Trusting God’s vision for a new future: Watertown Benedictines establish a legacy of community
By Heidi Comes
In a world of increasing chaos, uncertainty and absurdity, peace and tranquility seem in short supply. Yet, these are the balm of the soul. While peace and tranquility do not seem to come knocking on our door, it does not mean they do not exist. On a 480-plus acre campus on the southern outskirts of Watertown, the sisters at Harmony Hill are cultivating these renewable resources one day, one person, at a time.
On the same property, one can hear the roar of machinery and pounding hammers and, just steps away, the soft whispers of prayers being sent heavenward. As construction crews operate heavy equipment and spend their day building the structures that will soon be known as The Village on Harmony Hill, inside the monastery, sisters are praying daily for the project, the workers and the impact it will have on the greater community.
The Mother of God Monastery began in Watertown in 1967 as a daughter house to the Sacred Heart Monastery in Yankton. As numbers to the vocation grew in Yankton, there was a need to expand to maintain the Benedictine model of community and family, ensuring that the sisters could remain in close relationships with one another. With a desire to live faithfully and in obedience, these women set out for an adventure. They were pioneers beginning something new.
After heading to Pierre and starting a hospital there, many of the sisters continued on in hopes of finding more space to expand their community and their impact. For most of them, it meant leaving the comfort of where they had been and the roles they had known, but with true pioneer spirits, they embraced the unknown and welcomed what God had in store for them.
In Watertown, where they had acquired a sizable piece of land south of town, they would build an all-girls high school on Harmony Hill, and many of the sisters would go on to other places to continue their education and ministries.
Sister Barbara Younger describes it this way, “With 136 sisters needing to have a place to pray, live, work and pay bills, we went out across the Dakotas, the U.S. and the world over the first 50 years to serve the needs of the Church and the people of God.”
The high school facility at Harmony Hill would transition in time to serve the sisters and community in many ways over the next several decades before the current monastery was constructed in 1997.
In the early 1990s, it became evident that the once-thriving community of sisterhood was no longer going to be able to sustain itself beyond the next 10 years. The same “vocation crisis” seen across the country was making an impact on all of the convents in South Dakota. The passion and desire to continue to welcome new sisters were met with the reality of decreasing numbers. And along with that realization came the need to make some serious decisions—decisions that did not come without heartache, intense discussion within their community and hours spent in prayer.
The community had to shift its focus from cultivating new members to a focus on the legacy they wished to leave behind. This process took courage, commitment, prayer and a deep trust in the will of the Father. But for the sisters, this was something they had been doing their entire lives.
“We desired to ‘choose life’ by expanding our vision to possibilities when everything about diminishment makes you want to contract,” Sister Barbara said. “It has required an acceptance of living the paschal mystery over and over again, with each disappointment, fork in the road, and hard decision. Living the paschal mystery in broad daylight, in front of Watertown, telling our story of faith and transformation by throwing open the doors of the monastery to literally share everything we own is an opportunity to evangelize what God has done in our lives.”
A new vision
This led to a transformation in what community meant to them. As part of the Benedictine values that formed their order alongside their proven pioneer hearts, it only made sense that instead of withdrawing and turning inward during their time of diminishment, they would instead open wide their hearts and community and run towards a new adventure. An expansion of their circle and outreach into a larger community was the future.
It required a transformation of heart for many of the sisters as well. They describe it as a grieving process of a dream unfulfilled and a need to let go of what they expected in order to embrace what God had planned for them. And while this process has required prayer and a new vision, Prioress Terri Hoffman said, “That’s what excites us, at this age in our lives … a new ministry. It’s not that we’re closing down and shutting ourselves off from the world as we age, but more opening ourselves up to it.”
A legacy of love
Their vision for the nearly 500 acres of which they are stewards continues to expand and reach new levels with every passing day. The excitement and hope are tangible when talking to Sister Barbara and Prioress Terri. An intergenerational community including students, the aging, veterans and the community as a whole began to take root as the plans came together for a new mission and ministry. This new ministry would allow the sisters to share the gifts they’ve been given to leave a legacy of love, peace and tranquility for generations to come, as well as make the care of the aging sisters a top priority.
And although this vision may differ from the one the sisters first imagined when they began their adventure at Harmony Hill, it certainly fits within the vision they have as Catholics and their vocational call.
“That’s the transformational aspect of a different kind of vocational call,” Sister Barbara said. “If that’s [Harmony Hill] the way religious life transforms for Watertown and South Dakota, that would be amazing. That would be totally amazing.”
The Village, which is Phase I of the project and will be completed in February of 2023, will be a facility that offers services and care for rehabilitation, assisted living, memory care and hospice. Maintaining a quality life experience for those in The Village is a primary goal.
Design steps have been taken to create opportunities for life to continue in a new yet familiar way. With everything from coffee with friends, to space
for arts and hobbies, The Village aims to nurture the well-being of the whole person.
The director of community relations for The Village, Lisa Ronke, brings an empathetic heart to this role. With deep emotion, Lisa said, “[The Village] will be a community, not a facility.”
It will be the mission of The Village to be a home where life continues to thrive for each individual and their family as they move into a new stage of life. As someone who has experienced firsthand the heartaches and struggles of long-term care for a loved one, Lisa emphasized the importance of providing a place where both the individual and caregiver are nurtured.
Lisa described her own feelings of peace the moment she drove onto the campus, and as she heard about the project and plans, she knew this was something she wanted to be part of. She brings with her a sales and marketing expertise but sees her role at The Village as something much more than sales. She desires a true connection for each resident who comes to call it their home, and she is genuinely excited that it will be a mixed community of individuals who become like family with one another.
From the beginning, the intention has been that all of the sisters at the monastery would be cared for, so The Village will be their home, but they will reside amidst and alongside members of the community, providing yet another opportunity for them to live out their call to offer hospitality and friendship to all.
Dream with us
Sister Barbara describes this dreaming process as one where they have had to let go and let something new emerge. At each stage of the planning, the sisters have collaborated with other professionals in the fields of development and strategic planning. The development of nearly 500 acres is of a magnitude that could not be accomplished without a full teamwork approach.
The sisters have invited others into the process with humility, and asked them to “dream along with us.” This approach has led to ideas and concepts that go beyond what they could have imagined. It was important, according to the sisters, that “we allowed space for other professionals to add their dreams and plans to ours.”
This new vision has led to a concept that incorporates a continuum of care, housing, education, tourism and recreation, commercial development and a net-zero campus. As part of the housing development, there is a plan to have more than 700 housing units when fully completed. These will include a variety of options, including student and veteran housing as well as single-family dwellings that are truly affordable.
Education will also be highlighted, as this was the primary focus of many of the sisters throughout their early ministry. Harmony Hill plans to work collaboratively with local higher education institutions, as well as create what will be called
the Challenger Learning Center of South Dakota. This center will draw students from around the region as it focuses on STEM learning and provides unique opportunities for students.
Alongside this exciting learning environment will be the Challenger Park. This will be the home to what is called the Mark II Voyager scaled solar system, something that is not only unique to South Dakota but will be one of only 100 in the world.
Remaining good stewards of the land, and acknowledging the peace that is found in green spaces, the project will retain numerous acres in their virgin prairie state to allow local people and travelers to visit Harmony Hill and find peace and tranquility. Wandering along the seven miles of walking/nature trails or sitting quietly near one of the ponds, weary souls can find rest in nature. This space will nourish the body, mind and spirit of visitors.
Lifelong Catholic missionary discipleship and beyond
The community will embrace people from all walks of life and all faith backgrounds, which is exactly how the sisters wanted it. The intentional planning being done right now is meant to ensure that long after the sisters are gone, their fingerprints and Benedictine values are visible in all that moves forward on their precious land. What was once home to an intimate group of sisters will soon become the home to hundreds of individuals seeking the same peace and tranquility the sisters have worked so hard to cultivate and share.
As the buildings go up and the landscape changes, the heart of their vocation remains the same. Sister Barbara reflects that as sisters they were once sent out on missions, “to serve God and the Church to the ends of the earth; now unable to go out, we are called as in Isaiah 54:2 to open wide the doors of our tent, strengthen the tent unsparingly and make a firm dwelling place to share with others.”
The same pioneer women who crossed the prairies of South Dakota to share their gifts with others are now opening their home and leaving an imprint and legacy of love and what it means to be lifelong missionary disciples.