By Olivia Overman
The Benedictine Sisters of Virginia follow a 1500-year-old tradition centered on three core doctrines: living
in the community, daily individual and communal prayer, and service to others. On May 4, 2019, the Benedictine Sisters, located in Bristow, Virginia, commemorated the 125th anniversary of the establishment of their monastic home in Prince William. Their contribution to the community continues today.
Giving to the Community
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 30 sisters, two located in Richmond, the sisters contribute to the community through the two
schools they run: Linton Hall School in Bristow and Saint Gertrude High School in Richmond. They also run a program known as the Benedictine Educational Assistance Community Outreach to Neighbors, or BEACON, an adult educational assistance program working to meet the educational needs of adults in Prince William. Trained volunteers work with individuals and small groups teaching English as a second language and high school equivalency, or GED, classes. BEACON also provides life-skills workshops on topics such as health and safety, nutrition, financial literacy, parenting skills and community resources.
With a focus on helping the most vulnerable people in the community, the sisters have created programs in line with their Benedictine heritage. “We ask: What does the world need in these times? And then we look for ways to respond to the needs of today. This we have always done and will always do, and we
welcome anyone who wants to commit to this way of life,” said Sister Burley, Prioress at BSV Bristow.
“We have always supported the people of our local community,” says Sister Pat Hagarty, a registered dietician and a master gardener, taking care of both bodies and souls. “We share with others whatever we have. People are very good to us and trust us to use well what we receive. So if someone comes to our door
and is hungry, or when we hear of a need, we are able to share our resources.”
The sisters’ generosity extends to opening their grounds and facilities 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 in an earlier interview.
Additionally, they have created the Place of Peace Columbarium, where people of all faiths can place the remains of their loved ones in a location designed around a central Peace Angel statue.
Times Are Changing
As times have changed, so too have the sisters. “Perhaps the biggest change upcoming is that our high school in Richmond, Saint Gertrude, will join with our male counterpart, Benedictine College Prep, in a new educational model called The Benedictine Schools of Richmond, and move physically to the Goochland
campus of the Benedictine monks,” said Burley.
Burley also provided an update on the programs run in Prince William: “Our BARN ministry came to completion in 2018. After more than 20 years of service to homeless women and children in our area, the program no longer could be supported within the framework of the governmental guidelines currently
established. BEACON, however, continues to grow and serve all who are seeking to speak, read and write English with competency, as well as supporting immigrants preparing for the citizenship exam,” she said.
Burley was elected prioress a year ago and says her role is to be ultimately responsible for everyone and everything associated with the monastery. “The beauty of the leadership position in a monastery is that the prioress does not make decisions alone, but always with consultation,” Burley said.
At the installation ceremony, the outgoing prioress takes the hand of the newly elected and changes the ring on her finger so it faces outwards, then removes her own and turns it to face inward. “The symbolism is rich,” said Burley. “The prioress no longer belongs to herself, but to others. Her life is for others.”
The Future of the Benedictine Life
Currently, the sisters are running a campaign to build a new facility for the sisters and community on their grounds in Bristow. Providing an update on the campaign, Burley said, “We are within 7% of our campaign goal [of $3 million]and have contracted with a local firm, Trinity Group Construction, to build the facility. The new monastery will be perfectly suited for our lifestyle, with private space for the sisters and public space that can be used for our many events and programs. And, of course, a chapel.”
The monastery project began under the direction of past prioress Sister Cecilia Dwyer. At the groundbreaking held in November, Dwyer reflected, “One of our goals has been to improve our living space — to provide an environment that is conducive to our communal lifestyle, to the silence needed for prayer, to the privacy so necessary for any group’s personal life. To provide a space that is safe and reasonable for adults who live together 24/7. And now we are here at the beginning of the completion of that goal, and we are so grateful to all who have worked with us and supported us and gifted us through this process.”
Burley also commented on the future of the Order. “People often ask about the future of religious life and the future of the sisters. Monastic life has always had periods of growth and periods of decline. But it has never died. Saint Benedict founded our way of life in the sixth century, and it has survived. So shall we survive, and grow, as we continue to serve the world through our prayer, offer the world a model of how to live well together, and adapt and respond to the needs of our times,” she said.
Olivia Overman ([email protected]) is a freelance writer for both online and print organizations. She earned a M.A. in Journalism and Public Affairs from American University, Washington, D.C.