Water, water — everywhere: Flooded archives and oratory don’t daunt Benedictine Sisters of St. Joseph

Categories: Around the Diocese


August 2, 2013, edition
By Nikki Rajala

Drip. Drip. Dripdripdripdrip crash. Whoosh.

In the wee hours of June 21, some sisters of St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph watched a spectacular thunderstorm. They had no idea heavy rains were flooding their oratory and archives.


The oratory and archives at St. Benedict’s Monastery sustained considerable water damage after a severe thunderstorm June 21. Wet archival materials were preserved in a number of ways. Many papers were laid out to dry in lighted air-conditioned rooms while others were placed in the freezer until time allowed their examination. Thick materials remained in their freezer the longest. This notebook, set upright with its pages fanned and interleaved with paper toweling, was removed July 23. Archivists believe they have not lost any materials, though the condition may indicate water damage. Photo by Bill Vossler / For The Visitor

Sister Michaela Hedican, prioress since 2011, first discovered it.

“Morning is precious,” Sister Michaela said. “After my 4 a.m. alarm goes off, I spend time with the Scriptures. I get coffee, check my email and set my day. Then I head to the chapel or the oratory — or both.

“Something told me to go to the oratory. I opened the door and heard water running. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, what is that?’ ”

She stepped in and, feeling water sloshing around her Birkenstocks, flipped the lights on.

“Water was running down the north steps, puddling on the lowest level by the organ. I pulled my pants legs up and waded through to see if I could discover where it was coming in. Maybe I could stop it. But water was flowing in between the walls, so I contacted security.

 Time to pray

“After that I sat on the steps and prayed, as hard as I could. ‘Dear God, don’t let this be in-surmountable.’ My next concern was to get books for morning prayer — prayers have to go on.”

She and other sisters moved prayer books to the chapel and made signs directing sisters there for morning prayer.

Though she didn’t have a key to the archives below the oratory, she realized that area would be in danger. She detailed others to stop the water, assess damage and report back. Then Sister Michaela went to morning prayer.

Sister Mariterese Woida came early to the archives, where she works, heard about the flood — and saw the ceiling tiles collapsing over work areas and archivist Sister Renee Rau’s office.

“When I deemed the area safe, I called for help,” Sister Mariterese said, and began organizing the salvage process.

Twenty sisters quietly left during prayers to start removing the archives. Sister Karen Rose, director of communications, volunteered shortly after prayers ended.

Managing the crisis

Fortunately Sister Renee and Sister Mariterese had set up and regularly updated a crisis management plan for the archives and the museum in case of flood or fire. Sister Kara Hennes, community treasurer, was designated the point person for the crisis.

Wet boxes and papers had priority. Wet trash was removed promptly. Boxes not wet were moved into lighted air-conditioned rooms, to ensure they hadn’t absorbed dampness. Non-archive quality papers went on tables in rooms with good lighting.


Sister Mariterese Woida studies the condition of water-damaged pamphlets, clippings and photographs.

“I decided what had to come out first,” Sister Mariterese explained, “trusting that carts were finding homes for everything we sent. The dining room was our first staging area. Sisters spread items on clean newsprint to dry. Our resource at Midwest Art Conservation Center reminded us — put things in the freezer, to stop mold from growing, get rid of water and help minimize damage.”

So kitchen staff rearranged their walk-in freezer and provided baking trays, racks and carts. Sister Karen was among those who laid wet documents on parchment-covered trays stacked in tall carts and rolled them into the freezer.

Wet box, dry box

“My office was annihilated,” Sister Renee said. “My computer and scanner were covered with ‘mud’ from the collapsed ceiling — it looked like oatmeal. My new webcam floating in it. Fortunately St. John’s University network backup recovered everything.”

All day Sister Mariterese said “wet box” or “dry box,” depending on what was being moved.

Everyone pulled together, Sister Karen said, with long chains of sisters moving those boxes brigade-style, onto carts. Becky Terwey, food service director, made coffee and cookies for volunteers, and ran the shop vac to remove water from a walkway.

The National Catholic Youth Choir, who came for prayer at 11:30 a.m. offered their muscles.

ServiceMaster set up 80 fans and humidifiers to dry the archives and oratory.

The community worked until late afternoon. Then Sister Margaret Wurm, physical plant director, drove up with the last two sisters moving from Ogden, Utah.

According to Sister Karen, sisters from two daughterhouses — St. Bede Monastery in Eau Claire, Wis., and St. Benedict Monastery, Ogden — had merged recently with the motherhouse in St. Joseph and their histories were stored at St. Ben’s.

“We welcomed our Ogden sisters, and went to prayers at 5 p.m.,” Sister Michaela said.

After they had gotten things settled as much as they could, they celebrated, she said. The leadership thanked everybody.

Still another home

With several events scheduled for the dining room, the wall of boxes and drying papers on tables had to be moved to new temporary homes. On Saturday another brigade was organized to schlep boxes to another building.


Sister Stefanie Weisgram, archives assistant, sorts damp papers to be dried in the lighted air-conditioned room. Photo courtesy of St. Benedict’s Monastery

“Some boxes were heavy,” Sister Michaela recalled. “When we got a lighter one, somebody said, ‘This is a vacation, it’s a light box,’ so I repeated that to the next sister. Down the line someone said, ‘The prioress said we all get two weeks vacation!’ That spirit kept everything buoyed.”

“We’ve shuffled offices,” Sister Karen said. “Archivists now temporarily work in an upstairs wing.”

“There may be things we won’t be able to totally retrieve,” Sister Mariterese said. “When we get requests for information, we tell people it might take a little longer. We believe we haven’t lost anything permanently, though the condition may not be the way we might have wanted.”

The last things — photos, books, thicker materials — came out of the freezer July 23. Volunteers placed newsprint under wet photos, and stood books upright, with pages fanned and interleaved with paper.

Despite those problems, Sister Renee prepared the annual Heritage Day slide presentation, crediting volunteer John Parker and others for digitizing much of their holdings.

It’ll be some time before the physical archives, which needs wallboard and ceiling tiles, returns to normal, said Sister Karen. Electronic equipment also must be replaced.

Sister Margaret is working with construction people to determine those schedules, Sister Michaela said, and things must go through the insurance process, the work of Sister Kara.

The oratory is not back in use yet, she said, so the organ is still on timbers, its pipes still on pews. The carpet under the organ has needed attention. When that is finished, they’ll be able to move back.

“Moving back,” Sister Michaela continued, “is contingent on other decisions, like when workmen are available with materials they need. So we’ll keep praying in chapel.”

The Benedictine way

It was not a day they’d want to relive. But the Benedictines complimented each other’s dedication.

“It was the community at its best,” said Sister Michaela. “I knew this is what we would do in a crisis. This coming together doesn’t surprise me. It takes a lot to stop the Benedictines.”

“In the future,” Sister Renee said, “when we see documents with water spots, we’ll say, ‘This is from the flood of 2013.’ ”

“We are so lucky electricity stayed on at the monastery, and that our elevator and freezer were working,” said Sister Mariterese. “And thank God we had a plan.”


To donate
Gifts are deductible; all gifts will be acknowledged

By mail: Send a check or money order to Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict, 104 Chapel Lane, St. Joseph, MN 56374-0220
with “Archives” in the notation line.

By phone: Call 320-363-7182. Be prepared to share credit card information: card type, number, expiration date, amount of gift and date to debit the card.

Online: Visit http://sbm.osb.org and click on Donate.