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story.lead_photo.caption Special to the Democrat-Gazette/KAREN SCHWARTZ Sister Maria DeAngeli, prioress of St. Scholastica, speaks during the dedication of the new monastery in October 2018. DeAngeli, who has led the monastery for the past 10 years, stepped down as prioress June 8 in a closed ceremony at the monastery, one of many changes in the life of the order in recent years.

After leading St. Scholastica Monastery in Fort Smith for the past 10 years, Sister Maria DeAngeli stepped down as prioress June 8 in a closed ceremony.

After a time largely dedicated to preparing for the move to a smaller monastery that better fits the needs of the order, among DeAngeli's hopes is that she will "just be one of the sisters" again.

"I've been praying real hard that I can do that very gracefully," DeAngeli said of the move.

During her time as prioress, DeAngeli has helped facilitate changes such as the agreement to sell its former school building to Trinity Junior High School, and the decision to helped see the order through the planning, fundraising for and establishment of a smaller, one-level monastery.

The number of sisters at St. Scholastica has dwindled over the decades from hundreds to fewer than three dozen, but the order remains dedicated to peace, humility, work and prayer -- values that the sisters and those who have known them through the years say endure.

ESTABLISHED IN SHOAL CREEK

St. Scholastica Monastery, formerly St. Scholastica Convent, was originally established in Shoal Creek by four sisters who migrated from Ferdinand, Ind., in 1879 with the goal of expanding the reach of the Catholic Church, according to the monastery's newsletter Horizons. In 1925, the Benedictine sisters moved to a 65-acre plot of land in Fort Smith after starting construction on the six-story monastery that would house them for more than 90 years.

DeAngeli has been with the monastery since graduating from the eighth grade in 1949, before becoming a novice in 1951, making her first profession in 1953 and committing to the order for life in 1956.

DeAngeli first worked on mission in places including Stuttgart and Paris, before helping out at what was then St. Joseph's orphanage in North Little Rock and Subiaco Abbey before earning college degrees and spending nearly a quarter century as a pastoral minister. During that time she went on mission to Helena to work among the poor for 13 years. She has also served in roles including that of subprioress during the 1980s.

"They were all happy years for me," DeAngeli said of her time with St. Scholastica. "There was some downtime, but I loved every mission I was ever assigned to."

The number of sisters grew to about 375 until after the conclusion of Vatican II in the mid-1960s, which re-examined doctrinal issues in the Catholic Church, and the growing women's movement in the 1970s. While women left monastic orders in large numbers during the 1970s, particularly in the United States, DeAngeli said the number of women who remained at St. Scholastica was still in the hundreds, and some who left did so to found another monastery in Columbia, Mo.

By the time she was elected prioress in 2009, though, there were just 67 sisters. These days, there are 23, nine of whom live in the nearby nursing home, Chapel Ridge, where the sisters can visit and pray with them. One candidate, or postulant, will become the 24th member when she is made a novice on June 23.

"When I asked them to go ... I said, 'Now, I'm sending you with a mission, and your mission is to bring joy and Benedictine peace to the nursing home,' and they have done that," DeAngeli said.

The number of sisters no longer called for a six-story building, and reconstruction of the monastery to bring it up to code was estimated at $15 million, three times the amount the sisters were told would it would cost to establish a smaller building on the same plot of land. The community voted to move forward with the new monastery, and started a $5 million capital campaign, "Forward in Faith."

FORWARD IN FAITH

Jennifer Burchett, St. Scholastica's spokesman, said an auction of items that wouldn't fit in the new monastery raised $142,989.47, all of which will be put toward the new building. The future of the former monastery is uncertain, although the community has hopes that an investor will take an interest in the building.

DeAngeli, who was re-elected in 2013 for another four-year term, agreed to stay on for another two years in 2017 to help see the new monastery project to its completion. In that time, the community sold the rest of the former St. Scholastica Academy to Trinity Junior High School -- which has been leasing part of the building for around 20 years -- for $3 million last year. The school is also leasing land nearby that it will have the option to buy in 15 years if the money is raised, DeAngeli said.

Kimberly Prohaska, subprioress, was installed as the monastery's administrator and spiritual leader during last Saturday's evening prayers until the sisters hold a new election for prioress in January. Facilitators also will come to spend time with the sisters in October to help them establish goals for their future.

Burchett said the new building represented a new chapter for the sisters in the life of the monastery, noting that the reduced number of sisters now puts the community's size more on par with traditional Benedictine communities in Europe.

"I think sometimes people look at the monastery and they get really sad because they see that majestic monastery high on the hill and they see it empty, and there is just a sad connotation with ... the sisters not being in it anymore," Burchett said. "But that's not all there is, because there's still a future. The sisters still look forward to what is to come ... they pray for new sisters every single day."

NAN Religion on 06/15/2019

Print Headline: Forward in faith

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