloud group. On July 3, the founding group arrived in St. Cloud, MN. One day earlier, the sisters who had originally gone to Indiana, PA, arrived in Newark, NJ to found a new house there. Emmerana Bader was the superior of that group.
While in Erie, Benedicta Riepp met with Bishop Young and received a document, granting permission for her to travel to Europe with Augustine Short as a travel companion. The document, dated June 25, 1857, identified the goal of Benedicta’s trip: to “mediate personally in the affairs of the above Order which are of concern to Us since the pertinent grounds have been disclosed and are known to Us” (Girgen, 138). Bishop Young, writing later to Boniface Wimmer, mentioned that Benedicta “had spoken last year of this journey for the purpose of collecting funds and other means” (Girgen, 69). Bishop George von Oettl of Eichstätt also wrote of a letter from Benedicta asking “that she be allowed to come here to state her problems personally and receive advice. In reply I had the Prioress [Edwarda Schnitzer] forbid the trip absolutely and commanded her [Benedicta] to state difficulties, desires and proposals, precisely in writing and she would then receive appropriate instructions” (Girgen, 103-104).
Trip to Eichstätt
Benedicta and Augustine went to Eichstätt and Benedicta wrote her petition for Bishop von Oettl. It describes graphically some of her trials and the situation of the early community.
Points on which I cannot agree with the Right Reverend Lord Abbot Boniface Wimmer
a. Acceptance of Postulants
He brought girls and invested them whether they had a vocation or not; it was all the same to him. We had about 30 sisters in the house and according to my judgment and that of others, only about 18 had a true vocation.
b. Investiture and Profession
He expected all the novices to whom he had given the habit to be allowed to make profession; neither the superior nor the convent could say a word. For example, when the sisters proceeded according to Church laws and the novices did not receive favorable votes, he took them away by force and permitted them to make vows in another convent. He has already done this.
c. Removing and Changing of Sisters to Daughterhouses
He always wanted sisters from St. Marys to be moved [to his new foundation] because we were in want and suffered from hunger. Every time he came to St. Marys there was quarreling, especially in the brothers’ house, over the fact that he could not support more people. In spite of this, every time he came, which was not seldom, he brought at least one or two postulants or students, who had neither money nor clothes. One of his priors set off once in the middle of the night and did not stay in the house when the Very Reverend Lord Abbot was there. Others complained because they were tired of all the quarreling. Things could not continue if they were not able to get money, etc.
After I had sent sisters to Erie and seven others to the West, where they certainly will not suffer as much want as in St. Marys, he was angry and disturbed because I, and not he, had transferred them. He did not consider that I had written and told him. For a time the sisters, especially the teachers, had to work at night to prepare for a small fair to provide money for the traveling expenses of the sisters going to the West and to buy a few pounds of white flour, coffee, etc., for the convent in St. Marys. Within the last year four very young sisters died as a result of the heavy diet. More than two-thirds of the others were ailing because for the entire year, day after day, we had nothing but cornbread, black soup and noodles made of rye flour, or salted and half-spoiled beef, and all of this very sparingly.
d. Money Difficulties
When I spoke to the Reverend Abbot about the money which we received from King Ludwig, he said that he, not we, received the 8000 fl.
e. When I wanted to arrange a proper parlor, which would have cost but little, he did not permit it. Instead we had to use a real woodshed where I was forced to bring respectable people—a room in the inner part of the house. He expected the brothers to be with the sisters and work with them; the sisters should wash, sew, bake etc., for the brothers; the brothers, again, should work for the sisters and this in every place where he would put sisters. Often quarrels and disunity arose, and finally even scuffles happened among the brothers. Dissatisfied and discontented sisters were allowed to send notes and letters through pupils and lay brothers to him and he freely accepted them and supported them [these sisters], or even took them away from the convent and placed them elsewhere.
Recently he placed even more confessors at St. Marys who agree with him. These gave the sisters many false ideas of religious life. He also demanded that every novice should hold a position in the convent.
Since the Lord Abbot and I disagreed on these points, I spoke to him about it a few times, but he became very upset and twice he turned away when I asked to speak to him.
He tried to win the novices over to him and against me. The older sisters were often scandalized when he led the young sisters by the arm in the garden and told them everything. He did the same with students. Yes, even his lay brothers had to know everything that happened in the convent.
When he found out that I had gone to Europe, he was very disturbed. The confessors who sided with him had to speak against me, as did the sisters, especially the dissatisfied ones, almost all of whom he had brought into the convent and so are easily influenced by flattery and compliments, because they well knew they could have greater freedom and would find help and support in their complaints.
The superior, therefore, especially during the last half year, could do nothing any more, because, not she, but the Rt. Reverend Abbot ruled.
I kindly beg your Lordship to read these points, to see whether I can leave them as they are or not. I could really call attention to more, but I believe this is enough. May the dear God direct all to the good of the Order and may He lead your Gracious Lordship in every way. May He not take from us our good Mother Prioress. [Referring to the illness of Prioress Edwarda Schnitzer.]
Begging humbly for your blessing,
our Gracious Lordship’s obedient servant,
Mother Benedicta Riepp, OSB (Girgen, 110 - 113)
Prioress Edwarda Schnitzer later acknowledged to Scholastica Burkhardt in Erie that Benedicta’s stay was painful. Behind the Beginnings gives several reasons for Benedicta’s non-acceptance at Eichstätt. First, her trip was forbidden by Mother Edwarda at the insistence of Bishop von Oettl. Second, Bishop von Oettl insisted on strict papal enclosure for St. Walburg: anyone who was not a member of the community could not stay within the cloister. At the time, because of the request for independence of St. Marys from St. Walburg, Benedicta was no longer considered a member of St. Walburg. Third, Edwarda was seriously ill and, for a time, was not permitted visitors. Benedicta and Augusta did stay in the guest house and had some contact with the community as evidenced by transactions signed by both Benedicta and Edwarda (Girgen, 102-103).
Not only was Benedicta separated from her sisters at St. Walburg, but even from Europe she was the center of controversy for the community in St. Cloud. On August 19, 1857, little more than one month after the sisters arrived in St. Cloud, Prior Demetrius di Marogna conveyed a message for the sisters from Boniface Wimmer. Wimmer disapproved of the St. Cloud foundation and stipulated conditions if the sisters were to continue there:
• a letter of submission from the St. Cloud nuns was to be sent to Wimmer
• Willibalda was to be deposed as prioress and removed from the order
• Evangelista Kremeter was to be installed as superior
• Evangelista was not to associate with Willibalda or with Benedicta when she returned from Europe
• Prior Demetrius was not to allow the sisters a chapel, the services of a chaplain, or even to recognize them as regular members of the Benedictine order (Hollermann, 150).
In response, Willibalda sent two pleading letters to Wimmer, wanting desperately to remain in the community. Evangelista wrote a response on August 22 refusing his directives:
In the first place, I feel incapable of the tasks which you have assigned to me; and secondly, it is impossible for me not to associate with Rev. Mother Superior and Mother Willibalda without any reason on my part for such conduct; and thirdly, since I do not possess the required knowledge and experience necessary to maintain order and discipline in a cloister, I believe these will be sufficient reasons for you to spare me from such a responsibility. If they must be complied with, I feel constrained to leave and seek my salvation in a stricter order… (Girgen, 84).
Hardships for Benedicta
In mid-October, a visit by Boniface Wimmer to St. Cloud brought some resolution to the crisis. He recognized the St. Cloud community and Willibalda as superior. The hardships continued for them, however, when Boniface did not include St. Cloud as one of the U.S. women’s Benedictine communities in his petition for their independence from Eichstätt.
All this must have weighed heavily on Benedicta in Europe. A story has been passed down through the years at Eichstätt that, during the dark days of Benedicta’s time there, she had a very consoling dream. She saw a tree covered with beautiful white blossoms, symbol to her of the flowering of Benedictine life in the U.S. (Story told by the Abbess of Eichstätt to the community of Saint Benedict’s Monastery, St. Joseph, MN, on the 100th anniversary of their founding in 1957.) Benedicta and Augustine returned to the U.S. sometime in 1858 to await a decision from Rome. On their return, they went to Erie. By Wimmer’s orders Benedicta was not permitted to stay in Erie or to go to St. Marys. Finally, Benedicta went to St. Cloud at the invitation of Willibalda and the command of Boniface Wimmer. A January 4, 1859 letter from Benedicta to Cardinal Barnabo at the Vatican details further hardships.
By this time you must certainly have been informed of the misunderstandings relating to difficulties within the Order, between the Reverend Prelate, Boniface Wimmer, and me that have already existed for two years. Your Eminence will have read the petitions concerning this which I have presented to the Sacred Congregation and in particular to our Holy Father Pius IX for decision. The affair is taking very long and the Rev. Prelate [Wimmer] uses every opportunity to harass me and to make me appear contemptible to all. It is too painful for me to say much about this; I will, therefore, mention only a few things in passing. The Rev. Prelate not only used every method to prevent my return to America from Europe last year, but after I had returned, he did not permit me to go to the sisters in the Convent in St. Marys. God provided for my return. Without my asking for it, the Right Rev. Bishop Oettl of Eichstätt took care of the necessary traveling expenses. He told me to return as soon as possible so that, in case the Sacred Congregation required a visitation, which would probably happen, I would be present as a witness. When I was excluded from the convent in St. Marys, I had recourse to the Right Rev. Bishop of Erie, but notwithstanding that, the Rev. Prelate commanded me to leave Erie and to go to Minnesota, which I did. However, in this convent I felt as though I were in a place of banishment since no sister was allowed to associate with me. Then, because the sisters in St. Cloud did not obey this command, he withheld the 3000 fl. which King Ludwig of Bavaria had recently granted the sisters for making the new foundation in St. Cloud. He also has my letters intercepted, not allowing them to be forwarded.
…I readily agree that the Rev. Prelate in every respect understands better than I do how to direct our whole Order. In respect to our sisters, however, Your Eminence will agree with me, I am sure, that much, and especially what concerns the internal direction of the convent, should not always be left to men.
It would be my consolation and joy if our new foundations in America, of which there are four at present, were to remain united and have a common novitiate so that one spirit and one life could be preserved in the hearts of all the sisters. I believe that in America especially, the unity of the Order, particularly in what pertains to the Holy Rule and the Statutes, could by a common bonding together be more securely and more easily guaranteed, fostered and preserved. Then one way of life and one love would obtain among all.
Unfortunately, I already see only too soon and too clearly that in our whole Order this spirit is gradually disappearing. This happens because each convent judges itself even now to be strong enough to stand alone and there arises among our sisters, in general, a coldness and strangeness to each other. The life of unity in love will slowly dissolve and be completely destroyed unless the Holy See again restores it (Girgen, 135-137).
Finally, on Dec 6, 1859 a decree was sent from Rome with answers to Wimmer’s petitions of 1855 and 1858. The decree gave approval to the convents in St. Marys, Erie and Newark but placed them under the jurisdiction of the local ordinary of the diocese instead of Abbot BonifaceWimmer. The request for solemn vows was denied; the communities were approved for simple vows. Ephrem Hollermann, OSB, explains the complexity of the issue. “The root of the problem reached back over centuries of evolving church law for women religious which was often ambiguous, inconsistent, and sometimes even contradictory” (Hollermann, 234). It was further complicated by the mission status of the church in the U.S. Also, over the centuries, solemn vows for women became linked to strict enclosure, which was not possible for the Benedictine women pioneers in the U.S. Simple vows were perpetually binding, but did not require either strict enclosure or a full dispossession of property. The loss of solemn vows was an area of ambiguity and concern for U.S. Benedictine women until the distinction was erased by the 1983 Code of Canon Law.
For Benedicta Riepp, the 1859 decree from Rome did not end her troubles. An attached rescript to Bishop Young of Erie commanded that Benedicta Riepp be sent back to St. Walburg’s in Eichstätt. It was not until 1860, after Bishop Young and Bishop Thomas Grace, OP, of St. Cloud intervened, that Benedicta was officially permitted to remain in St. Cloud. Little is known about Benedicta’s life at St. Cloud or when her health became impaired. A beautiful, peaceful letter from Benedicta Riepp to an unnamed “Rev. Fr.” was written on December 30, 1861.
With a weak hand I would like to write you a few lines to thank you for the information contained in your esteemed letter. I can only be amazed and grateful to God and the most blessed Virgin Mary that they show me so much mercy. I at once wrote to Rome and not only withdrew my opposition, but asked that the convents of Benedictine sisters be admitted into the Congregation. I consider myself fortunate, and the dear Lord may let me live or die. I am able to look into the future in peace.
I have one great favor to ask of you, namely, that you be so kind and in my stead beg the Right Reverend Lord Abbot to forgive me for the displeasures I caused him.
Now I must close; I feel too weak to write more. Do remember me in your good prayers (Girgen, 166).
Benedicta Riepp died of tuberculosis at St. Cloud on March 15, 1862. At the time of her death, after only ten years in the U.S., six independent communities of Benedictine women were established and thriving: St. Marys (1852), Erie (1856), Newark (1857), St. Cloud (1857), Covington (1859) and Chicago (1861). Benedicta Riepp’s mission, to instruct young girls and to spread the Benedictine Order in this part of the world, was realized. The dream of a tree with many blossoms consoled Benedicta in a difficult time. Before the end of her short life, Benedicta could surely glimpse that the dream was also truly prophetic: already it was coming to be.
Girgen, Incarnata, OSB, Behind the Beginnings: Benedictine Women in America. St. Paul, MN: North Central Publishing Company for St. Benedict’s Convent, St. Joseph, MN, 1981.
Hollermann, Ephrem, OSB, The Reshaping of a Tradition: American Benedictine Women 1852 – 1881. St. Joseph, MN: Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict, St. Joseph, MN, 1994.
Ephrem Hollermann, OSB, St. Benedict’s Monastery, St. Joseph MN and Betty Cahill, OSB, St. Walburg Monastery, Covington, KY were readers for this article. Their suggestions were greatly appreciated.