Benedictine Sisters share their Christmas memories

| Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, 8:52 p.m.

As the 50 remaining Benedictine Sisters of Pittsburgh prepare to move from their Ross Township monastery to their new home in Richland Township this spring, the sisters are reflecting on Christmases past and future.

Early Christmas morning, Sister Jeanne Ubinger heard the angels singing.

At age 18, she was new to the life of a postulant at the monastery on Perrysville Avenue. While she wasn't far from her Manchester neighborhood on Pittsburgh's North Side, she was separated from friends and family. It was the winter of 1951, and her life-changing decision had been made.

“We were learning the rule and theology,” she said.

“We were kept away from the world.”

Now, 61 years later and at age 79, Sister Jeanne recalls the joys of her first Christmas in the community.

“Christmas was full of surprises,” she said for the young women pursing a religious life, from the decorated study room to the caroling sisters who greeted the dawn on Christmas morning.

Novices and postulants had been directed not to leave their beds before 5:30 a.m. Instead, they were to rest until the voices sang them awake.

Advent rituals, such as the Christmas novena and “Going to Bethlehem” on Dec. 21, 22 and 23, when the women make an in-house pilgrimage, with 10 prayerful stops inside the building, had come before that day.

“On Christmas Eve after supper, we walked the last miles to Bethlehem and went into the chapel,” she said. “It was dark.”

It was there she heard the sweet sounds of a sister singing “Gesu Bambino.”

Dinner that night had been special, too. Instead of the promised “oyster soup,” what they found instead were soup bowls full of candy.

“But we could just look at it because of the fast,” she said.

Catholics used to fast overnight before taking Holy Communion in the morning.

While seeing the sweets was delightful, what pleased Sister Jeanne more on that night was that professed sisters and the young women could talk to each other. That meant she and Sister Terese Clare Ubinger, her blood sister who had gone to the monastery eight years earlier, could share some time together.

“We hugged, and I sobbed and sobbed,” she said.

As the years went on, Sister Jeanne made her vows and took her place in mission work as a teacher at many local Catholic schools. She later served as chaplain at ManorCare Health Services ­­— North Hills, a nursing home in Ross.

In her early years, there were almost 200 sisters in residence at the monastery.

There always was a large, decorated tree in the dining room, later accompanied by fabric banners on each pillar and lights over the archways.

“The decorating has bloomed and bloomed and bloomed – on every door and in every bedroom,” she said.

Advent was the time for “Kris Kringle,” a kind of Secret Santa when each sister would give surprise gifts to another. On Christmas Day, each would find one last present under the tree and learn who the gift-giver had been. Morning Mass was followed by brunch and a special dinner that family members could attend.

“It was wonderful to be professed and living here,” Sister Jeanne said as she reflected on the time when more young women were coming to the order.

“Then, when angels sang on Christmas morning, I was one of them.”

At age 64, Sister Michael Mack has found her niche with the Benedictines.

She's the monastery's treasurer and a part of the decorating team, mostly, she said, “because I can climb ladders.”

While Sister Nancy Booth packs things away carefully from one season to the next, both women confer on what might be used to celebrate Christmas.

This year, Sister Judith Ann Criner made 800 German-star ornaments, six- or eight-sided stars. Each sister will have the opportunity to add some stars to the tree.

During the two hours of decorating fun, there will be hot chocolate and popcorn.

“In the midst of craziness, a scavenger hunt is planned,” said Sister Michael, a native of Pittsburgh's Overbrook neighborhood.

“This is a community day and fun for everyone. It's a day to be with your sisters.”

This sense of family, of intimate community, brought Sister Michael into the order. On this year's St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 6, that thought held a remarkable significance to her. After a festive supper and a visit from the Rainbow Angel, all the sisters walked from the dining room to the chapel with wreaths in hand to help decorate there.

“That had never happened before,” said Sister Michael, who has spent 13 years at the monastery.

“It meant a lot to the older sisters.”

Among them was Sister Kathleen Mack, Sister Michael's 91-year-old aunt. The older sister sat in her wheelchair with a wreath at her knees.

Two years ago, the women had shared a special anniversary. While Sister Michael celebrated 25 years as a sister, her aunt was celebrating 70 years.

“We got the whole family to come for us,” Sister Michael said.

“They came from all over the country.”

Another of her aunts, Sister Jean Marie Mack, also was a Benedictine.

“We wanted to involve everyone since it's the last year. It makes them feel a part of all that happens,” Sister Michael said.

Prioress Sister Benita DeMatteis has led this group of women since April 2008 and understands many sisters' bittersweet look at the year ahead.

“At this time, my heart is filled with a great longing to have Christ fill it with the strength and patience to help all of us be prepared for the journey to the place he has prepared for us,” she said.

In about four months, the community will be leaving. Already, the St. Benedict Monastery is empty of large furniture pieces and artwork that had decorated the walls. Sisters are downsizing their personal belongings.

“This building is sacred space to all of us,” said Sister Benita, 73, who has been a Benedictine sister for 56 years, “but we know that the people and memories are what makes it such a sacred place.

“A good life has been lived and shared here, but we know the time has come to go forward filled with the love, joy and the celebration of Christmas.”

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or

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