St. Scholastica Monastery: More Than a Building
The late Gothic revival building known as the St. Scholastica monastery has stood on the hill in Fort Smith, Arkansas for nearly 100 years as an enduring symbol of gentleness, faithfulness, strength, and beauty.
The Benedictine sisters of St. Scholastica, who have been ministering in Arkansas through multiple hardships since 1879, recently built an energy-efficient and smaller monastery building next door to the old monastery. They tried for many years to save the old monastery building, but the structural problems were significant and many. The decision to raze the old building was not an easy one. The decision is a result of many years of prayer, discernment, research, planning, and queries for help. The sisters have dwindled in number from 300 in the 1970’s to less than 30 in recent years, and the time of Covid was especially devastating for them.
This building stands to me not only as a wordless architectural and historical landmark, but as a space and symbol of spiritual nourishment, transformation, freedom, justice, healing, spiritual mothering, and deepening intimacy with God. I am very sad to see it go, yet I have had a connection with several of the sisters and trust that they have made this decision with deep discernment and spiritual guidance from the Holy, along with many tears. I am sad with them and for them. This, after all, was their home.
The original purpose and intention of the building was to serve as a space for doing God’s work. For love, for peace, for education, for healing. The building has faithfully done its job. It has met the needs of many and poured into countless others, providing sanctuary, space for many for deepening relationship with God, healing, training, and new ways of being and seeing. We are reminded in the Gospels that the ministry of Jesus was never about a building, but about pouring into, healing, and being deeply present to people. It is we who carry His spirit as mobile sanctuaries of the Divine.
Sister Kimberly Prohaska, prioress of the St. Scholastica community, stated, “a community is more than a building. It is not bricks and hallways and bedrooms. A community is the people. The sisters of St. Scholastica are the monastery.” This devoted Benedictine community, along with its Gothic building, has given and served with the whole of their lives to preserve, tend to, and mentor others in the ways of connecting to God through silence, solitude, prayer, keeping the hours, and educating and caring for those in need.
As I have been in formation in the ministry of spiritual direction these past five years through the St. Scholastica community, I have been privileged to be nourished with meals, spiritual rest, spiritual food, many spiritual director formation classes, spiritual direction sessions, and sleep in this beautiful five story late Gothic revival building. This building and community received me as Christ, fed me, nourished me, held me, taught me, and has shown me the ancient ways of deep attentiveness, prayer and deep listening to God and others as they poured into me. As agents of my healing and spiritual transformation, this building and community has nurtured and held physical and spiritual space for my calling, vision, charism, and ministry.
Making space within ourselves to be with our feelings about the demolition of this beautiful building is important. And, as my Benedictine spiritual teachers have taught me, endings make for new beginnings.
As we hold space for the both/and with the gift of our feelings, perhaps some questions we may be invited to ask ourselves are:
Where are the spaces and people in today’s society who are leading and living the ancient ways and rhythms, providing sacred space for us to go deeper?
Who is showing us how to be present and serve God and others from a place intentional Sabbath rhythms, not just with their words, but with their very lives?
Who is coming alongside us from a place of deep soul rest and spiritual freedom, listening deeply in discernment with us to the landscape of our souls, the inner movements of our spirits, and the Holy Spirit while letting go of outcomes?
Who is showing us in wisdom that a deepening relationship with God is not purely about learning cognitively or reading about someone else’s experiences, but actually making space to tend to our own personal experience of God?
Who is showing us how to be compassionately present to our body, feelings and heart, leading us to ongoing healing, integration, transformation, wholeheartedness, and deepening intimacy and relationships with God, others, and all of creation?
Who is holding sacred space to nurture spiritual rest and restoration?
Where in our lives are we being invited to reverence endings while making space for and noticing sacred beginnings?
Where in our lives and world are we being invited to choose love?
These are counter-cultural questions, even in today’s christian community. This list of questions is certainly incomplete. What questions would you add to this list?
My hope and prayer is that we each make hospitable space to tend and nourish the Holy within ourselves and one another as we live and move and have our being in God in this world. May we be looking for those who, like the St. Scholastica community, are generously and sacrificially pointing the way with their lives to being in the world from lives of deepening intimacy with Divine presence.
As Sister Rachel Dietz, OSB, spiritual director, therapist, teacher of spiritual director formation and member of this community, was fond of saying, “Love is a decision.”
Read about my early experience at the monastery here: https://www.soulcaresanctuary.org/post/welcome
Read more about plans to raze the old monastery building here: https://ao.pressreader.com/article/281526524646785
Tongua Williams has completed the requirements for five year certification in formation in the ministry of Ignatian spiritual direction through St. Scholastica monastery in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and will receive her certificate in a ceremony later this month.