Our Monastic Heritage
Our Benedictine way of life is rooted in the Gospel, animated by the Spirit, and flows from the desire to journey with others in a single-hearted search for God.
This desire found expression in the earliest Christian centuries when groups of hermits began to gather into organized communities called monasteries. The word monastery comes from the Greek word monos, which means “alone” or “single.” Used in a religious sense, the term refers to a single-hearted pursuit of God, or living for God alone.
These early monastic communities recognized the need for structure in their common life. Community leaders responded by writing “rules” to guide day-to-day life in their monasteries. These guidelines were intended to create an atmosphere conducive to seeking God and living together in peace. The most influential of these rules is the Rule of St. Benedict.
St. Benedict was born around 480 AD in Norcia, a town on the Italian peninsula. What little we know about his life comes from the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, written about a generation after the time of Benedict.
As a young man, Benedict left his studies in Rome to seek God away from the distractions of the city. During a period of living in solitude, Benedict’s reputation as a wise and holy man spread. He attracted disciples who were inspired by his wisdom. A monastic community formed, with Benedict as its leader. St. Benedict went on to establish other monasteries; his twin sister, St. Scholastica, led a monastic community of women.
Like other abbots, Benedict sought to create an environment in which his monks could seek God, grow in holiness, and live together in the peace of Christ. The rule he developed to govern life in his monasteries was rooted in wisdom gleaned from earlier monastic rules, his own experience of monastic life, and a deep knowledge of God’s Word. His rule is characterized by simplicity, practicality, wisdom, and Christian love. It is steeped in Sacred Scripture and permeated by the spirit of the Gospel.
The use of Benedict’s Rule spread far beyond his own communities and has endured through the centuries as a foundational guide for communities of monks and nuns. Today, the Rule of St. Benedict continues to inspire and guide the lives of men and women throughout the world.
Our Community History
Benedictine Sisters first arrived in Alabama in 1881 from St. Walburg Convent in Covington, KY. A second group of Benedictine Sisters came to Cullman in 1898 from Holy Name Convent in Florida. The primary ministry of both groups of Sisters was to teach children of Catholic immigrants, most of whom were new arrivals in northern Alabama.
Both groups were dependent on their respective motherhouses, yet each hoped for enough growth to become independent. They faced a significant religious and cultural challenge, however, in the heavily Protestant, post-reconstruction South. In part because of this challenge, Bishop Edward P. Allen of the Archdiocese of Mobile, AL, encouraged the two communities of Benedictines to unite.
Each Sister was given the choice of returning to their home community in Kentucky or Florida, or accepting the challenge of uniting to form a new Benedictine community in Alabama. Eight Sisters from each community accepted the challenge, and on April 20, 1902 the two groups united. Cullman was chosen as the location for the motherhouse in order that monks of St. Bernard Abbey could serve as chaplains and advisors for the Sisters. Mother M. Ottilia Haas, O.S.B., of the Kentucky community, was elected the first Prioress.
Though impoverished, the Sisters were able to purchase a tract of land on which they built a large structure to serve as a home for both the Sisters and their academy for girls. The Community chose the Sacred Heart of Jesus as their patron, and the convent building was named Sacred Heart Convent. In 1903, the Community incorporated as the Benedictine Sisters of Cullman, Alabama.
Despite the very small Catholic population in the area, the Community attracted vocations and grew steadily. Their ministries grew as well, both the many parochial schools that they staffed, and their own Sacred Heart Academy. In 1922, the Benedictine Sisters of Cullman became a charter member of the Federation of St. Scholastica, a union of autonomous monasteries located throughout North America.
As the Community grew, structures were added to accommodate both Sisters and students. In 1931, construction began on the most prominent and important of these additions, a much-needed chapel that featured neo-gothic architecture and stained glass windows from Munich, Germany.
In the 1940’s, responding to the needs of the time, the Sisters opened a two-year college, housed alongside the Academy on the Sacred Heart grounds. In addition to these home ministries of Sacred Heart Academy and Sacred Heart College, the Sisters continued to staff parochial and diocesan schools throughout Alabama and northern Florida, eventually expanding into Georgia.
The Sisters’ ministry was focused exclusively on education throughout their first 65 years as a Community. Virtually every Sister served either as a teacher, an administrator, or support staff – or often all three. Vatican Council II called the Community to renew their life according to the charism of their founder, St. Benedict. The Sisters began to examine their ministry in light of the teachings of the Rule of St. Benedict. They gradually expanded their range of ministries in response to the needs of the People of God in the Southeast.
The ministerial discernment process also underwent a gradual shift. Prayerful consideration was given by the Prioress and the individual Sister to the gifts and talents of the individual in light of the needs of the Church and society. Today, some remain in education, but Sisters also serve in many other areas of ministry such as health care, pastoral care, and spiritual direction.
Vatican Council II also led to years of prayerful reflection and study in the areas of theology, liturgy, and monastic history. This careful reflection led to changes in some customs such as dress. It also led the Sisters to shift from the term ‘convent’ to ‘monastery.’ This latter term not only conveys the Sisters’ monastic patrimony and heritage, but it better reflects their life lived according to a monastic rule, the Rule of St. Benedict.
As the needs of the times and the area changed, so did the use of the structures at Sacred Heart Monastery. The Sisters closed their Academy in the 1960’s, and their two-year college ceased operation in the 1970's. Two of the buildings that served these institutions are now home to two corporate ministries of the Community: the Benedictine Sisters Retreat Center and Benedictine Manor. In addition to the former college structure, the Retreat Center also features new guest houses, a new dining room, new private retreat rooms, and recently-renovated meeting areas. The Retreat Center offers private and directed retreats, spiritual direction, group retreats, workshops, and days of reflection to individuals and groups from throughout Alabama as well as nearby states. Benedictine Manor is a retirement residence for independent senior living. It seeks to meet the needs of senior adults who desire a secure, convenient, and comfortable environment during their active retirement years.
Today the Community is led by Sister Tonette Sperando, O.S.B., our tenth Prioress. A major reconfiguration of the monastic structures and retreat center facilities has recently been completed in order to meet current and projected needs of the monastic community and our retreat ministry. These efforts were not merely about improving structures. The Sisters know that their monastic charism – their life of prayer and community – is a gift to the Church. Their renovation plans were rooted in their desire to live their ancient monastic charism with authenticity and faith, and share its fruits with the People of God - in the Diocese of Birmingham, in Alabama, and beyond.
As our Statement of Philosophy states, the Benedictine Sisters of Alabama believe that “God is here and can be found, and that a diversity of persons bonded into unity shows Christ to a divided world.”