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Participation in an Idaho historical exhibit gives Benedictine sisters an opportunity to reflect

As the Monastery of St. Gertrude in Cottonwood, Idaho, contributes artifacts to the “Essential Idaho: 150 Things That Make the Gem State Unique” exhibit in March 2013, the Benedictine sisters are reflecting on their past, present and future role in the church, state and world.

Sister Clarissa Goeckner
Sister Clarissa Gloeckner

The exhibit opens March 4, 2013, and runs through the year at the State Historical Museum, 610 N. Julia Davis Dr. in Boise. On March 4, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the act creating the Idaho Territory.

Last winter, the Idaho State Historical Society (ISHS) asked Idahoans to nominate people, places, events and memorabilia that depict Idaho’s heritage and culture.  From 600 nominations, 150 were chosen, including the monastery.

The exhibit will include memorabilia from interesting characters, such as Senator Frank Church to Olympic champions, and events such as the 1910 Fire to moving the capitol to Boise. 

A section on “Keepers of Idaho History” celebrates five influential historians, one of whom is Sister Alfreda Elsensohn, writer, educator and founder of the monastery’s Historical Museum.

State historian Keith Petersen said people respect the monastery for their education, health care and spirituality; for the sisters’ stewardship of the monastery land and for their preservation of the historic monastery and its museum.

The sisters decided to share their Office Books, because they symbolize who they are as a community that prays.

Now in her second term as prioress at the Monastery of St. Gertrude in Cottonwood, Idaho, Benedictine Sister Clarissa Goeckner said that the three current “corporate ministries” of the monastery are: 1) the Spirituality Ministry that draws more than 2,500 people to be refreshed and refocused; 2) the Stewardship of the Land Ministry that models care of creation, and 3) the Historical Museum’s Ministry that preserves stories and artifacts of the community and region.

They also offer a bed and breakfast as a hospitality ministry.

From St. Benedict’s invitation to seek God, the sisters were originally teachers, nurses and/or housekeepers.

Sr. Clarissa herself has served in education as a teacher, principal and religious educator and is now serving as spiritual and administrative leader of the monastery, caring for and coordinating the ministries of 35 sisters and one postulant who live there, and 14 sisters who serve in health care, education, pastoral care and parish ministries in Idaho, Washington, Minnesota and California.  One has worked 20 years with at-risk youth in a gang area in Los Angeles.  A retired sister volunteers numerous hours in prison ministry.

 Working with and supporting the sisters are 60 Oblates—men and women who associate with a Benedictine religious community to enrich their Christian way of life—and many volunteers.

 “We are also a regional leader in social justice issues,” Sr. Clarissa said.  “We offer print and online media to educate people on Benedictine spirituality.

“For more than 1,500 years, Benedictines have lived lives of prayer and service,” she said.  “Our history in the United States began when three sisters from Switzerland came in 1882 and settled in Colton and Uniontown, Wash., before they moved to Cottonwood more than 100 years ago.

Sr. Clarissa grew up in a Catholic family in the farming, ranching and lumber community of Cottonwood and attended the monastery-run schools. Attracted by the joy she saw in the Benedictine sisters who taught her, she decided to enter the order in her senior year of high school.  Her parents’ example in their commitment to seeing people’s needs and helping neighbors was also an influence.

She took her first vows in 1958.

“In those days, teachers studied in the summer and taught during the year.  She earned a bachelor’s degree in English and education at St. Martin’s University in Lacey.  During those years, she taught fifth grade at St. Anthony’s at Pocatello, and seventh grade at Sacred Heart in Boise, St. Peter and Paul’s in Grangeville and St. Mary’s in Boise.

At St. Mary’s she also became a principal, serving there for 12 years before entering the University of San Francisco in 1979, achieving master’s degrees in religious education, school administration and counseling.  She worked part time teaching religion at Presentation High School, while serving as associate director of campus ministry at USF.  In summers she came home to St. Gertrude’s to teach English in the Lewis and Clark State College Extension program at the monastery.

In 1990, she became assistant prioress for four and a half years and then worked 12 years as coordinator of children’s and family catechesis, visiting parishes throughout the Diocese of Boise.

Sr. Clarissa said her role was to “facilitate the creativity of lay people who were educating themselves to be more competent in sharing the faith.”

In 2005, she was elected prioress and moved home just as the Spirit Center was completed and opened.  She helped complete the capital campaign to pay for it in 2009. When her six-year term ended in 2011, she was elected for four more years.

 “It was exciting to see the risk people took to help us build Spirit Center and a joy to see it grow.  People come seeking quiet and time away from their regular lives, so they return home with a deeper peace,” she said, noting that many who come are not Catholic.

The sisters’ 2008 vision called the community to be open to the future, awakened by prayer to do what justice and compassion compel them to do.

“How will God awaken me to ministry?  How are we to work for justice in our time?  How are we to act with compassion so God’s kingdom will come?” she asked.

“What I admired when I entered the community has grown and deepened,” Sr. Clarissa said.  “It is our call to gather to pray for the needs of the world, beginning with morning praise, Mass, keeping in tune during the day doing lectio divina—reading and reflecting on Scriptures—and closing with evening prayer,” Sr. Clarissa said.  “I love the work of prayer.”

Out of prayer for the needs of the world comes serving, using talents and resources to meet people’s needs, she said.  “We are always asking, ‘What is the gift we can give now?’  Joining our prayer and efforts, we can do more together than we could do alone.”

Sr. Clarissa used the words of Sojourner magazine editor Jim Wallace to describe the experience of the Benedictine sisters at the Monastery of St. Gertrude: “Always a few committed people are the ones who make the difference.” and “Just because you’re small, don’t give up.”

So the sisters continue to find new ways to care for the earth, recycle, work for justice and serve “the needs of our time.”

Their witness was noticed in 2008, when they received the Kessler Keener Extraordinary Witness Award for their impact on human rights, peace, justice and living out their faith to change the way they and others see the world.

In 2002 and 2005, they joined U.S. Benedictines in peace statements opposing the U.S. pre-emptive attack on Iraq and standing for “no more war.”

Since 2001, the community has focused on poverty, human trafficking and violence against women and children.

Since 2005, their Passion of the Earth Project has integrated respect for the land and social justice work to heal the land.

In 2005, they were recognized as Tree Farmers of the Year.

The museum covers the culture of both immigrants and natives.

Inclusion in the 2013 exhibit affirms for Sister Clarissa that “we are essential to what Idaho has become.”

For information, call 208-962-3224 or visit