Moving To The Country
The Journey Of The Benedictine Sisters of Walburg Monastery
The Benedictine Sister of Covington are descended from St. Walburg Abbey in Eichstatt, Bavaria. The 11th-century abbey, still stands and is still home to the Benedictine nuns. In 1859 five Benedictine Sisters of Walburg Monastery arrived in Covington, Kentucky from St Benedict’s Convent in Erie, Pennsylvania to teach English to German immigrants. The five sisters were the beginning of a Roman Catholic religious community that, over the course of 160 years, established schools, hospitals, a college, and a nursing home. The sisters follow the ancient rule of St. Benedict and have served graciously, creating and staffing these facilities for decades.
Father Rhabanus Gutman, OSB pastor of St. Joseph Church in Covington, found the Collins property and suggested the location to Mother Walburga. Upon seeing the grounds, she was easily convinced that it was the perfect location for a growing convent and academy. In 1903 the sisters purchased the Collins Family property located high above the Ohio River. The purchase was for the residence and 86 acres. The view from the Collins House looking west showed the bend in the river and a spectacular landscape. The plan for the land was to build an academy and to later transfer the motherhouse from Covington. The Community called the new property Villa Madonna in honor of Mary under the title of Our Lady of Good Council.
Villa Madonna Academy opened in the Collins residence on September 7, 1904 with 10 boarders along with students. Ground was broken on April 6, and the new academy was blessed and opened May 28, 1907. The working farm behind the Collins House provided for the sisters and students.
The first Villa Madonna Academy building was completed in 1907. The building included classrooms, a chapel, and a cafeteria. The third floor was used as a dormitory for the boarding students. The building was the original site of Villa Madonna College, which was established in 1921 and remained there until 1929. The college then moved to Covington and on to Crestview Hills in 1968, when it was renamed Thomas More College.
In 1928, Natorp Company designed the sisters’ cemetery on the grounds. The St. Walburg Academy alumnae donated the crucifixion group in memory of Mother Walburga. Prior to 1928, sisters were buried in Mother of God Cemetery in Covington. Mother Walburga was the first sister buried in the cemetery. A bronze plaque lists the names of all the sisters buried in Mother of God cemetery.
Mother Lioba Holz, was the fourth prioress from 1931 to 1943. She oversaw the building of the new monastery in 1937. Because of the cost of construction, Bishop Francis Howard decided that the chapel could be below ground level of the monastery “temporarily.” It remained below ground for 52 years, during which time children in the Benedictine diocesan schools sold Christmas cards with the proceeds going to the chapel fund. It was not until 1989 that the funds were used for a chapel renovation.
St Walburg Monastery was completed in 1937. When it opened, it had 47 small bedrooms for the sisters and two bedrooms for guests. The postulants and novices were assigned to 24 cubicles. Although the building was always intended to be the motherhouse for the convent, the whole community could never reside there at the same time. Sisters were assigned to schools and hospitals, which is where they lived most of the time. When the entire community did need to gather, they usually did so in the summer, so the nonresident sisters could lodge in the dormitories in the academy building. In 1961, the monastery’s most popular year, there were 271 Benedictine sisters affiliated with St. Wallburg Monastery. In 1968, an infirmary wing with 32 rooms was added to the south side of the building. The wing also included a large meeting room, which could hold the entire membership of the community.
Early in 1955 the local paper read “Villa $1 Million Mortgage Filed…” the largest mortgage ever filed in Kenton County was recorded for $1,000,000. In 1955 Mother Hilda Obermeier became the sixth prioress during the time the “new building” was being constructed. The story goes that Mother Hilda went to First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Covington for a $1 million loan and sat in an office until the request was granted. The sisters had received permission from Rome to borrow money in order to build a new high school building. For the first time in the history of Kenton County a mortgage loan was taken out in the amount of $1 million.
Construction of the new academy building began in 1956 with the new high school building opening in April 1958. In addition to the state-of-the-art science classrooms, the school had an art room with a kiln, a gymnasium, a large cafeteria, and even a bowling alley. The 1958 building was made from yellow brick instead of red brick, which would have matched the 1907 building, because red brick was too expensive at the time.
Before 1960, the sisters raised sheep, cattle, and pigs on the Monastery farm. The sisters also raised dairy cows for the Monastery’s milk and butter. The community discontinued farming on the property in 1967. In 1968 the barn and surrounding area was transformed into a summer camp for inner-city children. In 1972, the barn was renovated into classrooms for the Villa Madonna Early Learning Center, later called Villa Madonna Montessori.
Additional properties purchased by the sisters. The Collins family home built in the late 1880’s was a part of the original purchase of the property. The house was used as a school and home for the sisters before 1907 Villa Madonna Academy building was constructed. At times, the house was also called St. Anne’s Later, the name was changed to Senior House, because it served as the residence of the junior and senior boarding students for Villa Madonna Academy. After the boarding school was discontinued in 1979, it became a guest house for the Monastery community.
Built around 1898, was a three-story house that was originally owned by the E.S. Lee family, and known as the Lee House. Later named St. Joseph House, it sits adjacent to the current Monastery building overlooking the Ohio River. The sisters purchased the property in 1922 and the house was used as a residence for women in various stages of formation for the Monastery. Since 1970 it has been used as a residence for sisters.
The Monastery acquired the Maegly property in 1938, which included the house, known as the Gate House. Originally, the caretaker of the boiler room and laundry lived there, later other employees lived there. Beginning in 1973 the sisters occupied the house until 1999 when the house was torn down for the building of the new Villa Madonna Academy athletic center.
In 1989 the entrance to the Monastery was renovated. Leaks had caused the front steps, and walls to deteriorate. The chapel, so central to Benedictine life, was not easily accessible by guests. The new entrance as it stands today features a barrier-free walk to the ground-level chapel and features a stained-glass window created by Sr. Emmanuel Pieper and titled “River of Peace.”
In 2000, Villa Madonna Academy completed its first new building since 1989, celebrating its new athletic center. Today when turning onto the grounds of Villa Madonna one sees three generations of buildings that make-up the campus: the 1907 academy building, the 1958 high school building and the 2000 athletic center.
In 2017 the Benedictine Sisters of Walburg Monastery selected Ashley Builders Group as the developer of the 90 adjoining acres that had been set aside for their retirement. Development of the property is to begin in 2019. Ashley Builders Group has named the new community Sanctuary Village.