The community of the Olivetan Benedictine Sisters has its origins in the Convent of Maria Rickenbach in the Canton of Unterwalden, Switzerland. In response to requests for Sisters to teach in the mission fields of America, five Sisters were sent in 1874 to make a foundation near Conception, Missouri, in a little village named Maryville. Additional Sisters followed the next year.
Meanwhile, Father Eugene Weibel, an early missionary in Arkansas, persuaded Bishop Edward Fitzgerald of Little Rock to support his efforts to obtain Sisters to teach in the parish school at Pocahontas. After repeated requests, Prior Frowin Conrad of Conception, Missouri, spiritual director for the Sisters, agreed to send four Sisters to Arkansas. From that first group of Sisters, Mother Beatrice Renggli and Sister Agnes Dali set off for Northeast Arkansas. They were joined by Sister Frances Metzler and Sister Walburga McFadden, who had come to from Switzerland to Missouri with a later group.
According to Sister Felicitas Hunkler’s unpublished history of the community, they arrived in Pocahontas on December 13, 1887, with a total cash fund of 83 cents. The ladies of the parish had prepared their meal and made beds and had everything ready in the modest log and frame convent, named Maria Stein.
The Sisters tried as closely as possible to adhere to the Rule of St. Benedict, the constitutions and schedule they brought from Maria Rickenbach.
Although Bishop Edward Fitzgerald had approved Convent Maria Stein, he desired that the community be affiliated with an authority outside the diocese. Father Weibel was sent to Rome to secure necessary documents of affiliation and in 1893, while remaining under the Ordinary of the Diocese of Little Rock, the community became officially affiliated with the Olivetan Benedictine Congregation and began wearing the white habit.
Because the railroads bypassed Pocahontas--and also because many of the Sisters contacted typhoid fever from the drinking water--the community officially moved from Pocahontas to Jonesboro on July 4, 1898. Our new home in Jonesboro was named Holy Angels Convent in gratitude for a safe crossing of the Atlantic by one of the groups of Sisters and postulants.
One year later, malaria fever broke out in Northeast Arkansas and the Sisters were asked to help take care of the sick. At the persuasion of Father Weibel, the Sisters bought a large frame house on East Matthews Street in downtown Jonesboro. Six rooms were prepared with cots for beds and covered orange crates for wash stands. On July 5, 1900, St Bernards Hospital was opened.
Today, over 100 years later, St Bernards--named in honor of St Bernard Tolomei--is the leading health care provider in Northeast Arkansas and further expansion and improvements are underway. Our Sisters remain active in both the governance of the hospital and in staffing the Pastoral Care department.
In 1930, a girls' school named Holy Angels Academy was opened in part of the new addition to the convent. It closed in 1962, but the Sisters have continued their education ministry in Catholic schools throughout Arkansas and neighboring states.
The need for more room in and around the convent as well as the expansion of St Bernards Hospital prompted the community to relocate to a tract of land north of Jonesboro. In 1974, we moved to the new Holy Angels Convent, located off SR 141, near KAIT TV Station.
The mission of the Jonesboro Benedictines is the same today as when we first came to Arkansas: serving God and all those in need. To our original ministries of education and health care have been added Hispanic ministry, prison ministry, and other apostolates that would have been unimaginable to those first four Sisters. God continues to bless us with new vocations as women of faith seek to follow their Master who came "not to be served, but to serve."