ST. JOSEPH MONASTERY
Oklahoma's major Roman Catholic community of Benedictine women, St. Joseph Monastery in Tulsa, had its beginnings in Guthrie, Oklahoma Territory, on September 26, 1889, five months after the first Land Run, On that day three nuns from a convent in Creston, Iowa, arrived in Guthrie to begin St. Mary's parochial school. They came at the invitation of Father Ignatius Jean, O.S.B., prefect apostolic of the Indian Territory, whose headquarters was at Sacred Heart Mission, in the Potawatomi Nation.
Two years later Bishop Theophile Meerschaert took office as the vicar apostolic, replacing the Benedictine monks of Sacred Heart as head of Oklahoma's Catholics. He made his residence at Guthrie, and he suggested to the superior of the nuns at Creston, Mother Paula O'Reilly, O.S.B. (1839-1921), that she and the rest of the community relocate to the newly established Oklahoma Territory. Mother Paula, a native of Pennsylvania, was from a wealthy family with extensive coal interests, and she used her inheritance to construct a convent and girls' school on twenty acres of donated land west of Guthrie. In October 1892 she and the remaining nineteen nuns of the Creston community moved into their new building, and St. Joseph Academy opened the same month.
As the number of settlers in the territory increased, so did the number of Catholic parishes and schools. The Benedictine nuns, whose numbers also increased substantially in Oklahoma, began to staff a number of these parish schools. In addition to three schools in Guthrie, the Benedictines taught at Langston, Okarche, Okeene, Kingfisher, Newkirk, Durant, Henryetta, Pittsburg, McAlester, Krebs, Tulsa, Blackwell, Duncan, Miami, Oklahoma City, Stillwater, and Muskogee.
The Benedictine Sisters continued to play an important role in education, charity, and medicine over the next century. St. Joseph Academy, a secondary school for girls, opened on the Guthrie campus in 1898. Benedictine Heights College (Catholic College of Oklahoma for Women) opened in 1916 in Guthrie. In 1933 Sister Joseph O'Connor, O.S.B., founded Claver College, a night school for African American students; located in rented quarters in Guthrie, it operated until 1944. During the same years, 1933-1944, the nuns also staffed St. Joseph's Orphanage at Bethany. In 1946 they built Benedictine Heights Hospital in Guthrie and staffed it until 1964.
In 1926 they opened Monte Cassino School for Girls in Tulsa. In 1955 the community made the decision to move its center of operations to Tulsa. From 1955 to 1961 the mother house was located in the former Parriott mansion, but in the latter year the nuns located in the convent adjacent to Monte Cassino at Twenty-second Street and Lewis Avenue. This became known as St. Joseph Convent and later as St. Joseph Monastery. Benedictine Heights College also relocated to Tulsa in 1955 but closed in 1961.
In August 1968 thirty-three Benedictines from St. Joseph separated to form a new community, the Sisters of Benedict. This community received formal approval as an independent priory on February 14, 1970. The nuns formed Red Plains Monastery, located for some years in Oklahoma City. On 1996 they established a new facility in Piedmont.
Another important foundation of Benedictine women in Oklahoma is the Osage Monastery Forest of Peace, near Sand Springs. Established in 1979, this convent and retreat center is staffed by the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. It serves as a place of dialogue between the Eastern and Western monastic traditions. Important Catholic, Buddhist, and Hindu monks have visited the Oklahoma convent, including the Dalai Lama.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Sister M. Louis George, O.S.B., Mother Paula O'Reilly, O.S.B., Foundress of the Benedictine Sisters of Oklahoma (Tulsa, Okla.: St. Joseph's Monastery, 1985). Sister M. Antoinette Payne, O.S.B., A History of the Educational Efforts of the Benedictine Sisters in Oklahoma (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 1937). Sister M. Ursula Thomas, O.S.B., The Catholic Church on the Oklahoma Frontier 1824-1907 (St. Louis, Mo.: St. Louis University, 1938). James D. White, The Souls of the Just: A Necrology of the Catholic Church in Oklahoma (Tulsa, Okla.: Sarto Press, 1983).
James D. White
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