By LISA EISENHAUER
SHAKOPEE, Minn. — Circumstances that threw a curve into plans for the opening of a new addition at Benedictine Living Community — Shakopee smoothed the way for 113 retired School Sisters of Notre Dame to move there last year.
The sisters were in search of a new home after the congregation decided to sell their provincial residence, Our Lady of Good Counsel, about 60 miles away in Mankato, Minnesota. The residence was too large for a congregation that, like others across
the nation, is shrinking. The residence, which dates to 1912, also was becoming too costly to maintain.
Meanwhile, the opening of Benedictine Shakopee's newly built independent and assisted living addition, known as Windermere Way, was delayed for several months to November 2020 due to a malfunctioning sprinkler system. Even with the delay, the opening
came as the spread of COVID-19 and related restrictions were giving many people or their families pause about moving into eldercare communities.
When the sisters and a group of advisers finished their research and discernment on a new home for the retirees in 2021, they had selected Shakopee. "A higher power might have played a hand there," says Andy Opsahl, Benedictine vice president of business
development. "We just happened to have a late opening and enough availability."
A few of the sisters moved to Benedictine St. Gertrude's and the Gardens, an established facility in Shakopee that has skilled nursing care and assisted living.
'I love it here'
Opsahl had been in discussions with the congregation's leaders for about four years before the retired sisters began their move in late summer 2022. The talks began with the possibility of developing
an eldercare community with the sisters in Mankato and ended with the relocation of the retirees to Shakopee, a town where some of them years earlier had been assigned to serve at schools and parishes.
The sisters' housing is mixed in among that of lay residents. Most of the sisters moved into Windermere Way's independent living section. Sr. Cerella Baumgartner settled into a two-bedroom ground-floor unit with her roommate, Sr. Anne Becker. Like
many of the other units the sisters were given, theirs had not been previously occupied.
Even several months after the move, Sr. Baumgartner still marvels at having an apartment that is much more spacious and modern than what she had at the motherhouse. The roommates have their own bedrooms and bathrooms on opposite sides of the unit
with a living room, kitchen and glass doors that lead to a small patio in between.
Sr. Baumgartner turned a section of her walk-in closet into an office space with a desk and chair. "I love it here," she says of her new home.
Sr. Baumgartner spent decades teaching at Catholic schools staffed by the congregation before retiring to the provincial residence. Even there, she was in charge of transportation for a while and
tutored children at a learning center the congregation ran.
She doesn't have official duties at Shakopee but that doesn't slow her down. She delivers jigsaw puzzles to anyone who wants one and makes the rounds to visit other sisters. "They keep telling me, 'Cerella, you are going to be 93 now in October, start
slowing down,'" she says with a chuckle. "I said, 'I can't do that. I have to be where people are.'"
Sr. Mary Owen Stevermer has a studio unit in Windermere Way's assisted living section. She has decked her space out with green accent pieces, a nod to her Irish heritage. She says she was mostly "a loner" during her 75 years in ministry, mainly filling
housekeeping and food service roles.
Now, Sr. Stevermer says, she's enjoying the social aspects of her new life. She is chummy with a male resident who makes use of the communal laundry in the same early hours as she does. She dines in a community lunchroom surrounded by other sisters
and lay residents.
She visits the Commons, a social space that Benedictine set aside exclusively for the sisters. "I make an effort to go up there every day to read the bulletin board and see what's new," Sr. Stevermer says.
She also spends much of her day in prayer, either in her unit or at the chapel just inside Windermere Way's main entrance.
Fr. Rinaldo Custodio, a retired diocesan priest, was one of the facility's first residents. He celebrates Mass six days a week at either Windermere Way or at Benedictine St. Gertrude's, which is
a few miles away on the campus of St. Francis Regional Medical Center. The medical center is sponsored by the Benedictine Sisters of St. Scholastica Monastery in Duluth, who also sponsor Benedictine. However, the congregation is in the process of transitioning their sponsor council model to a ministerial public juridic person model.
Fr. Custodio says he enjoys living in a community with so many retired sisters, although he says that meeting the spiritual needs of so many devout elderly Catholics is demanding. "I'm supposed to be retired," he says. "I'm not supposed to be doing
He gets assistance from Deacon Richard Roy and his wife, Maureen Roy. The Roys are both Eucharistic ministers and they lead the rosary at both Benedictine Shakopee campuses. The health system also recently posted an opening for a spiritual care coordinator
to be based at Windermere Way.
The sisters, like all residents, can attend the Masses and the rosary sessions in person or in their rooms through closed-circuit TV. Benedictine also added monitors and hookups so that when the chapel at Windermere Way overflows, as it often does
for Saturday evening Mass and funerals, residents can watch from other meeting spaces. It is adding similar technology in the chapel at
St. Gertrude's so the sisters there can attend funerals and provincial gatherings virtually.
Despite having to share the chapel with other residents, including those who are of faiths other than Catholic, and being separated across two campuses, Sr. Daniel Marie Kukowski says she and her fellow sisters are able to maintain their spiritual
and communal life. They can reserve the chapel for private services, meet for prayer in the Commons and use the closed-circuit TV system for virtual gatherings.
Sr. Kukowski says there are things she misses from her days at Our Lady of Good Counsel, such as the large ornate chapel and sprawling gardens. However, she says her new home is comfortable
and the new life among lay residents is becoming familiar to her and the other sisters. "We're getting to really know each other," she says.
The retired sisters moved to Shakopee in groups of about 10 over the course of several weeks. Because she was undergoing treatment in Mankato for liver cancer, Sr. Kukowski was among the last to arrive.
By the time she made the move in early November, the sisters had the process down pat. Professional movers arrived in the morning, packed up the furnishings and belongings and delivered them to Shakopee. The sisters left Mankato in the afternoon
and by the time they arrived at their new quarters, their furnishings and belongings were in place. Other members of the order were on hand to greet them and to help them get settled.
"By the time I got here, a friend of mine already had the bed made and everything that she could do was done," Sr. Kukowski recalls.
Finding a good fit
Sr. Helen Jane Jaeb, part of the leadership team for the province, was on the committee that planned the retired sisters' move. She and some other sisters who are still in active ministry remain
in Mankato, although they don't live at the motherhouse. It has been sold to a developer. The plans for the chapel remain in flux, although the congregation hopes to see it turned over to a nonprofit and kept as a sacred space.
Sr. Jaeb says the congregation made the decision several years ago to give up its large properties and find places where its sisters could live in community and receive needed health care support. Our Lady of Good Counsel is one of four locations
of the School Sisters of Notre Dame Central Pacific Province, which covers 62 dioceses, 25 states, and Guam, Italy, Japan and Nepal.
Sr. Jaeb says Benedictine's Shakopee facilities were a good fit not only because they are Catholic but also because Benedictine's founding congregation, the Benedictine Sisters of Duluth, Minnesota, historically has had health care as part of
"The staff, from the top administration down, everyone at Shakopee were just wonderful and continue to be," Sr. Jaeb says.
Though the sisters at Benedictine Shakopee are retired, Sr. Jaeb says the congregation encourages them to continue their ministry. "They themselves say their ministry now is to keep community
and form community with more than just the sisters," she says.
Yvonne Anderson, marketing director at St. Gertrude's, says now that the sisters have settled in at Shakopee, she and others are helping them to connect with nearby Catholic institutions. "They want to volunteer and be engaged in the community
at large," Anderson says. "I think that they'll bring many talents to our overall community, within a church, or within a school or within a hospital."
Sr. Baumgartner says she and the other sisters are ministering to each other and reaching out to the lay residents at their Benedictine home. "I think it's something else that God wants us to do," she says.
Congregations turn to Benedictine for eldercare
Minnesota-based Benedictine has a long history of working with religious congregations to provide appropriate housing and health care for retired members. Some other examples:
Last year, a group of about 40 Adorers of the Blood of Christ moved to Benedictine Living Community — At The Shrine, a continuum-of-care complex in Belleville, Illinois, on the 200-acre grounds of the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows. The congregation had grown too small
for its motherhouse in a tiny community about 30 miles away.
In 2009, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet of St. Louis and Benedictine entered into a ministry partnership agreement to operate Nazareth Living Center in St. Louis.
The congregation had previously been the sole operator of the facility for its retirees. Dozens of retired sisters now live there alongside lay residents.
Since 1997, Benedictine has co-sponsored Villa St. Benedict in Lisle, Illinois, with the Benedictine Sisters of Sacred Heart. The eldercare community in suburban Chicago is on the
grounds of the congregation's campus.