Date of Award

Spring 1991

Document Type

Dissertation - Restricted

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Carey, Patrick W.

Second Advisor

Cizewski, Wanda

Third Advisor

Hagen, Kenneth


Critics, past and present, cite Americanization as the cause of Benedictine women's loss of monastic identity during the early decades of their history in North America. Recognizing the need for an alternative view, this study argues that the cultural and religious climate of nineteenth-century America formed the arena in which Benedictine women of the Bavarian tradition reshaped the essential elements of their way of life into a unique expression of life according to the Rule of Benedict. The monastic rhythm of prayer, work and communal interaction which had always been the identifying feature of their European tradition, characterized their early life in America as well. At the same time, however, the process of transplanting the European Benedictine tradition necessitated some fundamental and uniquely American innovations in their style of life. A body of correspondence consisting of approximately 142 letters written by and to key people in the founding and expansion years of Benedictine women in America (1852-1881) provided the major source of information for this study. Additional primary source materials examined were statutes, constitutions, personal data files, entrance record books, chronicles, memoirs and Chapter proceedings gathered from archival repositories located in houses of Benedictine women in the United States. Published and unpublished local histories of the fifteen communities of Benedictine women founded between 1852 and 1881 provided valuable information about religious practices, forms of piety and attitudinal biases affecting Benedictine life at the local level. This study progresses in five stages: 1) an overview of the historical tradition and American context of Benedictine women, 2) a reconstructive account of the formation of the first community of Benedictine women in North America at St. Marys, Pennsylvania, founded by three women from St. Walburg Convent in Eichstatt, Bavaria, 3) an analysis of the complexities behind the dispersal of approximately half of the forty women who comprised the seminal community at St. Marys, PA, to branch houses in Erie, PA, Newark, NJ, St. Cloud, MN, and Covington, KY, between 1855 and 1859, 4) an introductory sketch of the founding stories of ten additional communities established during the subsequent expansion era of the Benedictine Order in North America (1860-1881), and 5) a detailed analysis of the way of life that characterized Benedictine women in North America from 1852 to 1881, focusing on the centrality of the Rule of Benedict, the tradition of Benedictine vowing, community life and observances, work, and prayer. The general conclusion of this study is that Benedictine women in North America not only escaped the destruction of their monastic character during the founding and expansion periods of their history, but gave birth to a new expression of life according to the Rule of Benedict that quickly proved its viability within the cultural and religious context of nineteenth-century America. Five corollary conclusions illustrate the dynamic interplay between fidelity to the essential values of the Benedictine tradition and innovative adaptation to American circumstances.



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