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Benedictine Sisters plan new monastery in St. Leo

By Laura Kinsler
Published: April 14, 2013
Saint Leo University recently purchased the priory and chapel of the Benedictine Sisters of Florida, and the sisters plan to build a new facility.

ST. LEO For only the second time in more than a century, the Benedictine Sisters of Florida are planning to move.The first time was in 1911, when they placed their three-story wood building on logs and rolled it down State Road 52 from San Antonio to the shores of Lake Jovita.Now they are planning their next major move, even though it’s only across the street. The Benedictine Sisters won unanimous approval Monday from the St. Leo town commission to build a smaller monastery on a 10-acre tract across S.R. 52.Sister Roberta Bailey, prioress of the monastery, said the new building will have 20 bedrooms — enough to accommodate all the sisters and staff.“We have 13 sisters and two live-in volunteers,” she said. “We also have two visiting nuns from Tanzania who are getting their masters degrees from Saint Leo. That still gives us room if someone wants to join us.”When they built the Holy Name Monastery in 1960, with its elevator and shiny new terrazzo tile floors, it seemed like a modern marvel.For decades, the 60,000-square-foot building bustled as a girls’ boarding school and later a college dorm. The nuns — a thriving order of 65 sisters — used to swim across Lake Jovita for exercise.Sister Mary Clare Neuhofer remembers how privileged she felt to have her own bedroom for the first time. “In the building we had before, we didn’t have private rooms,” she said. “We all slept in the same room, and we had hospital curtains for privacy.”But many of those bedrooms — which seemed like such a luxury 50 years ago — go unused today. They’re decorated, and the beds are made with fresh linens to welcome the occasional visitor or group retreat.“It was wonderful when they built it,” Sister Jean Abbott said. “I loved the atmosphere, but even then I could see there would be a time when this building was going to kill us.”As their numbers dwindled, the nuns decided it was time to downsize. Last year they sold their monastery and 37 acres to their next-door neighbor: Saint Leo University.Bailey, who has lived most of her life in the monastery, negotiated the $3.5 million deal with the university. The nuns say they’ll miss their views of the lake and the grand oak trees dripping in Spanish moss. But they won’t miss the cramped kitchen, the dormitory-style showers and the hard tiled floors.“In this building, if you dropped something on the third floor and it hit the terrazzo tiles, you could hear it rattling around from the first floor,” Neuhofer said.The new building will have a spacious kitchen, an exercise room and a craft room; each bedroom will have an en suite bathroom. Bailey said that element wasn’t an indulgence, but a nod to pragmatism. “We wanted to keep in mind the resale value if there should ever come a day we can’t support the use of the building,” she said.The new chapel will have a familiar feel. “We’re taking the pews with us; they were specially designed for us,” Bailey said. The stained-glass windows featuring Saints Benedict and Scholastica also will be relocated to the new building, as will the tabernacle and altar.Sister Mary Dorothy Neuhofer, Mary Clare’s sibling, said the new chapel should be better situated and quieter than the current one, which is important when you attend prayer service three times a day. “I will not miss sitting in the chapel and seeing all the traffic go by on (S.R.) 52,” she said.Bailey said she had hoped to check off everything on the nuns’ wish list, but she learned that after budgeting for design fees, permits and utility connections, $3.5 million doesn’t go as far as it used to. The site plan includes a swimming pool, a porte cochere and covered parking for the residents, but none of those features is included in the first phase.“The architect is really good about listening to us and telling us what we can afford,” she said. “We gave up on the idea of a pool, but not a Jacuzzi.”Bailey said the sisters hope to break ground by August and move into the new building next February, in time for the order’s 125th anniversary.