In the Wisconsin city of Madison, Holy Wisdom Monastery is home to an ecumenical Christian community with a deep commitment to spiritual growth, environmental sustainability, and interfaith hospitality.
Located on 130 acres of prairie, wetlands, and woods overlooking Lake Mendota and the skyline of the Wisconsin capital city of Madison, Holy Wisdom Monastery is home to a community of Benedictine sisters who welcome visitors to a wide range of services, programs, retreats, and special events.
I visited Holy Wisdom Monastery on a chilly winter day, but received a warm welcome from its prioress, Sister Mary David Walgenbach, OSB (Order of St. Benedict), and Toby Grabs, its director of operations.
Sister Mary David explained to me that the monastery is a “community of communities.” They include:
- an ecumenical monastic community of six sisters, three of whom are Catholic and three Protestant, whose daily lives focus on prayer, hospitality, justice, and care for the earth.
- Benedictine Sojourners, who are single, Christian women who live and pray with the sisters for a period of six months.
- more than 200 women and men who are Oblates of Holy Wisdom, who meet five times a year to explore Benedictine spirituality.
- people who attend the monastery’s 9:00 am Sunday Assembly worship each week.
- members of the Ecumenical Center for Clergy Spiritual Renewal, which offers spiritual renewal, resources, and support for Christian pastors from around the country.
- Friends of Wisdom Prairie, who help maintain and renew the monastery’s natural landscape.
- people who come for daily prayer services, for guided and private retreats, and to enjoy its peaceful trails.
“While we’re rooted in Christianity, we welcome people of all faiths, and no faith, to Holy Wisdom,” Sister Mary David told me. “We often host Buddhist groups, for example, as well as meetings and events for the people of Madison. We also have a deep commitment to caring for the earth, especially this beautiful piece of land that’s been entrusted to us.”
The center traces its roots to a Catholic girls high school and boarding school that was founded on this site by the Benedictine sisters in 1953. Then known as the Academy of St. Benedict, it operated until 1966, when it became a Catholic retreat center called St. Benedict Center. At this time the community converted its residence hall for students into a guest house for overnight visitors.
After a multi-year discernment process, the center’s sisters decided that they wanted to keep their affiliation with the Benedictines, but no longer identify as Catholic. In 2006 they became the first ecumenical Benedictine community in the U.S. “We wanted to be more open in our approach to spirituality, while still remaining a monastic community affiliated with the Benedictine tradition,” explained Sister Mary David.
After changing its name to Holy Wisdom Monastery, the community replaced its main building with a beautifully designed, platinum-LEED-certified building that incorporates many environmentally friendly features. Opened in 2009, the building has a light-filled sanctuary and dining area, a downstairs chapel and library, and a variety of meeting rooms. In keeping with its environmental focus, its meals feature produce raised in the monastery’s garden.
A deep commitment to environmental sustainability remains a key part of the monastery’s mission, according to Toby Grabs.
“When the sisters first arrived here in the 1950s, this was worn-out agricultural land in great need of attention,” said Toby. “In keeping with Benedictine traditions, caring for the land has been a central focus of our work here. We’re restoring prairie, savannna, woodlands, wetlands, and orchards and helping others learn to do the same in their own areas.”
One of the things I most appreciated about Holy Wisdom is the way it’s integrated into the larger community, a testimony to its welcoming spirit. The citizens of Madison, a vibrant university town, have warmly embraced the religious community in their midst, with many groups and organizations making use of its meeting spaces and its natural areas.
“I think visitors here sense that this is a holy place, both inside our walls and outside in our natural landscape,” said Sister Mary David. “The need for silence and spiritual renewal in our world is great and ever-growing. This is a place where people can come to be healed and nourished.”
For more information see Holy Wisdom Monastery.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.