St. Mary's Mission: Benedictine sisters to leave Red Lake after 121 years

On Oct. 11, 1884, 112 Red Lake Nation members sent a letter asking the Benedictine abbot of St. John's Abbey to bring a mission and school to Red Lake.

From left, Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict Theresa Lodomeier, Stephen Kurpiers and Marina Schlangen stand by the convent that has been their home at St. Mary's Mission in Red Lake. After 121 years, the convent's sisters will no longer have a presence at Red Lake beginning next month. Pioneer Photo/Molly Miron

On Oct. 11, 1884, 112 Red Lake Nation members sent a letter asking the Benedictine abbot of St. John's Abbey to bring a mission and school to Red Lake.

"We were invited," said Sister Marina Schlangen. "They signed a petition, and those who couldn't write signed an X."

The request took a few years to be answered, but in 1888, two sisters from St. Benedict's Monastery and two priests from St. John's arrived to serve the people. At that time, the population of Red Lake was already about 30 percent Catholic as a result of missionary work dating from the 1850s, according to "Full of Fair Hope," a history of St. Mary's Mission by Sister Owen Lindblad.

The era of the Benedictine sisters will end next month when the remaining five sisters will leave the convent to take on duties in St. Cloud and St. Joseph, Minn.

"We have so many elderly sisters, we've been asked to take care of the elderly," said Sister Marina, who has served in Red Lake for 18 years. "The process that we used to come to this conclusion took several years. We were part of the process."


The Benedictine sisters are leaving because St. Benedict's Monastery in St. Joseph doesn't have the personnel to continue to staff the mission, according to a press release from the Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict.

Sister Stephen Kurpiers, who has served St. Mary's for 12 years, said 33 sisters were in her class when she took her vows 61 years ago. For the last 20 years, she said the order might average one new sister per year. "Sometime two, sometimes zero," she said.

Sister Theresa Lodomeier said she was assigned to St. Mary's three years ago. She said she told her supervisor she had wanted to go to Red Lake from the time she was a young woman.

"She said, 'It's your time now,'" Sister Theresa recalled.

She and her fellow sisters said serving the people of the Red Lake Nation has been a privilege.

"To see how somebody that's different from me and lives successfully is a real learning experience," Sister Theresa said.

Sister Stephen said the change will be difficult, "especially for the people - they've never known this place without sisters."

Also leaving St. Mary's will be Sister Mary Lou Carlson and Sister Mary Maranatha, who were out of town this week.


The sisters described some of their happy times at Red Lake.

Sister Theresa, who runs the store in the basement of the convent, said she loves the grandmothers who shop with their young grandchildren.

"They bring the kids they take care of and we blow bubbles," she said. "They call me 'Auntie Grandma.'"

Sister Marina said she has seen great improvement in the quality of housing and vehicles on the reservation. When she was first at Red Lake during the 1960s, she said the only regular houses were for the hospital staff on "Pill Hill," the currant site of the Red Lake Tribal Headquarters and Post Office.

Sister Stephen said she has learned from the children she teaches at St. Mary's Elementary School, as well as from adults, about their insights, sincerity of belief in the Great Spirit and commitment to caring for the earth.

St. Mary's Mission School was established first as a day school and in April 1889 as a boarding school with financial help from Katharine Drexel, a wealthy Philadelphia philanthropist who visited Red Lake. She died in 1955 and was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980. The boarding school closed in 1940.

The mission is part of the Crookston Diocese, which will continue to operate St. Mary's Elementary School and St. Mary's Mission Parish.

"The big convent building is an appropriate sign of the big presence of the sisters ... and the Benedictine promises of stability," said the Rev. Pat Sullivan, who will also be leaving St. Mary's after 12 years. He will serve St. Elizabeth's in Dilworth, Minn., and St. Andrew's in Hawley, Minn. The Rev. Jerry Rogers of Detroit Lakes will take over as St. Mary's priest.


A farewell celebration of Mass will be held at 11 a.m. Sunday at St. Mary's Church. Abbott Pat Klassen of St. John's Abbey will deliver the homily. Crookston Diocese Bishop Michael Hoepner and the Rev. Julius Beckermann will attend, as will Sister Nancy Bauer, St. Benedict prioress; and Sister Sharon Nohner, sub-prioress. Monsignor Bill Mehrkens, who served St. Mary's from 1991-1997, sent greetings from his summer home, Lake Trail Camp on Lake of the Woods.

The sisters said they will miss living at Red Lake and knowing the people. But as Sister Stephen noted, the Ojibwe language doesn't have a word for "goodbye." People said "Gigawabamin minawa" at parting - "See you again."

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