Anyone who drives up a little winding driveway on Maple Drive in Lisle will find a very large brick building dating back to the beginning of the 20th century with the words Sacred Heart Monastery etched in the stone across the doorway. Ring the doorbell and the pitter patter of feet rush to oblige visitors from the outside world.
The elderly Benedictine women who have lived most of their adult lives there will gladly provide a tour of their beloved chapel and buildings and willingly chat with anyone who will listen to what their way of life is about.
AUDIO SLIDESHOW: Tour Sacred Heart Monastery and hear from the Benedictine sisters, as told by ChicagoStorytelling’s Victoria Beeks, Maria Khan, and Brian Miller.
“I’ve led a balanced life,” Sister Benita Jasurda, 82, said. “I take time out to pray, to be quiet, to read. Time to be alone, time to pray, and time to meditate. And also time to be out among the rest of the population.”
A Long History
There are three segments of monastic life and Benedictines— those following the rule of St. Benedict— have been in the Chicagoland area since 1885. Now, at the intersection of Maple and Yackley Drive/College Avenue in Lisle, the “four corners” hold four key ingredients to the community’s long-standing history.
On one corner is St. Procopius Abbey, which is where the Benedictine monks first lived, 10 years before the Benedictine women arrived. Opposite them is Benedictine University, an NCAA Division III school. The other side of Maple holds Benet Academy, which started as an all-boys school, but went coed in 1967 with Sacred Heart Monastery’s all-girls school, Sacred Heart Academy, founded in 1925. And, of course, there’s Sacred Heart Monastery.
A Monastic Life
Sister Mary Bratrsovsky, 66, is one of the younger members. Bratrsovsky and the other 28 women at SHM chose a monastic life, for the most part, right out of high school. She says it was quite common for a large Catholic family to have several members choose a religious life. Boys became men and then became priests or monks. Girls became women and chose a life devoted to prayer and service.
That doesn’t mean any of the women have missed out on or avoided child-bearing, child-rearing, or not enjoyed a life with fun and family. In fact, the opposite is true.
“To be monastic, our first priority is to live community, so we all live here, as opposed to being in another state or even in another country,” Bratrsovsky said. “So just as in a family, if you are considering family as important, you want to try as much as possible to pray together, eat together, recreate together.
“And if you don’t live in the same space, then at least you’re close enough that you can come together and live as family. So our primary goal is to live together as community, to seek God through community and through the rule of St. Benedict and under the leadership of an abbot (monks) or prioress.”
Living together is just one part of the process and is one of the primary reasons the Benedictine women give up what secular observers might find hard to comprehend. But The Bible recommends:
“Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2:11-12, KJV)
A Life of Service
The monastery is located in a largely affluent DuPage County society, and they argue they do things for which the working-class family has little time.
In addition to having long-served as teachers in the local school system, they have opened up their monastery to the homeless in a program called Public Action to Develop Shelter (PADS) and presently work to help provide housing for up to five homeless families in a transitional period of their life. The latter is usually a response to domestic violence and includes a mentoring program designed to help the single parent get back on their feet.
To SHM, their home is your home. Villa St. Benedict, a retirement community cosponsored by Benedictine Health System out of Duluth Minnesota and Sacred Heart Monastery, borders the monastery to the left. What started out as 32 units has drastically expanded and is the source of Sister Mary’s occupation and time, ministering and just talking to the elderly residents. SHM also has an assisted living facility as the left wing of their building, which includes a secure memory-care area for those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other similar medical diagnoses.
Most all of their member’s extracurricular time is devoted to charitable pursuits.
“We certainly have more time for prayer, to be more available for service for the work of God or the people of God rather than raising a family,” Bratrsovsky said. “That takes time and that takes another concentration. This is about giving our lives over to God.”
A Struggle for Survival
The women of Sacred Heart Monastery say there is a need for the services they provide and for religion to be a present part of a society determined to segregate every aspect of church and state.
The state of Illinois condemned SMH’s land in the 1960’s to add on to parts of the Lisle school district, which, while it gave SHM some money to draw on even to today, it is far less than the amount for which they could have sold the land.
The monastery also is dealing with an increasing age of its members of the monastery and the lack of newer, younger members joining, which is an indication that some of the public service they perform could be in jeopardy.
SMH has performed a five-year study to determine future plans, enlisted the help of marketing agencies to spread the message of monastic life, and partnered with companies like Benedictine Health System to provide anchor points of income to keep alive their benevolent acts. Awareness of their life and their mission is also available on their blog and their newsletters.
“There are good choices out there,” Bratrsovsky said. “A good choice is marriage and a good choice is religious life. I have found a great deal of fulfillment in that.”