Before the College of St. Scholastica and before the monastery on Kenwood Avenue, the Duluth Benedictines were a group of trailblazing ladies who taught, traveled and worked for the benefit of their community.
This year, the College of St. Scholastica celebrates its centennial, but the history of Benedictine schools in Duluth precedes the college by more than 30 years. The pioneering Duluth Benedictines founded four schools before the college, all the while doing whatever work was necessary to help their community.
Many were teachers, facing the normal challenges of starting a school in a city of extremes, but others fulfilled their vows in occupations slightly off the beaten track.
In 1880, three sisters from St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, Minn., along with Mother Scholastica Kerst, who then was prioress of St. Benedict’s, arrived in Duluth to start a school, according to Sister Mary Richard Boo’s book “House of Stone: The Duluth Benedictines.”
The school was nearly overflowing, with 150 pupils the day it opened. Yet, that was not the least of the sisters’ problems: Their school was an old hay barn and carriage house, and the rickety building was no match for a cold Duluth winter.
“The wind would blow through cracks in the walls, and they only lasted about a semester up here,” said Sister Margaret Clarke, archivist at St. Scholastica Monastery. “It was just too cold.”
“House of Stone” includes a description of the schoolhouse that was given by Mary Zygminski and another later version by Sister Walburga, who recalled her second grade classroom.
“When it stormed the crevices in the walls let the heat out and the cold in,” Sister Walburga’s description said. “The windows wheezed uncannily, and we could hear the boards clapping on the wall outside. Sometimes we had to put on our coats and mittens to get a little warmth…”
The parish could not afford a better building, so the sisters returned to St. Joseph’s at the end of the school year.
Twelve years and three new schools later, 32 women journeyed from St. Benedict’s to Duluth to aid in the development of another new school.
“Most came to teach,” Sister Margaret said. “The missions in Duluth were schools.”
Some of the pioneering sisters ended up with jobs they never would have expected.
Sister Amata Macket, the pioneer known as “Sister Lumberjack,” received her nickname from selling health insurance in logging camps in the late 1880s.
“She would sell the lumberjacks $1 health insurance tickets,” said Vicky Siders, public relations director for the monastery. “Later they were $3 and then $5, and the men could come to St. Mary’s for care if they were injured on the job.”
Sister Elizabeth Riesgraf came to Duluth from St. Benedict’s in 1892 to fulfill her dream of being a teacher, but her expertise with farm tools led to her assignment in the boiler room of St. Anne’s Home as first-class engineer.
“She was the first woman to receive that kind of license,” Siders said. “She’s often called ‘The Boilermaker Sister.’”
She continued to serve as first engineer for over 50 years, having her license renewed every two years.
The Duluth Benedictines’ mission continued to expand until the turn of the century when they turned their efforts into an even more ambitious project.
The site of the current monastery and the College of St. Scholastica was an 80-acre tract of farmland when the sisters purchased it in 1900. It became fondly known as the “Daisy Farm,” according to Sister Agnes Somers’ book “All Her Ways.”
“They had everything on that farm,” Sister Margaret said. “They had horses, chickens, a vegetable garden, pigs of every size and a dog. And it must have been quite a dog because it cost them $25.”
The new school opened in September of 1909, according to “All Her Ways,” and by 1911, the faculty decided it was time to open a junior college. In September 1912, “Villa Sancta Scholastica” formally opened for six students, two girls and four professed sisters.
One hundred years later, the College of St. Scholastica has a coed population of more than 4,000 students with both undergraduate and graduate programs.
In the last 100 years, the Duluth Benedictines have continued their work in education, health care and ministry all over the world, serving their community as the pioneering sisters did so many years ago.