Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Idaho oblate program shares Benedictine spirituality
Story and photos by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the July 7, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)
Five women from the Northwest made formal commitments as Benedictine oblates at the Monastesry of St. Gertrude in Cottonwood, Idaho, last month. (IR photo)
The afternoon sun shone down brightly, through towering, billowy white clouds, on the north central Idaho countryside, and a gentle breeze lifted the branches of many trees green with early summer leaves. The two-lane asphalt road leading down a long hill, then up a short one, brought visitors to the Benedictine Monastery of St. Gertrude, looking like it was built for the ages.
The occasion was the formal commitment, on Sunday, June 26, of five women – Mary Lou Ami-dei from Lewiston, Idaho; Nikki Nordstrom from Seattle; Nancy Gillard from Moscow, Idaho; Mary Murphy from Spokane; and Marilyn Summers from McCall, Idaho – as oblates of the Monastery of St. Gertrude. Not to get ahead of our story, however, first some background information.
In 1882 three Benedictine nuns traveled to the Pacific Northwest from a monastery in Sarnen, Switzerland, a monastic community that dates back to 1615. As the numbers of Sisters increased, they took up missions in Oregon and Washington, caring for the sick and the poor, and serving Native Americans. They taught school in various places in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, including Gervais, Grande Ronde, Frances, Palouse, Pomeroy, Trent, Spokane, Uniontown, Colton, and Genesee.
In 1907, the Sisters began teaching in Cottonwood, Idaho, and in April 1909 they established the headquarters of their community there. In 1924, the present large porphyry stone convent was dedicated. In 1937, several U.S. communities of Benedictine nuns joined to form the Congregation of St. Gertrude, and in 1939 the Idaho Benedictine Sisters joined this congregation. The Federation of St. Gertrude today numbers 18 monasteries.
In earlier times, if anyone wanted to join in the life of a Benedictine community, there was but one option: to become a Benedictine monk or nun. To do this, he or she entered a monastery and went through the traditional formation process as a postulant, then a novice, and finally took formal Religious vows. Since the Second Vatican Council, in the mid-1960s, more than a few communities of vowed Religious, both men and women, provide opportunities for single and married laity to share in the life and spirit of a particular Religious order or congregation. The Cottonwood Benedictines are one such community.
Sister Meg Sass has been a Benedictine Sister since 1959 and director of the Oblate Program at St. Gertrude for eight years.
“We have about 75 oblates,” Sister Meg said, “including three men, and I think it’s understandable that we have far more women since St. Gertrude is a community of women. We do welcome any men who are interested, however.”
The Oblate Program invites women and men into a process of discernment and formation that takes an average of five years. Those interested in the Oblate Program begin as Inquirers. During this time – its length varies, depending on the individual – he or she begins to establish some familiarity with the St. Gertrude community and prepares to discern whether he or she is called to become an oblate.
The term “oblate” comes from the Latin-root word, “oblation,” which literally means “an offering.” So, an oblate is someone who makes a public offering of himself or herself to Christ, in this case in the context of the Benedictine tradition.
The present monastery for the Benedictine Sisters in Cottonwood, Idaho, was dedicated in 1924. (IR photo)
The St. Gertrude Benedictines don’t actively recruit for the Oblates Program. Most oblates learn about it by word of mouth, from the monastery’s website (www. StGertrudes.org), or from newspaper or magazine articles, or books.
Benedictine oblates are laity who make special Benedictine promises. These promises are considered to be for life and do not necessarily bind the individual to a particular Benedictine monastery. At St. Gertrude, each oblate stands before the assembled community of Sisters and oblates and recites a formula that is common to all Benedictine oblate programs: “I, [name], in the presence of Saints Benedict, Scholastica, and Gertrude, make my oblation to the Monastery of [name]. I promise to live according to the spirit of the rule of St. Benedict insofar as my state in life permits, on this [date].”
One need not be Catholic to become a Benedictine oblate. Probably the best-known Benedictine oblate in the U.S. is author Kathleen Norris, a Presbyterian, whose bestselling books include Dakota, Cloister Walk, and Amazing Grace.
Margaret Holland, of Walla Walla, has been an oblate of St. Gertrude for “seven or eight years.” She first heard about the Oblate Program at St. Gertrude from a Benedictine Sister who was a pastoral associate in Walla Walla.
“Having a close relationship with a Benedictine community of women really attracted me,” Holland said. “The Benedictine way of life blends so easily with your everyday life. It teaches you that life itself is a miracle, every day; this is what Benedictine spirituality is all about.”
Rick Fairbanks has been an oblate for seven years. A social worker for Spokane’s Group Health Cooperative, he finds that being one of only three male oblates of a women’s Benedictine community brings both benefits and challenges. “I have three daughters, ages 18, 16, and 8, and I’m an oblate of a monastic community of women, so I’m surrounded by women. This certainly brings into play for me the feminine aspect of spirituality,” he says with a smile. “It can be a real challenge sometimes.”
Fairbanks said that shared work and activities are important for men’s spirituality, so he often needs to look elsewhere for that. “It’s a challenge being bombarded with the feminine side of things.” For Fairbanks, however, the bottom line is the same as it is for women oblates. “Benedictine spirituality is what attracts me.”
Mary S. Murphy of Spokane Valley is an attorney, the mother of six grown offspring, and the sole resident of the Diocese of Spokane to make her oblation on June 26. She is also one example of someone who first learned of the Benedictine Oblate Progam from author Kathleen Norris.
“I first learned about Bene-dictine Oblates in 2000, from Kathleen Norris’s book Cloister Walk,” Murphy says. “Then I came across it again when reading Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, by Sister Joan Chittister, who is a Benedictine Sister.”
The community at St. Gertrude is unique because it places considerable emphasis on oblates building a community among themselves apart from the monastic community. “This is particularly important in our case,” says Sister Meg, “because the monastery is so far removed from where most of our oblates live, so it would be difficult for them to participate often in the life of the monastic community.”
The oblate community in the Spokane area, numbering about 10, meets once a month, each time in the home of one of the oblates. Each gathering lasts two hours and is given to shared prayer and discussion of the Rule of St. Benedict. “We don’t have any trouble with our meetings turning into mere social gatherings,” says Spokane’s Mary Kay Fairbanks, an oblate for eight years and wife of Rick Fairbanks. “The prayer and discussion are important to everyone there.”
Mary Kay Fairbanks puts concisely what attracted her to become a Benedictine Oblate: “The thing that grabbed me was the Bene-dictine charisms of grateful simplicity, healing hospitality, and creative peacemaking. This is what the community at St. Gertrude asks us to live as oblates.”
St. Gertrude also invites oblates — as well as visitors and retreatants — to join in the life of the community more closely than many other Benedictine monastic communities. If you visit St. Gertrude for a day or two, at prayer times you’ll be invited to join the community in the monastery’s large, beautiful old chapel, in the choir stalls. You’ll also join the community for meals. This is how the Monastery of St. Gertrude expresses the Benedictine tradition of healing hospitality.