The problem with Holy Wisdom Monastery

benedictinesistersIn the late 1950s and early 60s there was a Catholic girls’ high school just north of Madison, run by Benedictine Sisters (historic photo above). Times changed, the school closed, and the Sisters, going with the spirit of the age, became very liberal. Eventually, the two remaining elderly Sisters (and a protestant woman who joined them) transferred ownership of their property to a corporation owned by themselves, left their vows and dissolved their Catholic monastery. Bishop Morlino did not oppose their choice, sad though it was, because their beliefs were really no longer Catholic, and it was better for them not to continue to represent their organization as Catholic.


Today, their center, which they say is “ecumenical”, is re-named Holy Wisdom Monastery and hosts a lay-led “eucharist” attended by disaffected Catholics and protestants. When they make the sign of the Cross they prefer to say “in the name of the creator, and of the redeemer, and of the sanctifier.” In keeping with a “progressive Christian” trend toward pantheism, what they teach the children there resembles Hinduism more than Christianity. But appearances still do not destroy our hope that the Sisters will turn back, and that this place can someday return to the Church.

Nationally, Holy Wisdom Monastery is one of the most-watched instances of groups of women religious decisively rejecting Catholic authority and even “moving beyond Jesus” as described famously by Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink while she was president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Locally, the errors of Holy Wisdom Monastery damagingly infiltrate the Church via the few active Catholics who quietly support them in spite of Holy Wisdom undermining Catholic faith and ecclesial communion. It is this “apostasy within the Church” and representing something as Catholic which really isn’t, that is more harmful than the existence of a non Catholic group that goes its own peculiar way.

It’s painful to examine this, because there are many local Catholics who have happy and loving memories of this place, and of the Sisters, from days gone by, and they deeply felt the loss to the Church. And I think we all felt that, even those of us who had never been there. This was the Sisters’ original Priory building constructed for a large number of Sisters who never actually materialized, then later a retreat center, now no longer extant:


The best source for understanding the Holy Wisdom Monastery situation is the statement on the Madison Diocese website on this topic. The blog of the Kansas City, MO diocesan newspaper has a helpful description of the facts of the departure of Holy Wisdom from the Church:

According to the National Catholic Reporter, Benedictine Sisters Mary David Walgenbach and Joanne Kollasch started thinking about leaving the Catholic religious life and starting a way of life the Church would not recognize in 1992. In 2006, they were officially released from their vows.

Between 1992 and 2006, they had a lot of work to do. According to public records, in 1998, they set up a Non-Stock Corporation headed by themselves called the Benedictine Women of Madison, Inc. The new corporation was non-canonical, ie., not connected to or bound by any of the laws of the Church.

In late 2000, the two sisters signed over the deeds for the various parcels of land belonging to their canonical, ecclesial religious order to the non-ecclesial corporation run by themselves. A separate, non-ecclesial foundation was also set up for the benefit of the new Benedictine Women of Madison, Inc.

When the two sisters finally were released from their vows in 2006, they had already transferred the ecclesial property of their order essentially to themselves. They took new vows to their non-Church related order and now run the Holy Wisdom Monastery on the property of their old order’s former high school.

Holy Wisdom Monastery has one other professed member, a Presbyterian minister. They are open to accepting “sisters” of other faiths, but so far no takers. Madison Bishop Robert Morlino has forbidden priests from offering Mass at the monastery, but in late August, they began “sharing the Bread of Life around a common table” at a weekly, inclusive, ecumenical Eucharist at their just-constructed $8 million eco-friendly monastery.

The Diocese of Madison statement explains:

It seems their choice to move in this non-Catholic direction was in the works for a number of years, at least since 1992 according to their website. During Bishop Morlino’s tenure, there were several meetings and conversations between the sisters and the bishop. There seemed to be a cordial dialogue taking place on a variety of issues and therefore it was a surprise when the two remaining sisters advised the bishop that they had been granted a release, by Rome, from their vows as Benedictine Sisters, in 2006. While Bishop Morlino was surprised, he was in no way unfriendly toward their desire to start a non-Catholic ecumenical community. He did however ask that they not reserve the Holy Eucharist or have Mass celebrated on site, so as not to cause confusion. Many people had visited St. Benedict’s Monastery over the years and the bishop felt it would take time for people to understand that it was no longer a Roman Catholic institution. They understood the bishop’s position and agreed to follow his directive for the sake of those who might be confused by the change.

Also in 2006, Bishop Morlino noted that engagement in ecumenical efforts would be suitable only for Catholic adults with a clear understanding of the teachings of the Catholic Church, and with a solid commitment to these teachings.

Clear understanding of and solid commitment to Catholic teachings is not a part of Holy Wisdom Monastery itself. The religious education curriculum for children used by Holy Wisdom Monastery is from the Center for Progressive Christianity, an organization I was very familiar with when I was a fallen away Catholic and political progressive involved with an online interfaith community.The  CPC actually discards all central doctrinal beliefs of Christianity, and “progressive Christians” tend to hold a a pantheistic worldview. A guiding light for them is the Episcopalian Bishop Spong who advocated Christianity evolving away from theism and belief in the supernatural, and indeed Spong has personally endorsed the CPC Children’s Curriculum. A Christian reviewer who examined the CPC Children’s Curriculum that they use at Holy Wisdom Monastery explains that although it mentions Jesus,

It is mainly written by Lorna Knox who is on staff at the Ananda Temple and Teaching Center in Portland Oregon. After looking at the curriculum, which includes religious information for both the teacher and children, it is clear that the material is religiously aligned with the teaching of the Ananda Temple which is a part of the Self-Realization Fellowship connected to the teachings of Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi. The religious viewpoint of the material, “A Joyful Path,” is a form of Hinduism.

Sadly the problem may go even further than lack of authentically Christian education. If Holy Wisdom Monastery were to baptize using their preferred feminist formula (according to the Wisconsin State Journal) “in the name of the creator, and of the redeemer, and the sanctifier”, that would not be valid Christian baptism at all, which was clarified explicitly in 2008 by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This may not be at all a place where someone could be baptized and helped to grow as a believing Christian. What it is, is a congregation catering mainly to disaffected Catholics in their 60s and 70s. I have noticed that in many cases there is particular disagreement with sexual morality.

I actually ache for them, for there to be healing, mercy, happy reunion. The diocesan statement again:

In a fundamental sense, all who are baptized Catholics remain so forever by the indelible nature of baptism. However, an individual can compromise his or her full communion with the Catholic Church, by persistent refusal or denial of the Church’s definitive teachings; separating themselves from the sacramental life of the Church, and by refusal of ecclesiastical governance. Catholics who compromise themselves in such a manner from the Church are not in full communion with the Catholic Church, which has serious moral consequences.

Example: It is like being a member of a family. I’ll always be a member of my family, no matter how far away we grow or how estranged I might be from them. The beauty is that we can always come back home.

Sadly, Holy Wisdom Monastery enjoys substantial support nationally from dissenting Catholics, especially dissenting religious, for whom they are even heroes for “going non canonical”, escaping the Church authority which, as their beliefs evolved radically, they had come to feel so estranged from. It was a monk of Minnesota’s very liberal and very troubled St John’s Abbey, Fr Dan Ward (link describes disturbing and credible allegations of sexual misconduct and involvement in abuse coverups), whose organization the Resource Center for Religious Institutes actually shares an office building with the Leadership Conference for Women Religious, who gave the Benedictine Sisters canon law assistance and other help in transferring the deed for the property to the private corporation owned by themselves, and being dispensed from their vows, and has since then even given a workshop on this process for other religious who might want to do the same.

Ward is not the only St John’s monk to support Holy Wisdom Monastery; in late 2011 Brother Paul  Richards, under a cloud of some kind of misconduct accusation himself, took a lengthy sabbatical there in spite of Holy Wisdom not actually being Catholic and the Sacraments unavailable  there. As recently as Christmas of 2012, Father Robert Koopman of St John’s, who was the last president of nominally-Catholic St John’s University prior to it being severed from the monastery and transferred to a private corporation, visited Holy Wisdom Monastery, where they enjoyed his piano talents. From the January Holy Wisdom Monastery newsletter:


Other supportive visitors include certain Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters such as the very same ones Bishop Morlino recently said may not give workshops or spiritual direction in parishes, and at least one local parish staff person. And soon, Sister Simone Campbell, head of the NETWORK Lobby Nuns on the Bus, will be there this month, February 13 and 14 for an Ash Wednesday Service where she will actually give a reflection, and participate in fundraisers jointly for her organization NETWORK, Holy Wisdom, and a local pro-union group Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice which I notice apparently has little support from local Catholics due to their pro abortion politics (according to comments from the organization’s participants, at that link).

It is so sad to have an out of town big name religious come here to actively take a part in a service at this place that departed from Catholic beliefs so publicly and left the Church so famously, and caused such a lot of pain and sadness to ordinary practicing Catholics here in Madison. Doing a joint fundraiser with them?! While I think there continues to be love for the Sisters personally, the local Catholics know very well not to support Holy Wisdom Monastery. Please leave a comment or send me an email if you want to join me in speaking up about that.

20 Responses to The problem with Holy Wisdom Monastery

  1. Excellent job, Elizabeth!

  2. I went to the Holy Wisdom Monastery to stay overnight there, as I was visiting a friend in Madison, When I booked the room they did not share their beliefs with me. I went to their “mass service” in the morning and was informed by one of them about their beliefs and their communion.
    I realized i would not share communion with them as they were outside of the Catholic Church, I did not go back there again. I feel the public should be able to get more information about this so not to make the mistake I made in going there.

    • I am sorry you had this experience, Kathy. Thank goodness you realized in time that their service is not a Mass and you should not partake if their “communion”. My impression is that a lot of people assume HWM is Catholic since they claim to be “Benedictine Sisters”. Based their signage and facilities visible from the road, and a lot of their advertising and materials, someone might easily assume it is Catholic. They don’t seem to mind deceiving people. My impression is that they’ve pretty effectively deceived themselves. But they should really make it clear on their website, materials and advertising that their organization is not connected with the Catholic Church and they do not have Mass there.

  3. …is it when you are no longer in line with the papal ministry you are no longer catholic?
    …is it when use the title “nun” and not register your group canonically you are no longer catholic?
    …is it required that “all religious people (nuns or priests)” be under the leadership of the High Priest?
    …if these people does not want to be under the rules and commands and the catholic leaders yet still want to continue to serve people, do good acts, and live a good christian life “not more than a nun but not less than a non-religious catholic”, do they have no right at all to receive the holy communion… are they not allowed to attend the mass anymore….
    …is it not our will to deprive them the right to catholic practices that drives them to seek other ways to sustain their catholic spiritual needs?

    Am i right with my understanding? These all started when these “women with veil” decided to be independent from the hierarchy of the church. Yet they did not ask to be labeled “Non-catholics”. However, we jump off to the conclusion that they are separating themselves to the church as if they are trying to create a new sect. Is there no difference between “being independent with the hierarchy of the church” and ‘being non-catholic”. Is being non-canonical not similar to forming a group of common catholic people who wants to flourish their faith and render services to the people? The latter (group of ordinary people) were not subjected to any criticism though they really are not registered in the Pope’s list of active groups of people rendering service to the people…What then is it’s difference with these non-canonical sisters…Are we not the ones who drives them off totally to our Mother Catholic Faith….

    Some church people made this clear please…

  4. I wouldn’t worry too much. The Sister’s a few in number and old. They don’t seem to be able to attract or keep new members.

    Ask them how many have come inquiring as a Sojourner or joined as a novice and left? Lots since they are cold lot who don’t know how to welcome new people into their community, especially Lynne and Joanne. They look good on paper, but fail as a real monastic community. Don’t be fooled by them/

    While they appear to be welcoming and friendly to all, they really only serve themselves.

    I understand that if they all die out, the monastery has been left to another order of missionary catholic nuns, which the worshiping community there may find interesting.

    Out of touch and dangerous to those seeking a spiritual home.

    • I contacted the sisters and indicated my interest in applying to the community. My background was as a Protestant ordained minister and ecologist and they were not interested in me. It was a strange response because my work has been in land management, spiritual direction, hospital chaplaincy. It seemed as if they were a closed group and tightly controlling. I was quite a bit younger and have managed larger acreage than they have…and you would think that older women would want someone to be able to carry on both the environmental mission and the spiritual mission. Apparently not. Strange.

      • Hi Siùsaidh, thanks for sharing your experience. I honestly think they have to be understood as a sect with a unique and particular belief profile that is more pantheistic and new age. Did you give them the impression you sincerely believe in the Bible? You would never fit! So perhaps you were more drawn by the ecology aspect than by religious affinity to their sect. There could be many reasons why they turned you away so I guess I shouldn’t speculate. At any rate, it is certain you don’t belong with them so they saved you some trouble and suffering by sparing you from finding that out the hard way. But I don’t assume at all that ecology is the sum of what your heart is restless for; maybe Holy Wisdom seemed a whole lot easier than seeking out the “motherlode” of the riches of Christ in the Catholic Church. Have you read Pope Francis’ Laudato Si? You probably have, but have you considered what other Catholic teaching may have to do with seeking your Beloved?


        • I think they made a lot of assumptions about me and didn’t check them out. They would have been surprised.

        • They seem to me to be more pan-en-theistic (God is in all of nature) rather than pantheistic (God is nature) and new age is really ancient knowledge, that the CAtholic Church spent a lot of effort destroying beginning with the Albegensian Crusdae. So, as a scholar of the ancient world, and a chaplain who studied world religions, I actually found them more narrow than myself and wondered if they were threatened by my expansive belief system. In any event, you are right, they are not attracting new people, only those who fit within their narrow scope. If anything, the ecologically minded people are more inclined to be in a position to manage that place and who knows who the land wills go to when they all are gone. Strange conundrum.

          • Albigensianism?! For real?!! Siùsaidh, I laughed so hard. Really??! We actually had our annual Rosary March today at the church in my neighborhood (here are my pictures of the 2012 edition of this event). Saint Dominic successfully opposed the Albigensians’ heretical belief in a dualism of matter as evil and spirit as good by teaching people to pray the Rosary, reciting the “angelic salutation” (the Hail Mary prayer originating with the angel’s greeting to Mary at the Annuciation of our Lord’s Incarnation) while meditating on series of “mysteries” or scenes of the life of Jesus, which helps to deeply impress these events in the story of our salvation in our soul. I am certainly going to pray the Rosary for you and for the Holy Wisdom “Albigensians”! I remember last year some young Dominican friars actually turned that into a little video game you can play (this is a must-see). It’s totally true that Catholics continue to not believe in Albigensianism. We believe that God created all things and then looked at it all and saw that it was very good. We believe that humans are a unity of body and soul and with the help of God’s grace are capable of living virtue in body and soul. We believe that God who is in Himself pure spirit from all eternity, became incarnate of the Virgin Mary when she gave her “fiat” and was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. We believe that the Incarnation of the Son of God as man is the most powerful and unassailable testimony to the essential goodness and dignity of human nature.

            And regardless whether one is Protestant or Catholic, panentheism isn’t any more compatible with Christianity than pantheism. Creatures are not the Creator. The difference between us and God is as profound as could be, and the relationship of persons between God and us is a real relation of persons, as real as the relation of parent and child or husband and wife, not an illusion, not maya, not something to be ultimately transcended as in some sorts of Hinduism where they believe they come to realize we are all manifestations of “Brahman”, or something. There are various flavors of “post-Christianity” but let us understand that is what they are, departures from Christianity, and ultimately I don’t laugh but pray and invite you and others to seek truth rather than crafting a belief system to your particular tastes. Repent, believe in the good news, and follow Jesus Christ in His Church.

  5. I am personally familiar with the former St.Benedict Center from the early 1980s. It was clear to me at this time the community was very different. These two women “religious”, took turns leading there community. I was always struck by the fact that these two who had taken vows of poverty, lacked for no material thing. They had cars campers boats and very nice private homes in the exclusive Fox Hills subdivision bordering the property of their monestary.I will always remember the comments of a former coworker long since past, “I could write a book about this place.”

  6. I, too, had connections with this community in the past – way past. I left having had the negative feelings Jay expressed regarding the “poverty”, their spirituality, their moral life and others. I assume that all they “own” is tax free as they go about their merry, new spiritual way NOT Biblically based at all. The life lived there is not one based in reality or God’s truth. Now, as a Christian, I find it interesting, knowing the educational level of these two, that their blurp on baptism does not mention the Father. Do they realize that the Creator is Jesus the Christ? Probably not. Sadly, those who used to say the Divine Office, were in the Word of God daily, “Who have exchanged the Truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, Who is blessed forever and ever. So be it.” Romans 1:25. Although, their lives revolved around Scripture, they did not study it, memorize it, were not consumed with the fact that the Word, Jesus, IS the Word of God, and truly knowing It – Him by the power of the Holy Spirit brings knowledge of and Eternal Life through acceptance of Jesus as their Saviour. The deceiver, “…a murderer,… a liar and the father of it.”, John 8:44, satan, is probably rolling over in hysterical laughter at what he has accomplished through these two ‘progressive’ thinkers, the earthly extravagance they have built, who want Truth to be whatever they decide it will be. What an America we would have if that kind of thinking had been our foundation! But – it was not and neither should our faith be. Our real lives, the ones that will last FOREVER (Can we even comprehend that!), our faith, our beliefs need to be based in Eternal Truth, the Word of God. “Jesus Christ, is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Hebrews 13:8. By the way, once a Catholic always a Catholic? Where did that come from? The same as once a Girl Scout always a Girl Scout? Sorry, they are both lies spread by groups of people, albeit one under the guise of religion, the other of service, who want to indoctrinate and control. Regrettably, I could also write a book about much that has gone on there to their shame, but it would not serve to turn people to Jesus and THAT should be our only purpose as the time is at hand, the coming of the Lord draws near; Eternity awaits. “For God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him, should not perish, but have Eternal Life.” John 3:16. And, to those two women, I would offer the admonition to the Church of Laodicea: “These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God: “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’ – and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked – I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be jealous and repent.” Revelation 3:14-19. The best we can do is pray that the Holy Spirit would open their hearts and eyes to the Truth!

    • While I agree with almost all of what you say here, Ann, I do want to explain that anyone who has once been a Catholic Christian always continues to be morally and religiously obligated by all that the Catholic faith entails, and for instance always continues to be subject to Canon Law. In regard to Canon Law, there is no provision for formally “defecting” from the Catholic Church. If someone rejects the Catholic faith with their heart and mind and uses their feet to go elsewhere, they aren’t actually off the hook. God looks on them as a Christian fully initiated into His Church who isn’t living up to what they should be. Although if we love God we show that by following His law and those laws and precepts specified by legitimate authority in His Church, the point in this is not ultimately legalistic but I would suggest that more importantly it has to do with the unique relationship God has with His bride and body the Church and His faithfulness to His bride and her members. God doesn’t believe in divorce. We are free to ultimately reject Him but as long as we live He will always take us back if we turn back to Him repentant. Since I do not hate the former Benedictine sisters or other fallen-away Catholics (I once was a fallen-away Catholic myself) and do not want them to be damned, of course I want that for them very much, that they would turn in repentance and desire and seek the saving Grace of God that comes uniquely through the Body of Christ the Church. As you say, the best we can do is pray that the Holy Spirit will open their hearts and eyes to the Truth.

  7. I have been a friend with this community for over 50 years and I am so deeply moved by their commitment to the living out of the Gospel teachings, I pursued a degree in Pastoral Ministry. They deeply believe in God’s Love of all peoples and in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. I believe this is what lead them to their Ecumenical way of being. I see it as Visionary!

    I marvel at their amazing accomplishments in the area of Ecology and see them as leaders here too: preserving the environment and having the courage and foresight to rebuild their monastery to be completely sustainable.

    I wish them all happiness and good fortune and hope their works inspire others to do likewise: Love and welcome all People, Preserve the Environment, and provide care, support and spiritual nurturing for all who call on them.

    • Thank you for the comment helpfully illustrating the constituency of Holy Wisdom Monastery. A little Googling finds that you, Barbara, hosted a “Roman Catholic Womenpriests” simulation of the Mass in your backyard of your house August 8, 2010. You have also been a member of and organized events for “Call to Action” of Western Washington such as one in Seattle in 2012 advocating equating marriage and same-sex erotic relationships, at which Jeannine Gramick was the speaker. It is clear how strongly and how gravely your interests correspond to those of HWM. I have prayed a Memorare for you. Barbara, I was once a “progressive” fallen-away Catholic. It takes considerable humility and courage to begin again to learn from the Catholic Church, to question the beliefs opposed to that, to come back (and keep coming back) to Confession and Mass as celebrated validly by a legitimate Catholic priest, but the benefits of coming home and doing so are great and forever. Jesus the Good Shepherd has not given up on you or any of those you have known in the “disaffected Catholics” milieu and when you’re ready to come back He’s lovingly ready to bring you back into the fold. You can’t have Christ without the Church, as Pope Francis likes to say.

      • Dear Elizabeth,
        Why do you spend so much time trashing people? Why not just live the Gospel and spend time with the “other” as Jesus did. I prefer love, acceptance, support, encouragement and courage in helping the Church move gracefully through the ages as Jesus hoped for.

        • Dear Barbara, did I say anything unkind to you? I have replied to you further in private email, as is more appropriate. Although I do very little with this blog nowadays and prefer to devote my time to book and Bible studies at church, teaching catechism, and service to the homeless, If you contact me through my blog telling me the dissident things you are interested in and want to praise, I willingly take the time to talk with you a little about that as I have done, because I do care about you.

        • Hmm ? I didn’t see any “trashing” going on above.
          Things you have been involved with were mentioned .
          What the Catholic Church doesn’t , exactly, buy into was pointed out.
          It was mentioned that you are always welcome to return to full union of belief and practice.
          Rather a nice message, I feel.

          And I see Elizabeth as spending time with “other” , namely you,

  8. Dear Elizabeth,

    I certainly agree with everything yoy say. But is what I don’t understand is that they are federated with a cononical group of Benedictines, of the St. Gertrude Federation. They are member of and recognied by the canonical group. Can you please explai how this can be? I’m a bit confused here.

    Thank You

    • When the women were formerly a Catholic religious congregation of Benedictines, they were part of the Federation of St Gertrude. Why the Federation of Saint Gertrude didn’t have a problem with them leaving religious life, hosting a weekly non Catholic Sunday service and staying members of the Federation of Saint Gertrude, is a good question to ask the Federation of Saint Gertrude. The reality is that many members of the other member congregations of the Federation of Saint Gertrude definitely believe exactly the same things as the post-Catholic “Holy Wisdom Monastery”. There are other groups in the US that are part of the Benedictine family that are normal, healthy Catholic religious houses. If I understand correctly, Benedictine religious life is based on each individual monastery being a separate entity. One thing this does mean is that “The Federation of Saint Gertrude” is a networking organization for Benedictine (or “Benedictine-ish”) groups to assist one another, discuss things of mutual interest, etc, and not actually a layer of governance. I believe Vatican II encouraged religious congregations to form such federations, but it’s a good bet that the Council Fathers didn’t foresee the possibility of some religious congregations apostasizing and remaining an accepted part of these groups.


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