PRAIRIE DU SAC — Sister Christina Marie, 33, was an entomologist. Sister Mary Benedicta,
36, studied to be an aeronautical engineer. And Sister Mary Bede, 30, intended to
become a professional violinist.
She’ll come from her parents' house in Columbus, Ohio, after earning a degree in
mechanical engineering from Ohio State University. She’ll sell her car, get rid of
most of her possessions and bring only a few things, including a Bible and her rosary.
“I went to college thinking I was going to be an engineer, work for Honda and travel
to Japan all the time,” she said, “and be rich and write a book and be on the New
York Times best-seller list.”
Now Wells is set to be part of an ancient tradition of communal religious life known
as contemplative monasticism. She will live simply, becoming singularly focused on
prayer, talking and listening to God without distraction.
“I’ve thought about serving in various ways, but ultimately what would fulfill me
the most would be to hold the world in my heart and pray for them,” she said.
Wells will be one of growing number at Valley of Our Lady, an outlier in a 40-year
downward trend in women entering convents. With 21 nuns once Wells joins this month,
the monastery will be at full capacity, millennials comprising more than one-third
of the community.
Although the monastery in Prairie Du Sac is growing, nationwide, the number of nuns
and priests has decreased dramatically. In 1965, there were 179,954 religious sisters
in the U.S. Last year, there were 47,170, according to the Center for Applied Research
in the Apostolate (CARA), a nonprofit research group affiliated with Georgetown University.
If current trends continue, there would be fewer than 1,000 religious sisters in
the United States in 2043 as they die out, according to CARA.
Wells will enter the monastery’s ranks as a postulant, a “trying it out” position
that lasts one year. She’ll continue to go through phases called “formation,” eventually
wearing a white habit and veil and taking a religious name. Five years from now,
she and the community will decide whether or not she will make permanent vows.
Until then, like others at the monastery, she will live a radically austere life
behind closed doors, working out the mystery of what she views as a distinct calling
This begins by waking up at 3:30 a.m. every morning to pray, one of seven formal
times throughout the day. The sisters also attend Mass before an 8:30 p.m. bedtime.
They can speak to one another during 15 minutes of recreation time each evening.
On Sundays, they have 30 minutes for recreation and converssation.
The rest of the time, they keep silentce.
The sisters’ daily life includes various jobs to maintain the monastery and running
a business baking Catholic Communion breads to support themselves.
They maintain simplicity by making their own clothes. Their meals are simple.
Every part of cloistered convent life points toward prayer, said Sister Anne Marie,
the prioress, or superior at Valley of Our Lady.
“When we can keep our life simple, then we can keep a balance of work and prayer,”
she said. “Most people in the world don’t have the luxury of meeting seven times
a day for prayer, but it is very essential to our life. That’s why we’re here.”
Sisters who have made permanent vows have email addresses but don’t peruse websites.
Sister Anne Marie assigns one nun to scan the internet briefly each day, only to
find subjects for which to pray. A headline is all it takes.
People can also leave prayer requests on the sisters’ answering machine (press 1
for that option when calling) or mail in requests. Asking God to help other people
is at the core of their conversations with him, said the prioress.
“Most of the time it’s a walk in faith. Most of the time we have no idea who we prayed
for and how God took care of it,” she said. “We join together with people praying
for people and it’s just one of the great blessings and mysteries of our life.”
Sometimes Sister Anne Marie prays by geographic region, she said, but her prayer
focus varies. She often feels compelled to pray for those who were “carried in the
womb with hate,” unwanted children brought into the world without love.
“They may have reached the age of 5 and have never known love,” she said.
The community of Cistercian nuns at Valley of Our Lady Monastery .kneel during a
ceremony of Solemn Vows at the monastery.
While Wisconsin’s Cistercians sleep, there are others praying around the world. There
is a Cistercian monastery in every time zone, she said.
“The young people have this expression, ‘You’re in my face.’ Well, we’re in God’s
face. God is being pestered all the time, we don’t leave Him alone,” she said. “The
pestering is: ‘Lord have mercy, your people are hurting.’”
That kind of prayer, facilitated by a life set-apart of silence, solitude and manual
labor, is what draws Wells to the convent.
Should she change her mind, however, Wells can leave at any time before she takes
“It’s not everyone’s vocation and sometimes the only way you can figure if it is,
you come,” said Sister Anne Marie. “It’s pretty easy for them to know, are they happy?
Are they at peace? Can they live the life? Those things show up. We’re not going
to keep someone here who is not happy. We’re not going to keep someone here who is
not at peace. When they come they still receive grace and help for whatever God is
going to call them to later.”
Even permanent vows can be broken, though it is considered extremely serious. Permanent
vows include one of obedience.
“We take a vow of obedience which is probably the hardest,” said Sister Christina
Marie, who helps run the convent’s bakery. “Having my own life and my own will, having
license to do whatever I want, will really just make you miserable. Really, that
self-offering, that self-giving love is really where true freedom is found.”
Valley of Our Lady Monastery is a series of cobbled together buildings on 112 acres
of farmland. It was founded in 1957 when six nuns from a Cistercian convent in Frauenthal,
Switzerland, arrived on Thanksgiving. “Frauenthal” is German for “valley of our lady.”
“The six sisters didn’t know English, they didn’t know our culture and they came
with such great courage. They had next to nothing,” said Sister Anne Marie.
Sister Anne Marie, the prioress at Valley of Our Lady Monastery receives Holy Communion
PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR
A postulant and a nun in “formation” receive Holy Communion during Mass at Valley
of Our Lady Monastery.
PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR
The Cistercian nuns of Valley of our Lady Monastery line up to receive Holy Communion
during Mass. Nuns who are in “formation” wear a white veil. An oblate is a layperson
who serves the monastery who takes promises rather than vows.
PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR
They moved to Wisconsin at the request of Bishop William O’Connor, the first bishop
of the Catholic Diocese of Madison, which formed in 1946. O’Connor wanted a monastery
of cloistered nuns in the newly formed diocese. There were Cistercian monks already
in the country, but no order of Cistercian nuns. Though Valley of Our Lady, with
the Bishop’s permission, is located within the Diocese of Madison, the sisters are
under the authority of the Abbot of the Cistercian Order in Rome.
“They were so poor, they had next to nothing, but they had trust in God that was
incredible and that’s part of the heritage they left to us. What they had going for
them was that God wants this, if God wants this, it’s his project,” said Sister Anne
People from the community brought gifts, made food, and as the community of nuns
grew, donated money to build additional facilities.
From six nuns, the order grew to more than 10 and stagnated. One or two new nuns
would come every few years and usually leave. They have never had a nun from Wisconsin.
“The foundresses in their broken, thickly German-accented English would say, ‘They
comes and they goes and mostly they goes,’” said Sister Anne Marie.
The main monastery residence sits at the foot of a bluff. Originally built by pioneers
in 1850, it was the summer home of former Wisconsin Gov. Emanuel Philipp, a Republican
who governed from 1915 to 1921.
They are now at capacity and plan to raise money soon to build a new monastery on
200 acres in the town of Brigham in Iowa County. The new monastery would house 30
nuns. If they were to outgrow that space, a second monastery would start somewhere
The original Cistercian Catholic monastery of nuns from which Valley of Our Lady
monastery was born was founded in 1231. The Cistercian order itself, which was established
by medieval Benedictine monks, was formed in 1098 in Citeaux, France. The Latinized
form of Citeaux is Cistercium, hence the Cistercian name.
At the foundation of Cistercian spirituality is simplicity and a vow to be poor like
Jesus Christ. Cistercian communities typically live in the country. Early European
Cistercians were some of the original swamp drainers, emptying them to build monasteries
because they couldn’t afford better land.
“We are known for being given lots of swamps, but again the Holy Spirit comes to
our aid and taught some monk how to drain them,” said Sister Anne Marie. “And the
Cistercians became experts at draining swamps. Once they got them drained, they were
a place you could live in without 5 million mosquitoes.”
It’s a common misconception that cloistered nuns don’t work.
At Valley of Our Lady Monastery, they run a business baking and selling Communion
wafers, work that’s both a practical and spiritual necessity. The sisters also maintain
and operate the monastery building, cleaning, preparing meals, mowing the lawn in
the summer and shoveling snow in the winter.
They work to pay their bills, but ultimately, it’s just another vehicle for prayer.
“This is our form of manual labor. It’s a good opportunity to pray while you’re working.
It’s fairly repetitive, fairly simple. It is able to free your mind,” said Sister
Christina Marie, who is in charge of packaging and shipping in the bakery. Valley
of Our Lady sells its wafers to nearly 1,000 parishes nationwide. Last year, it shipped
more than 12.9 million of altar breads.
The work enhances the monastery’s mission as a “powerhouse of prayer,” said Sister
The sisters rotate through work assignments but all nuns start in the monastery’s
bakery, making the unleavened altar breads. Wells will work there when she arrives.
The wafers are made only of wheat flour and water, as the Church mandates. The runny
batter is pressed and baked with rotating irons.
“It’s basically like a glorified waffle iron,” said Sister Anne Marie. The irons
automatically rotate on a carousel and batter is poured onto them. The nuns pull
the baked sheets off of the iron and later cut them by hand into discs and package
them into tubes. The wafers have Biblical designs and symbols etched into them, patterns
drawn by the sisters.
During Mass, the unleavened bread becomes the Body and Blood of Christ, according
to Catholic teaching. That the wafers are made by hand rather than by a machine is
important, the nuns said.
“It’s definitely a privilege to be able to make the altar breads,” said Sister Christina
Like everything else at the monastery, bakery work is done is silence, too. Sisters
can only speak to the bakery manager if they have a question, not to each other.
For Wells, this bakery work will replace a job she was offered with General Electric.
The opportunity was one she had worked for throughout school, but when she realized
she was interested in religious life, her earlier career ambitions waned.
“I had the opportunities of the world laid out before me,” she said. “But ultimately,
what would it amount to? What if I did end up high up in a big company with all the
money and technology I could possibly want? What would it amount to? Nothing. Nothing
compared with God.”
Cynical surprise is a frequent response to their lifestyle, several nuns said.
The Cistercian sisters at Valley of Our Lady don’t think of their former lives, attached
to their old names and hobbies, as a loss.
Parents of cloistered nuns can especially struggle, wondering how their child could
“give it all up” for the monastery, never to return home. Nuns are not permitted
to leave but families can visit them at the monastery once a year.
Sister Christina Marie was Chrissy Murphy when she was researching microscopic insects
and their role in soil decomposition in Puerto Rico. She had just graduated from
the University of Colorado at Boulder with a master’s degree and had fallen “madly
in love totally unexpectedly” and was planning on entering a Ph.D. program.
“Everything was falling into place except I didn’t have any peace about it,” she
said. “There was still something not quite right and at this point in my life, I
knew I needed to give God a chance.”
After “a great deal of agony and prayer and tears” she felt like she couldn’t make
the commitment to the Ph.D. program. She left Puerto Rico and searched for a religious
community. She wanted to try a cloistered, contemplative order and found Valley of
Our Lady online. Sister Christina Marie entered as a postulant when she was 24, nine
She was drawn to the quiet thoughtfulness at the core of monastic life, and said
it was how she related to her career in the world, too.
“Even in the world I would have been a contemplative scientist,” she said. Monastic
life, she said, “just fed me more.”
Her colleagues and boyfriend were stunned.
“Yeah, people definitely just think you’re throwing your life away,” she said. “It’s
really a great gain, just on a different plane. It requires a vision of faith to
be able to understand the vocation because it is mystical.”
Though the sisters are separated from other people, “that’s just physically," Sister
Christina Marie said. "We’re very present to the sorrows and the joys and the struggles
and the sufferings of the world. It is hard to explain what it is. It’s always something
mysterious because God speaks to the heart and the individual in a mysterious way.”
She added: “No one can really totally explain what got them in the door and usually
if someone can give you a detailed description of why they’re here, you might want
to question their vocation.”
Part of Valley of Our Lady Monastery in Prairie du Sac was the summer home of former
Wisconsin Gov. Emanuel Philipp. As their community has grown, the nuns have added
onto the monastery.
PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR
ON THE COVER: Photo of Sister Juliana at Valley of our Lady Monastery
PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR
'Powerhouse of prayer:'
Millennials are drawn to monastic life in Prairie du Sac
Sister Mary Benedicta was Starsha Johnson when she was studying aeronautical engineering
at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
She was not raised Catholic and knew nothing about nuns outside of what she saw in
the movies “Sister Act” and “The Sound of Music.” She grudgingly attended a Catholic
church when she was in college, only because a young mentee in a group for women
engineers kept asking her to try it.
“Every excuse a non-Catholic I could give, I gave it: ‘Oh no, I’m just a pagan,’
‘Oh, if I set foot in that place it would burn down,’” Sister Mary Benedicta said.
She eventually relented but didn’t know what she was doing or why she was there.
She stood when people kneeled to pray. She wasn’t sure what Communion was, or how
to take it.
She later learned the purpose of Mass and how to receive Communion.
Sister Mary Benedicta said she thought, “So God is not just a three letter word,
it’s a person? Well, now knowing that, I need to try again.”
She went again to receive Communion and that’s when everything changed, she said.
“I felt amazing. I was so excited on the inside, like, this is awesome. And it was
such a great feeling,” she said.
She entered the monastery when she was 26 and 10 years later is now its vocations
director. She is the primary point of contact for Wells and other postulants. They
are allowed to speak to her anytime during their first year.
Wells said she is at peace with her impending move. She realized she wanted to be
a nun when frustrations with dating led her to recognize and understand the idea
of spiritual motherhood.
“The Lord revealed to me that what the religious life was, was to embrace the world
as God’s children. Basically if I marry Hm, everyone is my child other than who my
natural children would be if I were to marry someone else.”
The imagery of nuns being “brides of Christ” resonates more with some sisters than
with others, said Sister Anne Marie. But human Christian marriage principles of lifelong
fidelity and intimacy are reflected in the permanent vows of a cloistered nun.
“In a human marriage, the wife gives herself to her husband, the husband gives himself
to the wife saying, ‘I want to journey my entire life with you in a very intimate
way,’” she said. “When a cloistered nun makes solemn vows, we are basically saying
to God, ‘I am yours, do with me whatever you will; because we know He only wills
our best good.”
Of her earlier plans to become an engineer and travel, Wells said: “I was totally
fine with letting it go when something better came up. There’s so many other people
out there who could have been called to this.
“I get to spend all my time with Jesus, what else could you possibly want?”
For many nuns, the most striking challenge of monastic living is coming to truly
Self-knowledge is both an incredible burden and a source of grace from God, they
“You encounter yourself very clearly, you can’t get away from yourself because you’re
with yourself all day long and there’s no distractions,” said Sister Christina Marie.
“(It) was a great blessing but brought a great deal of suffering … coming to know
yourself and why you are the way you are.”
It brings out the best and the worst in everyone, said Sister Mary Bede, the former
Abigail Berg who entered the convent nine years ago at 21.
“Because the life is so demanding, you come face to face with who you really are
and that can be painful. (It) shows who you really are and how much in need of God’s
mercy,” she said.
Sister Mary Benedicta waits to receive Holy Communion
PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR
After Mass Sister Mary Bede prepares the altar for Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament
PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR
Sister Mary Bede said she struggled with giving up her love of academics and her
diligent violin playing, a skill and passion that had marked her life since she was
3 years old. She was allowed to bring her violin to the convent, but does not play
“Giving up music, I never realized how much a part of my life it was. I still do
play once a week but I don’t have time to practice two or three hours a day,” she
said. “You think, ‘Oh yeah, I can give everything up,’ but then when it comes to
making that sacrifice, it can be more painful than you think.”
If it’s the right fit, the monastery reveals the core of a sister’s personhood then
teaches her to let go of it. They are able to do this only by relying on God, the
sisters said. There’s nothing else around to cling to and nothing to measure achievement
“There is nothing else. There is no chart to put stars on, there’s none of that here,”
said Sister Mary Benedicta.
As St. Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the first Cistercian monks puts it: “It’s not
a matter of self-torture or of producing special achievements of self-assertion,
but rather we let go of ourselves, to become interiorly free and so available for
the call of God.”
Struggling to find fulfillment in a society fixated on personal achievement and run
on social media can be a driver for some 20- and 30- year olds to consider religious
life. The simplicity of setting aside everything else to pursue only God is attractive,
the nuns said.
Father Greg Ihm incenses the Blessed Sacrament after Mass
PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR
“They no longer carry the full weight of making themselves happy but it is through
relationships with Jesus Christ that they grow into a person who is capable of supernatural
love and is able to give that love to others,” said Father Greg Ihm, the vocations
director for the Catholic Diocese of Madison, which has made a concerted effort to
introduce religious life to young men in its parishes.
Bishop Robert Morlino designated Ihm to focus on religious vocations, helping young
men determine whether the priesthood might be a good fit for them. Ihm said he often
encounters the perception that one must be perfect or exceptionally holy to consider
“The truth is: the Lord equips the called rather than calls the equipped,” he said.
Although one may seek a silent and ordered lifestyle, it is not an escape, an end
in itself for personal comfort, said Sister Marie-Pierre Sercer, 33, who has a degree
in studio art and has been at Valley of Our Lady for 10 years.
It is about the person of Jesus Christ, she said.
“It’s not a spiritual career, it’s not a self-improvement program; it’s about a person:
finding that person, learning more and more about that person, falling more and more
deeply in love with that person, following that person wherever He leads you, even
if that looks like a scary place.”
Wells feels similarly. For her, coming to Valley of Our Lady is the way she can best
follow and serve Jesus.
“For one person, serving materially is what’s necessary, for another it’s prayer.
Both are necessary to help the world,” she said. “I have to pray.”
She enters March 21.
A Cistercian Nun kneels in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament after Mass at Valley
of Our Lady Monastery
PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR
Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament at Valley of Our Lady Monastery