Sanctuary found among the mesquites in rattlesnake country
By Brenda Nettles Riojas
The Valley Catholic
RIO GRANDE CITY – Sometimes, we need a break from routine, so I went west. I made my way to an oasis of quiet, hidden among the mesquites, brush and cacti in Starr County where the Sisters of the Benedictine Monastery of the Good Shepherd welcome visitors year round.
Some guests come to visit for a few hours, some to stay at one of the casitas on the property for a personal retreat, and some for a discernment weekend or a group retreat. I came for a combination of field reporting and a mini private retreat.
The rock and gravel road leading to the monastery slowed my pace from the start. There is no speeding, no rush, on Monastery Lane.
It’s a good idea to call in advance and make arrangements. Some weekends the retreat center and casitas fill with retreatants. Plus, the sisters like to be on hand to welcome every guest.
They personalized a note outlining some essentials (the gate code and the code to the Fountain of Life Chapel for Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament). Included as well, some advice in case snakes are around: “Just let them pass and continue.”
“The Good Shepherd Handmaidens pray for you before you arrive, during your stay and in your absence,” reads the note.
The monastery exists because of the dreams, prayers and work of these “handmaidens” – three sisters from Crookston, Minn., Benedictine Sisters Nancy Boushey, Luella Walsh and Fran Solum, who moved to the Rio Grande Valley in the early 70s and mid-80s.
“We had $900 and an old car and a lot of people praying for us, and some of them thinking we were crazy of course, and sometimes we thought we were crazy too,” Sister Nancy shared about their decision in 1989 to give up their salaried positions and start their monastery in the remote reaches of Starr County.
Monasteries have a long history dating back to the fourth and fifth century. Sisters Nancy, Luella and Fran live in a monastic community and “live the Gospel in the spirit of Saint Benedict.” St. Benedict is known as the founder of western monasticism.
Twenty-three years since the nuns moved west to Starr County, their monastery serves as an ideal place to visit and find some quiet time for prayer in the remote dry brush land. One of the highlights, however, comes from spending time with the Sisters. Their welcoming spirit and love exemplify Christ’s teachings. Without words, their kindness and hospitality inspire me.
They inspire others as well. Shortly after moving into a rat infested home in El Sauz, the three sisters mobilized hundreds of volunteers and started raising funds for their monastery.
Just eight miles from the Rio Grande River, the monastery sits on 115 acres of land donated by Texaco Oil Company in 1993. But it took seven years to get an easement to what the sisters call their “Promised Land.” Meanwhile, they lived in a mobile home until 2004.
The nuns added the Monte Cassino Renewal and Conference Center in 2008 to accommodate retreats for lay and religious groups. They are now raising funds to add additional rooms.
Visitors staying in one of the casitas provide for their own meals, but during my visit, the sisters invited me to join them for a grilled cheese sandwich and soup dinner. As we ate, an array of cardinals, green jays, house wrens and tree swallows pecked at their own dinner at feeders outside the window. Some days, road runners and javelinas make an appearance as well.
“Our guardian angels are the paisanos (roadrunners). They kill rattlesnakes,” said Sister Nancy.
During my stay I had a chance to spend some time with the women participating in their monthly Ora et Labora Discernment Weekend. Ora et Labora is Latin for pray and work.
Irma Wolcott from Laguna Vista was assisting that weekend as she does monthly with the discernment vocation retreats. She first visited the monastery six years ago. “They (nuns) are absolutely wonderful. Their hospitality is tremendous,” she said. “You feel like you are walking on holy ground,” she added about the monastery.
After our visit, we ended with the Lectio Divina and I returned to the Blessed Marmion Casita just a few feet from the monastic residence. When Sister Nancy assigned me to the casita I had not heard of Blessed Marmion, a Benedictine Irish monk who was beatified by Blessed John Paul II in 2000. After some research I learned that Blessed Marmion’s spiritual writings are highly regarded.
I stayed up past 1 a.m. writing, enjoying the solitude. The next morning, I did not want to leave the serenity of the brush country. I delayed my departure with an early morning walk and some time sitting in the back patio of the casita. My visit not long enough, but I know I will return – si Dios quiere.
(Originally published in the November 2012 issue of The Valley Catholic newspaper.)
How to get there –
3167 Monastery Lane
Rio Grande City, TX 78582
On Highway 83, two miles west of Rio Grande City, take a right on Farm Road 3167 and drive north for six miles. A large white cross on the left marks the entrance.
Call in advance:
Watch this short YouTube video about the Starr County Benedictines