Aging women religious who moved together from their rural motherhouse are celebrities to their new neighbors
By LISA EISENHAUER
When it came time to relocate the women religious living at the Adorers of the Blood of Christ convent just outside of tiny Ruma, Illinois, the decision as to where they'd go wasn't made in haste.
Sr. Mary Alan Wurth, left, chats with Sr. Anne Irose in the dining room at Benedictine Living Community — At The Shrine. The sisters moved to the Benedictine community in Belleville, Illinois, with 35 other Adorers of the Blood of Christ earlier this year as their convent was closing. They have been able to continue their religious life and connect to the lay residents in their new home.
Credit: Lisa Eisenhauer/@ CHA
The Ruma Center in the town of about 300 had been a U.S. post for the Italian order since 1876.
At its height, the convent that is 50 miles southeast of St. Louis housed about 200 sisters. Dozens more were based there but living elsewhere on missions as close as nearby parishes and as far as West Africa and South America.
In summer 2021, with the fewer than 40 sisters still in residence outnumbered by the staff needed to assist them and maintain the Ruma Center, the order began the search for a new home for the remaining sisters before deciding the future of the convent and the approximately 400-acre grounds. The Ruma sisters range in age from 75 to 97 and in health care needs from minor to major.
Sr. Mildred Gross, a former provincial, was part of a group that scouted locations in Southern Illinois and in the St. Louis area and brought their recommendations back to the Ruma sisters and the Adorers' leadership.
The order settled early this year on 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 community is about 35 miles north of the Ruma Center and has space for about 230 residents. It is part of the Minneapolis-based Benedictine system.
From left, Sr. Anne Irose, Sr. Frances Newton and Sr. Barbara Hudock, all Adorers of the Blood of Christ, plant tomatoes and harvest collards in the raised beds at Benedictine Living Community — At The Shrine. The produce is available to residents and shared with Cosgrove's Soup Kitchen in East St. Louis, Illinois.
Credit: Adorers of the Blood of Christ
Sr. Gross says the choice has allowed the sisters to stay together and continue their religious life. "Many sisters wanted to stay in the Belleville diocese because so much of our ministry has been there," she recalls, "and our focus as a religious community has been rural rather than urban."
'Blessed a hundred times over'
Like other congregations, the Adorers have seen their numbers dwindle. The U.S. region now has about 179 sisters. At one point, the order says there were about 400 Adorers based at Ruma alone.
Thirty-seven sisters made the move from Ruma, trickling into the complex from Feb. 23 to April 7. Sr. Gross was among the first. She came early to help welcome and settle those who followed, including her own older sibling, Sr. Ann Frances Gross. Two other siblings, now deceased, were also in the order.
Sr. Gross is in an independent living apartment, as are most of those who moved from Ruma. Her sister, who has been disabled by the autoimmune disorder myasthenia gravis, is among those in the community's skilled nursing unit. Other members of the congregation are in assisted living. Two of the Adorers died shortly after moving from Ruma and were buried in the cemetery on the Ruma Center grounds.
Sr. Rose Anthony Mathews, center, joins other residents of Benedictine Living Community – At The Shrine for a chair yoga session. Sr. Mathews is one of 37 Adorers of the Blood of Christ who moved to the eldercare community in Belleville, Illinois, earlier this year as their convent was closing.
Credit: Lisa Eisenhauer/@ CHA
Sr. Bernice Klosterman says the move was emotional because the Ruma Center was the place that she and the others had always considered home even when their assignments took them far away for years. Like other Ruma sisters, she credits congregational leadership and the staffs of the Ruma Center and the Benedictine Living Community with smoothing the transition.
The process included discussions for the sisters in Ruma about how to mentally prepare for the move, opportunities to choose furniture from the convent for their new apartments, assistance with packing, movers at the ready at both ends, greeters waiting at the door in Belleville and helpers on hand to set up their new living spaces.
"We had the gift of having a group of sisters that handled the whole thing for us," Sr. Klosterman says. "It was nothing on our own. We were just blessed a hundred times over."
Sr. Vicki Bergkamp, Adorers regional leader, says the congregation was mindful from the start that the move would be both physically and mentally taxing. She and others involved in the planning consulted with religious communities that had arranged similar moves when convents were closed about what to do and what to avoid. One piece of advice the Adorers followed was to move the sisters in stages.
Sr. Raphael Drone's apartment at Benedictine Living Community – At The Shrine is furnished with pieces she selected from the motherhouse of Adorers of the Blood of Christ in Ruma, Illinois. The motherhouse was her base until it closed earlier this year.
Credit: Lisa Eisenhauer/@ CHA
"That was very purposeful, not because of logistics, but because we wanted each sister who came to come on her own, not just as a group of 37," Sr. Bergkamp says. "So the person was welcomed as a new resident of this facility and the attention was on one or two at a time, rather than trying to do it en masse."
She was often one of the greeters of the new arrivals in Belleville and she continues to join them for religious services and other events at their new home.
The sisters who moved into independent living quarters got to choose between patio apartments or those in a five-story high-rise and between efficiencies or one-bedroom units.
Rooms with a view
Sr. Anne Irose is on the top floor of the high-rise with views that include the flower and vegetable gardens below. She helps tend the raised beds and harvest vegetables, some of which go to a food program in nearby East St. Louis.
Sr. Irose joined the Adorers in 1946 and spent four decades as a community worker in Bolivia. She says it was only because she was losing her eyesight that she returned to Ruma in 2009.
"I'm still legally blind but, you know, I have the whole universe here," she says.
In addition to gardening, she takes part in the weekly chair yoga sessions and in morning prayer gatherings with other sisters in the solarium of the high-rise.
The women religious say they enjoy the many activities, such as art classes and breakfast and dinner outings, that Benedictine offers for all residents. But they also appreciate that Benedictine allows the Adorers some exclusive use of facilities such as when they gather in the chapel every evening for prayers.
Jennifer Murphy, sales and marketing director at Benedictine Living Community — At The Shrine, says the Adorers have been like celebrities since they moved to the community, with both residents and staff eager to meet them. She says some early apprehension about whether a group of women religious would mesh well with the lay residents was quickly dispelled.
"The other residents say it's so good to have the sisters here," she says. "We hear that continually."
In May 1921, 56 sisters, novices and candidates from the motherhouse of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ in Ruma, Illinois, piled into several cars for a road trip to Fort de Chartres, the heart of French Colonial Illinois and now a state historic site. The sisters in full habit positioned themselves along the contours of the stone gate to the fort, which is about 11 miles from the Ruma Center.
Credit: Adorers of the Blood of Christ
From the Adorers, Murphy says, she hears gratitude that they were able to find a home together relatively close to where they had been living, in a sacred place that offers them serenity and solitude and that is within a Catholic community that shares their values.
Sr. Gross believes the shared values, particularly stewardship, justice and hospitality, have contributed to the good vibes between the sisters and the senior living community. She says the lay residents seem to appreciate the reverent, yet outgoing nature of the sisters, which was honed by years of ministering to diverse populations.
Many of the sisters are originally from small Southern Illinois towns. For example, Sr. Gross and Sr. Celine Birk both grew up in Evansville, a town of about 550 just a few miles from Ruma, and each have extended family nearby. They and others have found unexpected connections in the Benedictine community through their roots and religious assignments.
As Sr. Klosterman's things were being moved into her new apartment, a woman she had taught decades before but hadn't seen since popped in to greet her. The woman works in the skilled care unit at Benedictine Living Community. Sr. Irose says a resident introduced herself by mentioning that she'd graduated from high school with one of the sister's older siblings.
While they continue to settle into their new environs, the sisters acknowledge that the motherhouse has a place in their hearts. They wonder what their order will decide to do with the convent and its acreage. Sr. Bergkamp says the order is still discerning the convent's fate.
The grounds include a cemetery where two of Sr. Gross' siblings are buried along with generations of Ruma sisters. The few who gave their bodies to science or were buried elsewhere are memorialized with markers around a fountain. A bronze statue commemorates the lives of five sisters who were slain while on assignment in Liberia in 1992. Those sisters' remains also are interred at the cemetery.
A spokesman for the Adorers says the cemetery will continue to be the resting place for Ruma sisters.
For Sr. Raphael Ann Drone, knowing that all her new neighbors probably left behind a beloved home and contemplating the challenges faced by refugees who have been uprooted from homes across the globe have helped her keep the move from Ruma in perspective.
Sr. Drone also has found solace in the Bible. She says: "When we were totally sure we were going to move, I mean when the arrangements had been made, I thought, yeah, Abraham had to do that, too, way back."
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