Our Lady of Peace monastery in Columbia to close

Monday, December 14, 2009 | 4:57 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — A 40-year chapter in the lives of seven Benedictine sisters will end this summer when Our Lady of Peace Monastery closes its doors.

The daily prayer and spiritual guidance found on the 11-acre site since 1995 will no longer be shared because of dwindling numbers and an aging membership. After a month of prayer and discernment, Sister Sandra Meek announced Friday that Boone County's only Catholic monastery will dissolve.

"This has been a very painful process," Meek said. "Many of these sisters have been here since the monastery was established. This is their family — their home. This is where their friends are, the people who have supported them so generously for many years. They had to make a decision about what was best for their community, but it is not going to be easy for them to leave."

The sisters' average age is 75, Meek said. The youngest Our Lady of Peace sister is 59. She joined in 1979, and only a few other members have come and gone since then.

Despite recruitment efforts, membership numbers have declined since the 1960s, and many religious orders have never recovered, Meek said. Changes in society and family structure are likely contributors to dwindling numbers, and it has finally taken its toll here in Columbia.

The process leading to this decision began earlier this year. During a discernment process for leadership in the spring, the sisters chose not to elect a prioress (aka abbess or mother superior) but decided it must first face some tough decisions about its future viability, Meek said.

In July, the Federation of St. Gertrude appointed Meek, from a monastery in Watertown, S.D., administrator of the community. It was her task to assist the sisters in their decisions. They collectively decided the monastery would remain open until the last of them moves to another Benedictine Sisters community.

Retreats and other activities will occur as scheduled through early spring.

Our Lady of Peace was established as an independent monastery in Columbia in 1969. Before that, the 26 original members of the community belonged to St. Scholastica Monastery in Fort Smith, Ark. At that time, Benedictine sisters were already teaching at schools in Moberly, Pilot Grove and Clear Creek as well as staffing St. Joseph's Hospital in Boonville.

"We certainly understand the necessity of this decision, but it is sad news," said Bishop John Gaydos of the Diocese of Jefferson City. "The Benedictine Sisters have not only been a vital part of our local church, but they have been our friends as well. It will be hard to let go of that."

Plans for the 11-acre site, featuring rolling hills, a natural creek, a cascading garden fountain and a 14-bedroom residence are that it remain a "holy and prayerful place." Polak said Christian organizations would have priority over traditional buyers and that she did not want to see the property sold to a developer.

The sale of the property is necessary, she said, for reasons related to retirement.

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