Funny how a place can be both otherworldly and so much a part of this world.
Holy Name Monastery is like that. It’s a peaceful place where Benedictine Sisters of Florida rise before the birds are up to pray quietly in their chapel, then return for daily Mass and more common prayers throughout the day.
Then, rather than sit idly enjoying their monastic peacefulness, they head out into the world – to a childhood center, a thrift store and food bank, to chamber of commerce meetings and to an aquaponic garden that produces so many vegetables they sell some to Benedetto’s Ristorante, a popular Pasco County restaurant.
The 16 nuns who call this monastery home use the Internet, read newspapers, watch TV news and invite in experts who inform them about political candidates and topics, such as human trafficking.
And, “we definitely vote,’’ says Prioress Roberta Bailey.
Sister Mary Clare Neuhofer, prioress before Sister Roberta, says they are well aware of the stark divisions in our country today.
“Our response is to pray for a just solution and for our leaders, so that they will have the guidance they need to make just decisions for the good of the people,” she says.
Many of the sisters write to lawmakers in Florida and Washington D.C., about peace, justice, the death penalty and other issues that concern them.
They stay busy reaching out to help those in need, whether it be the homeless, the hungry, spiritual searchers, or those who just need a friend.
Because they are a community of sisters, they pool their wages into a common account and are given monthly allowances of $70 for clothes, shoes or whatever they may want to buy. They haven’t worn the restrictive, long black habits since the 1960s, but instead prefer slacks, tops and comfortable shoes, since they always have someplace to go, someone to help.
One sister serves as director at Daystar Hope Center in Dade City, the thrift store and food bank, while four of her sisters and a crew of other volunteers help run the operation.
Two other sisters teach at Sacred Heart Early Childhood Center in nearby Saint Joseph. Another sister is a data analyst at Saint Leo University, across the street from the monastery. Another works at an area assisted living center, where one of their sisters lives.
Others, like Sister Donna — who is famous for her homemade rolls and cookies — feed Habitat for Humanity volunteers at their worksites.
Many of the sisters host monthly music concerts and retreats in a wing of their monastery built in 2017 to meet the demand for retreats.
Asked how many retreats they host a year, Sister Mary Clare laughs and says, “That’s impossible for me to answer.”
There are too many and too many kinds to keep track.
Some are for big groups, some for just one person. Some are for Roman Catholics like themselves. Others are nondenominational or for Episcopalians, or members of other faiths. Some retreats are silent, except for meals. Some are not.
Some attendees stay in one of the retreat wing’s 10 hotel-like double rooms at a rate of $45 a night, or $75 for room and meals. Others go home at night.
The sisters offer spiritual counseling and days of reflection they direct themselves. Some groups direct their own retreats. Either way, guests are welcomed to walk around the grounds, sit in the rose garden, take a nature trail or peruse books in the monastery’s library.
Individuals on retreat “immerse themselves into our lives,” says Sister Roberta. “They eat meals with us, pray with us.”
Sister Mary Clare adds: “If they want to take a nap, they take a nap, and some of them take naps as soon as they get here.”
It’s easy to see why. Cellphones are only allowed in certain places. Signs remind: “Quiet, please, in hallways,’’ and many areas are softly lit or full of comforting natural light. Talk of politics is discouraged at meals, reason enough for some people to flock here on retreat.
Noise and traffic in the outside world can be so intrusive, Sister Roberta says. When retreaters leave, “They say, ‘I forget until I come here how impossible it is to stop and think about God, and to think about life and how I want to live it.’”
Some visit for other reasons: During Hurricane Irma in September of 2017, the sisters housed 18 people who fled the storm.
Day in and day out, the sisters take turns serving meals, doing the dishes and performing other needed chores. They come from all sorts of backgrounds and range in age. The youngest is in her mid-50s; the oldest was Sister Helen Lange, who was 105 when she died on March 18.
Sister Roberta, who has short, wispy gray hair, blue eyes and a sweet pixie face, was just 16 in 1953 when she moved from DeLand to St. Leo to attend high school at Holy Name Academy, run by the Benedictine Sisters of Florida. She joined them as a nun in 1957, calling her decision “a call from God.”
She is proud that she started the first accredited Montessori school in Florida in 1970 and served as principal of St. Anthony Catholic Elementary School in nearby San Antonio for 15 years.
She serves on Saint Leo University’s board of trustees, a chamber of commerce board, on every Holy Name Monastery committee, plus, she is always available to her fellow sisters.
Asked if she has ever not worked, she smiles and says, “No, I’ve always been involved. There’s no retirement when you are a sister.’’
Sister Mary Clare has her own long history of serving as a Benedictine Sister. The middle child of 11 who grew up on a chicken farm in Saint Joseph, she had just graduated from Holy Name Academy in 1956 when she followed her older sister into the monastery. Before that, she hadn’t considered it, but was encouraged to join by friends and family.
“When I entered the monastery, I felt at home and wondered why I hadn’t wanted to do this,” says Sister Mary Clare, who has gray eyes, short reddish brown hair and a ready smile.
Over the years, after college, she taught elementary students in Catholic schools in Jacksonville Beach, Sarasota and North Miami, then ran the campus ministry at Saint Leo College, which is now Saint Leo University. Afterward, she was the college’s acting dean of women, then director of residential life. In 1988, she resigned to take a sabbatical and travel, then returned to the monastery, where she became the treasurer of the community, then the prioress.
Now, she serves on many monastery committees, including music and prayer, she’s an organist, helps with retreats, coordinates hospitality and takes part in other house missions, as well as serving on the local board of Catholic Charities.
The Benedictine Sisters, she says, were not formed to do “any particular work, such as teaching, nursing or working with the poor. We are free to do many types of work.’’
Sister Miriam Cosgrove, who joined the monastery at 18, chose gardening after dedicating more than 40 years to teaching and guidance counseling in elementary schools. In the nine years since “retirement,” she has developed a prosperous aquaponic garden that produces eggplant, lettuce, squash, cabbage and many other types of vegetables.
She also tends schools of Red Nile tilapia whose waste is changed by “good bacteria” into nitrates that fertilize her plants. Schoolchildren sometimes visit and others, too, and the sisters eat her vegetables at mealtime. Sometimes, they even eat her tilapia.
Fit and tan and sporting camouflage cargo shorts, a white top and straw hat, she works hard in her garden, but doesn’t seem to consider it work at all.
“I don’t work. I play,’’ she says, laughing. “It’s not work if you love it.”
She relishes the peacefulness of her garden and monastic life.
“People who come here on retreat say how peaceful it is. And, when they leave, they say, ‘This is exactly what I needed. I’ll be back.’”
Sister Tracey Adams, whose brown eyes are the same color as her hair, calls herself “a baby sister,” since she only joined the sisters last June. She came to the monastery from St. Petersburg, where she was a hospice nurse.
She says she had health problems and felt a desire to live simply, so after a road trip alone that took her to 22 states, she stopped by the monastery, which she heard about from her priest back home.
“I was on a mission to find what God wanted for the next portion of my life, she says.
She stayed with them one night, then another. Then, returned every month for a year.
“It was always hard to leave,” she says. So she became a volunteer, then an affiliate, then a postulate and now she’s a novice.
“I found a lot of peace here,” she says. She uses her nursing skills, takes care of the rose bushes “and I love to wash dishes, so I do that,” she laughs. She’s on the peace and justice and hospitality committees, and spends some of her time reading and studying.
“Like the Army, we try to be all we can be,” she says. “I may not be able to help’’ people on the other side of the globe. “But, I’m praying for them.’’
The Benedictine Sisters of Florida’s Holy Name Monastery is at 12138 Wichers Road, St. Leo. Contact (352) 588-8320 or BenedictineSistersOfFl.org.
By Karen Haymon Long
Published April 17, 2019