Meet the Benedictine Sisters of Florida, a community of faith 127 years in the making.
The year was 1889. Five committed women left Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, to discover a brave new world. They were driven by faith, a calling to “begin great work,” and encouragement from the Catholic Church to make America a missionary territory. It was a time in history when the slaves had just been freed and Florida was Seminole country. The women set off by rail, then wagon train along the Seminole Trail (U.S. Highway 19 and U.S. 41) for the week-long journey to San Antonio, Florida, led by a feisty nun named Mother Rose Marie. Though small in stature, she was a giant when it came to determination.
Early San Antonio townsfolk were worried about their three-story hotel located on what is now San Ann Park because of the type of people it might bring into the community. They gladly handed over the hotel to the Sisters upon their arrival, who turned it into the first Holy Name Monastery and boarding academy. In 1911, not long after St. Leo officially became a township, the Sisters acquired property on the shores of Lake Jovita but didn’t have the funds to build a new convent. Mother Rose Marie’s solution? Move the convent a half-mile uphill to its new location.
The move took both ingenuity and grit. The convent was raised up on log rollers, then encircled with a steel cable. A winch connected the cable to two oxen that circled a dead-man’s timber buried 50 feet ahead of the house, slowly inching the building to its new location. It took six weeks in the summer heat to make the move to the shores of Lake Jovita, with the sisters living in the house the whole time!
The original wooden structure served the Sisters well for 71 years. Their second home was constructed in the late 1950s on Saint Leo University property, and the Sisters moved into Benedictine Hall in 1960. They moved into their current home on August 17, 2014.
A legacy of education
The Founding Sisters had a vision of providing educational opportunities for all they served. Less than two weeks after their arrival in 1889, they opened Holy Name Academy for girls, and were teaching in St. Anthony School and St. Joseph School. From 1929 to 1959, they operated St. Benedictine Preparatory for young boys. Throughout their history, they have served as Saint Leo University administrators, instruction staff, campus ministers, directors of residential life, librarians, archivists, clerical staff, and food service managers. From 1962 to 1997, they provided housing for University students.
Today’s Sisters are equally committed. Prioress Sister Roberta Bailey began her career in the classroom in 1959, and founded local St. Leo Montessori School in 1970. She sits on the board of Saint Leo University and on the Foundation Board of Pasco-Hernando Early Learning Coalition. She was a governor appointee on Florida’s Universal Pre-K Commission. Sister Mary Clare Neuhofer, immediate past prioress, has been a director of religious programs, dean of women, director of residence life, and assistant to the president for campus ministry at Saint Leo University. Sister Mary David Hydro is a sub-prioress and former adjunct professor at Saint Leo University, while fellow Sister Eileen Dunbar’s present ministry is with the University, where she works as a data analyst in the Office of Institutional Research. Sister Miriam Cosgrove was an elementary guidance counselor in Pasco County for 23 years, and Sister Donna DeWitt works with preschoolers at Sacred Heart Early Childhood Center in St. Joe. And the list goes on and on.
A Sisterhood of accomplishment
To say that the Sisters are a success in their community would be an understatement. They have served as town mayors and commissioners and directed companies and non-profits as board members. Sister Roberta sits on the board of the Dade City Chamber of Commerce. Sister Jean is the full-time executive director for DayStar Hope Center of Pasco County, an ecumenical non-profit that offers assistance to the needy. Sister Donna has served as a St. Leo Town Commissioner since 1997. Sister Margaret Mary is an accomplished jazz musician who played professionally.
Guided by Saint Benedict
Saint Benedict and his sister Scholastica were born in 480—time not unlike our own filled with power struggles, dissention, and division. Saint Benedict offered an alternative—a community of faith designed to forge bonds between young and old, rich and poor, educated and ignorant. It was as place where people could be a family, work together, and seek God through prayer and ministry. Today, the Sisters plant this spirit of community wherever they may serve, whether it is in the classroom, the parish, the local Church, or throughout society at large.
“We are witness to the idea that peace is possible. We’re all different kinds of people, from different walks of life, of different ethnicities, and we can live in peace. It is possible,” said Sister Mary David.
A day in the life
As they have done since the late 1800s, the Benedictine Sisters of Florida have created a home that is sacred ground—a place of safe spaces of help, hope, and prayer. They open their home to guests, oblates, and retreatants and work with victims of domestic violence, provide direct assistance to the poor, and help Habitat for Humanity by donating lunch to their volunteer workers to name but a few of their many daily functions. They participate in communal activities and encourage each other to grow in community, in mutual obedience, in love and in the lived expression of their vows.
What the future holds
Since moving to the new location off of Wichers Road, there is a growing need for larger group retreats. Construction crews are now at work on a new wing, which will add 10 new rooms and 20 beds to the four guest rooms they currently have. The wing will be complete in time for Christmas this year.
“We’re now building a new wing that will allow us to serve even more retreatants,” said Faith Pridmore, director of Mission Advancement. “Right now we have large groups that can come, but only stay for the day.”
How you can help
The Benedictine Sisters of Florida are a non-profit organization that relies on support from the people who worship there and the community at large. If you would like to make a cash donation to the Sisters, please go to www.BenedictineSistersOfFL.org and click on the “donate now” button. For in-kind donations such as furniture for the new wing, you can call Faith Pridmore at (325) 588-8320.