Federation Chapter, Day Two

Sister Susan Hutchens,
President, Federation of St. Benedict

(For more photos, see the Federation website)It’s not often that Presidents of organizations get a standing ovation when delivering their annual report, but it happened today. The three years since Sister Susan Hutchens was elected President have seen many changes; delegates were still pondering the lifecycle of religious organizations presented the day before by Sister Christine Vladimiroff. Two monasteries chose to close and merge due to the absence of new members and the aging of the community.

Sister Susan Hutchens chose to organize her report in a different way, using the Direction Statements and Goals drafted in 2009 at the same Chapter in which she was elected; she used images to show the ways in which movement had occurred on all the goals:

  • Fostering monastic life
    • Draw hope for the future from our heritage
    • Promote scholarship and education, especially on our monastic heritage
    • Strengthen relationships within the Church
  • Sharing gifts of leadership and resources
    • Explore creative ways to share resources
    • Collaborate with AIM in support of programs for Benedictine monastic women worldwide

The report also pointed to the very real challenges – a drop of 50% in the number of sisters in our Federation, and in each of the other federations, in the last 20 years.  This affects the budget as well: each monastery contributes to the Federation based on the number of sisters. Nonetheless, wise stewardship results in projections that carry the Federation into the foreseeable future with adequate funds to function.

For the afternoon session, we sang our refrain in Chinese for the first time.  Sister Emmanuel Hsiang helped us with the pronunciation before we began.

The rest of the morning session and the first part of the afternoon sessions looked at Resolutions.  Several revised the Constitutions to provide for the situation of monasteries merging.  One resolution commits each monastery to study the issue of human trafficking and take actions they deem suitable.

The afternoon closed with the election of two members of the Council who will serve six year terms.


  1. Very interesting. The idea of merging monasteries is unclear to me. Does that mean everyone from one goes to another, or are the members of one dispersed individually? How are the traditions of each preserved? I was surprised to hear about Blue Cloud closing. Br. Benet and I chatted many times at oblate directors conferences.

    • The idea of a merger would be that all of the people from one monastery – the one that is closing (in Canon Law language, “being suppressed”) – transfer their membership to the same receiving monastery. When this happens, all the finances of the suppressed monastery could be closed out and merged in with the receiving monastery. Otherwise, they need to be distributed to receiving monasteries and those who simply leave religious life – and the books cannot be closed until every single person is settled. Because the merger is a different situation from someone deciding to move for personal reasons, there might not be the need for a 3 year probationary period. When both monasteries are the same tradition – e.g. both Benedictine, both Dominican – Canon Law makes it possible to forego the 3 year period; our Federation’s Constitutions (written when people were founding monasteries, not closing them) didn’t include that provision.

      The process of merger is very emotional and long-term. The closest thing I can imagine in the secular world is a blended family where each parent brings children. It’s impossible to keep ALL of the traditions of both. How to celebrate birthdays, settle disputes, set the table for Thanksgiving dinner – there won’t be a “way we’ve always done it” that satisfies everyone. With one smaller group joining into a larger monastery, there can be a lot of difficult days.

      The huge numbers of women who entered religious life in the 20th century in America was a real anomaly. Immigrants who were not fully accepted into mainstream (mostly Protestant) American society put a lot of energy into building a network of institutions in which their faith was welcome – and which served their communities regardless of religion. Sisters (and priests and brothers) were the workforce of this endeavor; Catholic culture supported it. Women were attracted to groups of energetic and educated women who were doing exciting things at a time when those options weren’t usually available to women.

      While it can feel like failure and loss, the smaller numbers who are coming the monastery now are more like “normal” and the sizes that our monastic communities are likely to be when this demographic transition is over are also more like the communities that St. Benedict envisioned. But people of my age will probably live the rest of our lives in the demographic transition phase. Our task is to carry the essence of the tradition whole into the future.

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