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The Holy Angels Convent located near Jonesboro (Craighead County) is home to the Community of Olivetan Benedictine Sisters in Arkansas. These sisters have provided education and health care to northeast Arkansas for over a century.
The Community of Olivetan Benedictine Sisters at Holy Angels had it origins in Convent Maria Rickenbach high in the Swiss Alps near Engelberg in Canton Unterwalden. In response to requests from early missionaries for sisters to teach in the mission fields of America, five sisters were sent to establish a base in Conception, Missouri, in 1874. Additional sisters followed in succeeding years.
Because many German-speaking immigrants were coming to northeast Arkansas, Father E. J. Weibel, an early missionary in northeast Arkansas, requested sisters from Missouri to teach the children of the immigrants. At first, Weibel felt the immigrants would want German-speaking teachers for the children. The immigrants soon realized the children needed to learn English if they were to be successful in America. The sisters had to study and learn the English language and pass a test before they could receive a certificate to teach in any school.
Supported by Bishop Edward Mary Fitzgerald, Weibel was successful in recruiting sisters to come to Pocahontas (Randolph County). After repeated requests, Mother Beatrice Renggli, Sister Agnes Dali, Sister Frances Metzler, and Sister Walburga McFadden were sent to Arkansas. Arriving in Pocahontas on December 13, 1887, they were welcomed by Weibel, who took them to their quarters in the modest log and frame convent, named Maria Stein (Mary of the Rock) after the monastery in Switzerland he had first entered.
On January 2, 1888, Mother Beatrice opened St. Paul’s Parish School with 103 students in attendance. The next year, Weibel procured a house where Sister Agnes taught African-American children in a school affiliated with St. Paul’s Catholic Parish. The school accepted children of all faiths, just as did the school for white children. The majority of the white population resented this missionary endeavor and sent letters threatening to burn the house down. Due to this opposition, the school for black children was closed the following year in 1890.
As postulants joined and more sisters came from Maria Rickenbach, the community outgrew the original structure, so additions were constructed. In addition to the school in Pocahontas, the sisters opened a school in Jonesboro in 1889 and one in Paragould (Greene County) in 1890. Due to requests from other pastors, their teaching assignments expanded to other parishes throughout Arkansas. Some bishops of other states also requested teachers, so they eventually taught in parish schools in Texas, Illinois, Missouri, and Louisiana.
Although Bishop Fitzgerald had approved Convent Maria Stein, he desired that the community be affiliated with a more stable authorization outside the diocese. Each Benedictine convent or monastery is autonomous and is affiliated separately with the Benedictine Order and approved by the Apostolic See in Rome. Weibel was sent to Rome to secure the necessary documents of affiliation, and in 1893, the community of Convent Maria Stein was affiliated with the Olivetan Benedictine Congregation.
In the late 1890s, the railroads bypassed Pocahontas, and after a number of sisters contracted typhoid fever from the drinking water, they decided to relocate their motherhouse (headquarters) from Pocahontas to Jonesboro. By June of 1898, Father Weibel announced that the new convent in Jonesboro was ready for occupancy; the first group of sisters arrived on July 4, 1898. The name Maria Stein no longer applied, since the new convent was not built upon rock, so the sisters chose the name of Holy Angels Convent, recalling prayers for the protection of the angels during a storm while crossing the Atlantic.
In 1899, malaria fever broke out in northeast Arkansas, and the sisters were asked to help care for the sick. At first, they were reluctant to assume a different ministry, as they felt they had been sent to teach. After much persuasion by Father Weibel, the sisters purchased a six-room frame house to use as a hospital. After having it moved close to the convent, the sisters cleaned and outfitted it with a cot and chair in each room and named it St. Bernards Hospital, which opened its doors on July 5, 1900. Through the years, this hospital has continued to grow and remains, along with education, one of the main ministries of the sisters, who still managed it with a mission to provide Christ-like care of the sick.
When World War I broke out, Bishop John Baptist Morris forbade the sisters to recruit new members in Europe and advised they recruit only in America. The need for additional room for members necessitated the building of a new addition to the convent. The new addition, joined to the original building erected in 1898, was completed in 1929.
Holy Angels Academy, a high school for girls, was opened in 1930, utilizing the first two floors of the new addition. The Academy, open to both boarders and day students, was established to provide a quality Catholic education to young ladies. Due to the influx of new members to join the convent, the Academy was closed in 1962 so that the area designated for boarders could be used by the convent.
By the late 1960s, the need for additional room in the convent, along with hospital expansion, necessitated the convent’s relocation. The community relocated in 1974 to a tract of land just north of Jonesboro.
Membership in the community has decreased since its 1970s peak of a little over 200 members; this followed a national trend that occurred in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and changing social culture, with people leaving religious communities while fewer applicants take their place. As of 2005, however, there has been an increase in applicants, as women who prefer a more traditional manner of religious living apply to Holy Angels Convent.
For additional information:Hockle OSB, Henrietta. On High Ground: A History of the Olivetan Benedictine Sisters, Jonesboro, Arkansas, 1887–2003. Jonesboro, AR: Pinpoint Printing, Inc., 2004.
Holy Angels Convent. http://www.olivben.org/ (accessed May 15, 2006).
Voth OSB, Agnes. Green Olive Branch. Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1973.
Weibel, John E. Forty Years Missionary Work in Arkansas. Jonesboro, AR: Holy Angels Convent, 1968.
Henrietta Hockle OSBHoly Angels Convent
Last Updated 8/22/2012
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