Arkansas had been a state only 43 years, and the Catholic diocese of Little Rock had been in existence only 36 years when a national eagerness to develop the whole Continental United States in the 19th century inspired the government to give large grants of land to railroad companies willing to encourage settlers to populate both sides of the track in western Arkansas. The Little Rock/Fort Smith branch of the Cairo and Fulton Railroad Company invited Indiana Benedictines to Logan county, Arkansas, to minister to the German Catholic settlers.
At the time there was great unrest in Europe, especially in Germany, Prussia, and Ireland, and citizens were looking for a way out. The railroad company sensed an opportunity and offered land grants to religious institutions with European roots recently founded in Indiana and asked them to establish churches and schools along the railroad in Arkansas.
After W.D. Slack, land commissioner for the railroad company, had secured a commitment from the monks of St. Meinrad Abbey in St. Meinrad, Indiana, and from the Sisters of Immaculate Conception Conventin Ferdinand, Indiana, to found monasteries in Logan county, he made an attractive deal for German and Irish Catholics to settle in Arkansas on both sides of the Arkansas River.
In the spring of 1878 the Benedictine monks arrived and built some primitive living quarters in Creole (now Subiaco). The Sisters arrived in September that year, and since there was no place for them to stay, the monks moved out and let the Sisters have their quarters until the log cabin for the Sisters was finished 10 miles east in Shoal Creek. The four young founding Sisters were Sister Xaveria Schroeder, 34 years old and the only professed member of the group, Josepha Schmidt, 21, Bonaventura Wagner, 21, and Isidora Leuberman, 23. Two of these Sisters opened the first Catholic School in Logan County at St. Benedict's in Creole that year. The second school they established was St. Scholastica's in Shoal Creek in January 1879.
St. Scholastica Convent (called the Monastery since 1986) was officially founded January 23, 1879, in Shoal Creek. These pioneer Sisters cleared the sandy, rocky soil and could say honestly that they "lived by the sweat of their brow."
As young women began to join the Sisters in their log cabin, additions to the structure were made. By 1898 a quadrangular building surrounding a courtyard was completed, as well as several other buildings. The Sisters moved the motherhouse to Fort Smith in 1925 because of a number of difficulties: lack of water, isolation, poor roads, and inaccessibility to health care. The other option the Sisters had considered for a new motherhouse was Little Rock, the capital city. (The original quadrangular building at Shoal Creek, including the laundry, parish church, school, and rectory were all destroyed by fire November 20, 1940; the buildings spared were the Infirmary, Guest House, and one wing of the former St. Joseph's Academy then used as a chicken house. A few sisters were living at Shoal Creek at that time, but none were injured in the fire.)
Although Sisters in Europe were more contemplative communities, the pioneers in America at first had the primary ministry of educating the children of immigrants. The Arkansas Fort Smith Benedictines helped the Bishop fulfill the 1884 Council of Baltimore mandate to build a school in every place where he built a church.
Over the years, the Fort Smith Benedictine taught in 62 different schools in five states. They also conducted 12 music schools and operated two orphanages.
In 1890 the Sisters at Shoal Creek opened a boarding high school called The Institute of St. Scholastica. It closed n 1902 due to lack of space. In 1917, St. Joseph Academy was opened in a building across the road. When they moved the school to Fort Smith in 1924 they renamed it St. Scholastica Academy.
Until 1944 grade school students, both boarding and day, attended the Academy along with the high school girls. However because of the increase in number of sisters and in the number of boarding students, the Sisters had a new high school built just north of the convent in the fall of 1958. Just 10 years later, in the spring of 1968, the Sisters closed St. Scholastica Academy because of decreasing enrollments in both the Academy and in the local coed high school, St. Anne's Academy, operated by the Religious Sisters of Mercy. St. Scholastica was not equipped for boys and so the Sisters deferred to St. Anne's which remained in operation just another five years. A number of the Benedictine Sisters joined the Sisters of Mercy and lay teachers as staff for the merged student body. Economic reasons caused the second closing in 1973.
When a Benedictine community from Pilot Grove, Missouri, merged with the Shoal Creek community in 1916, the Arkansas Sisters began a health care ministry. The Missouri Benedictines operated a hospital in Boonville, Missouri. At one time the Fort Smith Benedictines operated five hospitals, four in Arkansas, but in 1994, they withdrew from the fifth and final one.
What sustained the Sisters through their 100-plus years was their faith and trust in God. The depression years in the 1930's were especially difficult. Mother Perpetua Gerard, the prioress, and her staff spent many a night in chapel begging God and St. Joseph to help them through those financially crushing times.
St. Scholastica Monastery joined the Federation of St. Gertrude the Great, a network of Benedictine monasteries with similar ministries, in 1964.
In 1969 we established a dependent monastery, Our Lady of Peace Monastery, Columbia, MO, which has since become independent. Our Lady of Peace
In 1981 they established St. Benedict Monastery, Canyon, TX, as a dependent monastery. At the present time, St. Benedict Monastery is no longer a dependent monastery but is continuing as a monastic presence in Canyon.
"Ora et Labora", translated "Pray and Work" is a Benedictine motto. Common prayer, private prayer, and lectio divina or holy reading constituted a significant part of each day along with the monastic work assigned by the Prioress.
The Benedictine way of life is not defined by a form of service, but rather by an environment where members can fulfill the primary purpose of seeking God within a stable community of members. The founders of Benedictine monasticism in Italy--St. Benedict of Nursia, along with his twin sister St. Scholastica--expected the Abbot or the prioress to adjust the Rule according to circumstances of the place and the diversity of personalities and talents among the members.
Today the Sisters continue to renew themselves according to the vision of Benedict and Scholastica. At present the sisters operate St. Scholastica Retreat Center in the former academy building near the monastery and Hesychia House of Prayer in New Blaine, Arkansas, the site of the original convent. In addition, sisters serve as counselors, religious educators, and advocates for social justice concerns. They are also involved in nursing home ministry, prayer ministry, and volunteer work in area service projects.
The former St. Scholastica Academy, now known as St. Scholastica Retreat Center, housed a Montessori School from 1969-1989 and also classrooms for the learning disabled operated by the Fort Smith Public School District. The business and residential areas of the Academy were and are used as a Retreat Center, the Retreat Center Kitchen/Dining room, offices for Project Compassion, and meeting rooms for church, educational, and social service organizations' retreats, seminars and workshops. Since 1990, the former Academic section of the building has been leased by Trinity Junior High School. The Center is a totally smoke-free building.
Retreats, private, directed, and guided, days of recollection, and evening sessions, as well as workshops and seminars are scheduled by the Center staff throughout the year. Many people like to have a place of quiet and rest for a few days, and arrangements are made to accommodate individual needs.
St. Scholastica Monastery also sponsors Hesychia House of Prayer on the original site of the first women's monastic foundation in Logan County. Started in 1981, the House of Prayer is for anyone of any religious affiliation who wants a place to be alone with God in prayer. Four hermitages are available. All facilities have a kitchenette and supplies. For information write/call Hesychia House of Prayer, 204 St. Scholastica Road, New Blaine, AR 72851, 479-938-7375.
Sister Louise Sharum has written a two-volume history of St. Scholastica Monastery. The first volume, written for the monastery centennial in 1979, is called “Write the Vision Down.” The second, “Until the Morning Rises,” was written for the monastery’s 125th anniversary in 2004, and covers the 25 years from 1979-2004. Both volumes are available at St. Scholastica Gift Shop, now located on the first floor of the monastery.