Benedictine Sisters of Virginia: Serving the Community for 150 Years

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By Olivia Overman

Neighbors can walk and pray in the labyrinth, prayer silos and grotto or enjoy the many gardens throughout the property.

Having first opened their doors in 1868 in Richmond, followed by a monastery in Bristow in 1901, the Benedictine Sisters of Virginia continue to leave their mark on these communities 150 years later. With a total of 29 Sisters, two located in Richmond, the Sisters contribute to the community through programs, such as BEACON, an adult educational assistance program, and BARN, a transitional housing program for homeless women and their children. The Sisters also run two schools, Linton Hall Elementary School located on the grounds of their monastery in Bristow and Saint Gertrude High School in Richmond.

Spreading kindness and good throughout Bristow and the surrounding communities, the Sisters plan to celebrate their upcoming jubilee as they live, with “events and programs for all to enjoy,” said Sister Johanna Burley, director of mission integration and communication.

Helping in Our Community
With a focus on helping the most vulnerable people in the community, the Sisters have created programs in line with their Benedictine heritage. Sister Burley describes their calling and why the Sisters work so diligently: “Saint Benedict’s first words to us in his Rule are, ‘listen carefully with the ear of your heart.’
Our [Benedictine] community tries to do this by being interested in and sensitive to the needs of all Virginians and finding ways to minister to those needs.”

Working within the community enables the Sisters to see and understand where the most guidance and assistance are needed. “As Benedictine women, we are always looking for how to serve in the area in which we have been placed. We are people of place,” said Sister Glenna Smith, sub-prioress of the community. It is because of their work and presence in the community that the Sisters created
programs, such as BEACON, BARN, and the Benedictine Pastoral Center, as well as the Sunfish Swimming program.

The Benedictine Sisters of Virginia are active in helping the community.

“BEACON is an adult literacy ministry, which just celebrated 25 years of assisting immigrants from more than 70 countries in the Manassas area in learning English and other work-related skills and preparing for citizenship,” said Burley.

Benedictine Aid and Relief for Neighbors (BARN) was set up in 1997 when it was clear there was a need for supportive assistance for homeless women and their children. The Benedictine Pastoral Center offers spiritual education programs and retreats while the Sunfish Swimming program offers an outdoor summer program that provides swim lessons to residents between the ages of three and 18. According to Burley, this program was created when the Benedictine community learned of a rise in very young
children drowning.

The Sisters’ generosity continues through the offering of their home, the monastery grounds, to the public. “We welcome our neighbors to come and walk, pray in our labyrinth, prayer silos and grotto, and enjoy the many gardens throughout our property, one of which, the Teaching Gardens, is maintained
by the master gardeners of Prince William County,” explained Burley. Additionally, they have created the Place of Peace Columbarium, where people of all faiths can place the remains of their loved ones.

Life as a Benedictine Sister
“We rise early for Morning Prayer, stop our work at noon to pray Midday Prayer, and gather together before supper for Evening Prayer. Throughout the day, sisters make time for private prayer, communal chores, and their individual ministries. This rhythm of our daily routine reminds us to give gratitude to God for divine blessings and to prayerfully intercede to God on behalf of those to whom we minister. This continual connectedness to God, our neighbors, and each other is the core of Benedictine life,” said Burley.

As prioress (or head) of the monastery, Sister Cecilia Dwyer described monastic life as making a community. “The whole point of monastic life is to make community. Community is the main ministry of our lives. Saint Benedict called it a ‘school of the Lord’s service’ and that means that we learn about God
from each other, so we have to be in relationship. Relationships are the most important part of our life. Our relationships with each other and with God spill out into the local community and become relationships with all the people who interact with us, and they in turn inspire us to give service and do our ministries to provide what we can for the needs of the local community. So all our ministries—our schools, BEACON, BARN—come from our desire to be in relationship,” she said.

Celebrating 150 Years
The Benedictine Sisters of Virginia are an active and vibrant community that has created and developed roots in both Bristow and Richmond. “We have women interested in joining us, and the number of our Oblates [a Christian lay person who associates him or herself with a Benedictine monastery]is growing as well. Our ministries are strong, and we continue to look for ways to serve the people of the area,” Burley said.

The celebrations for the jubilee will begin on May 1, 2018 with an anniversary mass at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond, the city where the Sisters began on May 1, 1868. The final jubilee celebration of the year will be a Mass at the monastery celebrated by Bishop Burbidge of Arlington in
May 2019, marking the 125th anniversary of the establishment in Bristow. In the months between, there will be events and programs for all to enjoy at the monastery and in Richmond.

Tours, historical presentations, music and arts, fun events and contests are all planned. On Dec. 2, exactly 150 days before the anniversary year begins, a daily offering of stories of the Sisters’ history will be featured on their social media sites.

Speaking about their future in Bristow, Sister Burley said, “We Benedictines are people of place. Once planted, we become firmly rooted. And the soil here is good! We have flourished and will continue to do so, building on the relationships we have established as well as always welcoming new ones.”

A graduate of American University’s School of Communication, Olivia Overman ( is a freelance writer for both online and print publications.


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