In the rural town of Cottonwood in north central Idaho, lies the home of the sisters of the Monastery of St. Gertrude.
The monastery, which is adorned with multiple crosses and red roofing, has been the place where sisters serve and share their Benedictine faith since the 1920s. .
“I think the fundamental idea behind (a monastery) is that there are, you know, people … kind of looking for a deeper commitment of faith, to actually live it as their primary life commitment,” said Sister Teresa Jackson of St. Gertrude’s Monastery.
But monasteries such as St. Gertrude’s saw a decline in the number of young people joining the sisterhood early into the 21st century
According to a 2022 report from Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, more than 80% of nuns in the U.S. are over the age of 70. As the percentage of younger people identifying with religion decreases, so does the recruitment at monasteries.
St. Gertrude’s Monastery was hit with two tragedies when two of the sisters, Benita Hassler and prioress Mary Forman, died in mid-March and late April, respectively.
But the sisters of this rural monastery have made efforts to ensure the prosperity and continuation of their home.
Through Facebook live streams, their active artist-in-residency program and growing oblate community, the legacy of St. Gertrude’s Monastery endures.
Jackson joined the sisterhood when she was 39 because she wanted a deeper commitment to her faith.
“God has a very strange sense of humor,” she said. “One fateful day I saw a little printout that said ‘Come to a monastic living experience in Cottonwood, Idaho.’ And I said ‘Cottonwood, Idaho?’ I mean, Idaho? I was in California, so it’s like, Idaho? But I fiddled around and finally applied and came up and said, ‘Well, I’ve heard Idaho’s pretty. It’ll be a nice little vacation.’ ”
When Jackson completed her trip, she realized the experience at the monastery was just what she was looking for. It has been 25 years since Jackson made a home in the monastery for herself and her cats.
Sister Janet Barnard has been Catholic her entire life. When she visited the monastery for the first time in September 1979 for a retreat, it was like she had finally come home.
Barnard joined St. Gertrude’s Monastery one year after her grandfather died from a heart attack.
“I love praying the Psalms, and I love singing hymns. And I love our chapel. It’s so beautiful, and it’s such an easy place to pray, but those were kind of the things that kept me here,” she said.
The monastery is not just a spiritual home to the sisters, but to oblates as well. Oblates are individuals who dedicate themselves to their faith and God, but are not professed nuns or monks.
Throughout the week, the sisters follow a schedule. They start off with breakfast at 7:30 a.m., followed by morning prayer. They sing, and read Scripture and Psalms from the Bible. On Tuesday mornings, they have midday prayer at 11:40 a.m., but the rest of the week there is Mass at 11:30 a.m. After that, they have a midday meal, then evening prayer at 5 p.m., and supper at 5:30 p.m.
“Most nights from 7 to 8 we do things together in our community room; we call it recreation. Some of us play cards, some of us do puzzles, some of us knit and crochet. Some of us just sit in a circle and talk,” Barnard said.
On the weekends, they spend less time in the chapel. On Sundays they have Mass, which is live-streamed on their Facebook page.
Jackson said during Mass they have a chaplain who is a Benedictine monk from southern Idaho.
“The idea is that this is an integral part of our day. It’s easy to think, ‘Oh, my gosh, I got so much work. I don’t want to interrupt it by going to prayer.’ But hopefully, we eventually start to think that it’s work that interrupts prayer,” she said.
Future of the monastery
Jackson said that some 60 to 70 years ago, many men and women were entering churches to become sisters or priests.
“The Catholic Church hadn’t changed a whole lot in, like, 400 years, and then all of a sudden, you know, people were thinking in totally different ways and saying that maybe the way it has been can be different. And so I think that (mindset) changed the culture,” she said.
Barnard said around the turn of the 20th century, women and men were being called to serve in religious life. Women did not have many opportunities to become educated, but if you were called to serve in the sisterhood, you could learn to read or write.
She said society has changed so much, and women have more choices on whether to live a religious-focused and spiritual life or not. There are different kinds of careers, and women can take opportunities to even travel, something that was not so common decades ago.
With fewer women being called into the sisterhood, the monastery has still found ways to be active in their community.
Jackson said there is an artist-in-residency program in which artists can stay in the monastery for a month while creating their own works, which are on display for the sisters to see.
There are employees who work within the monastery who are not part of the sisterhood. The employees work at the local gift shop on the property, the inn and the Spirit Center where many retreats take place.
“Traditionally, people have sort of said, ‘Well, the employees work for the sisters’ and we’re saying ‘Well, all of us are working together.’ And so I think that kind of creates a different level of commitment, you know, a different sort of creativity and willingness to do things in a new way,” Jackson said.
Barnard said they are planning to start a co-housing program in which women can stay with them without making a religious commitment. They also have the oblate program, with almost 100 oblates participating.
“I think there will be a Monastery of St. Gertrude … I think that it won’t be just the sisters and eventually it might not be any sisters, it might be all oblates and volunteers and employees. But that’s up to God,” she said.