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Gazette Premium Content Twilight on Benet Hill

By PAUL ASAY THE GAZETTE Updated: June 11, 2005 at 12:00 am
Sister Liguori Sullivan has been many things in her 40-plus years at Benet Hill Monastery: leader, administrator, counselor, fundraiser. Most recently, she’s been its official storyteller.
Sullivan, 91, has hundreds of stories about Benet Hill, a local religious landmark celebrating its 40th anniversary Sunday. For six years she has sat at a small, cluttered desk in the Benet Hills library, dictating in two-hour chunks. Her transcribed tales will be the backbone of a history book about the monastery. “I’ve been living on Memory Lane for six years,” she said. Soon, Benet Hill Monastery on North Chelton Road will be a memory itself. Much of the monastery — its school, gymnasium and tennis courts, among other parcels — has been leased to Colorado Springs Charter Academy K-8, with an option to buy. The school will share space with the sisters and Benet Hill’s other tenants as of July 1. For the sisters, the lease marks the beginning of a massive move that will take them out of the heart of Colorado Springs and into Black Forest. They plan to build a new monastery, one more suitable to their needs and mission, in the next three years. “It’s been a long, four-year process,” said Sister Rose Ann Barmann, the monastery’s prioress. “But it’s good.” This extended, uncertain goodbye to the Chelton monastery makes this anniversary bittersweet. “You know, it is (hard), because it’s certainly been home,” Sister Anne Stedman said. Stedman, who on Sunday will take over from Barmann as Benet Hill’s new prioress, has been part of the Benet Hill community since its inception — as have many of the monastery’s 37 sisters (22 are at Benet Hill, another 15 work elsewhere). The 65-year-old sister became a nun in January 1963 and left Atchison, Kan., for Colorado Springs that August, helping to start Benet Hill Academy, a high school for girls. The monastery was founded June 14, 1965. Its campus, which included the Academy, was on the edge of town, buffered by bluffs and prairie. Most of the monastery’s nuns were teachers, outfitted in black habits and committed to the passionate, quiet life laid down by St. Benedict more than 1,500 years ago. They taught in schools along the Front Range and in the San Luis Valley, many at Benet Hill. The nuns followed a strict regimen typical of monastic life at the time: They were told when to pray, when to work, when to sleep. “It was a wonderful rhythm, and it was a staid rhythm,” Stedman said. “Every day looked very much like every other day. And I loved it. I really loved it.” Sullivan was Benet Hill’s prioress until 1975. Almost blind, her memories are vivid, exact. She remembers every generous donation, every chance encounter, every sister. She remembers how dry Colorado seemed compared with Kansas. “The worst change was the Colorado itch,” she said. In the 1960s, Vatican II reforms swept away some of Benet Hill’s traditional trappings. Schedules became more flexible, and the sisters’ traditional black garb vanished. When Sister Lucile Hartmann was asked whether they wear habits anymore, she said, “Our good habits, we do. We got rid of the others.” The school closed in 1982, a victim of dwindling enrollment and escalating costs. But the sisters still invite Academy alumni to Benet Hill every August for a “Generation Celebration.” “A lot of people thought we (Benet Hill) would die when the school closed,” Stedman said. The sisters adjusted instead, sponsoring adult spiritual education programs. The monastery has certified 500 people as spiritual directors and taught thousands of others how better to embrace spirituality. Students come from all faiths, according to Stedman. Teachers don’t proselytize. Other sisters went into nursing or mission projects. Benet Hill has had a longtime mission presence in Jamaica, and one sister has ministered to people in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guantanamo Bay. Benet Hill also leased its excess space. The monastery is headquarters for the Black Rose Acoustic Society, the Pikes Peak Philharmonic and, until this month, District 11’s CIVA Charter High School. Stedman said this eclectic mix of tenants is unique among monasteries. “It’s a thing of great beauty with those folks,” said Ron Thomas of Black Rose. “We’re a really good fit with them.” But the Chelton location was designed as a school, not a monastery. Benet Hill is aging, shrinking. Six sisters have died during the past two years, and others have difficulty moving from building to building. The campus is too big, too impractical. The sisters want to build a new monastery on their 42-acre Black Forest property, by their private cemetery. The lease to the Charter Academy, possible future leases or sales of the remaining Benet Hill land and a $3 million capital drive will help them do so. The money also will help fund Benet Hill’s mission work and care for aging nuns. But in the midst of fundraising, planning and preparing for the monastery’s next 40 years, life for the sisters continues much as it has. They share their food, prayers and possessions. They’ve made sacred promises to be obedient and constant and to always thirst for the love of Christ. “We try to give life wherever we are,” Stedman said. “That’s the beauty, for me, of Benedictine life.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0367 or pasay@gazette.com DETAILS Benet Hill Monastery is an autonomous community that operates independently from the Diocese of Colorado Springs. The Benet Hill sisters are Benedictines, a well-known Catholic monastic order. St. Benedict is said to have lived 480-547 A.D. He was born in Nursia, near Rome, and studied in Rome before he became a hermit. According to legend, a group of monks discovered Benedict and encouraged him to become their spiritual leader. He accepted, but his rigid ways were too much for the monks. They tried to kill him by poisoning a pitcher of wine, but Benedict blessed the wine and the pitcher shattered. Taking the poison as a cue to leave, Benedict departed to found a series of monasteries, including Monte Cassino south of Rome. The workings of Benedictine monasteries such as Benet Hill are based on the Rule of Benedict — a treatise on how to live a monastic life probably authored by Benedict himself. The Rule, which contains a prologue and 73 chapters, includes meditations on humility, obedience and silence. It also gives lengthy guidance on how Benedictines should operate in their daily lives, what they should wear and how they should treat the sick. Benet Hill belongs to the Federation of St. Scholastica. The sisters run classes on adult spirituality — an offshoot of their educational roots. They also belong to a group called Benedictines for Peace, and Sister Anne Stedman says the group always has focused much of its energy on helping the poor. Their mission statement reads as follows: “We, the Benedictine Sisters of Colorado Springs, Colorado, are impelled by the Word of God to listen and respond to the issues of our times. Reverencing all creation, we are radical signs of God’s love and compassion and use our resources in service with all God’s people, especially the poor and oppressed.” SOURCES: www.osb.org; www.benethillmonastery.org
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