By Irina Rusanova
Saint Vincent College has a rich history – both religious and academic. One of its interesting historical events was the arrival of Benedictine nuns at the all-boys school in 1931.
The Benedictine nuns began their mission at the convent of Saint Walburg in Eichstätt, Bavaria. As national socialism began to rise in Germany between the World War I and World War II, the nuns began reaching out to other countries, in case a social movement within their own nation would seek to close their monasteries.
“The nuns made two foundations, initially,” Fr. Brian Boosel, O.S.B., assistant professor of history, said. “One to England, and the second one to here in Latrobe.”
At first, two nuns arrived at Saint Vincent; they were followed by five more nuns a month later. Saint Vincent’s abbot at the time, Aurelius, worked to make it possible for them to come to the school.
“Unfortunately, he never met them,” Boosel said. “He died a couple months before they arrived.”
Together, the nuns established a convent on the third and fourth floors of Placid Hall and began to provide food services to the college, seminary and monastery. This continued for 56 years from 1931 to 1987.
“While here, they cooked, they did all the dishes, they served the food,” Boosel said. “They were kind of like the mother figures for the students and the monks.”
At the time of the nuns’ residence at the college, the school was all male. Though Boosel did not attend SVC during this time period, he recalled speaking to a nun in later years.
“I remember meeting one of them who baked bread, and she said she did that every day for 50 years, and that she couldn’t imagine a more fulfilling life,” Boosel said.
The ovens in which the nuns baked bread for the college were shared with the monks and are now located underground. During the Great Depression, the monks would bake loaves weighing up to five pounds and would then hand out the bread to families in need, such as those whose sustainers had lost their jobs.
Boosel stated that the people in question would come to the monastery door. The monks would bake extra and give the food to them. A loaf would feed whole families for several days.
“So, [the people] were very fortunate that [the nuns] were able to help [them] out in times of financial distress,” Boosel said.
The nuns, similarly to the monks, also showed such hospitality.
“There was a train derailment in Latrobe in the 30s, and there were two cars of bananas, and they spilled out,” Boosel said. “So, the train operator had to sell them there, and the nuns went out and bought all the bananas.”
According to Boosel, the students ate banana-flavored and -themed “everything” for the rest of the year. The nuns canned the bananas to preserve them. Because this event took place at the time of the Great Depression, food was scarce and every meal was valued.
“They also invented this thing called Bearcat Steak, which was like a two-inch, thick cut of Saint Vincent bread with a really hardy beef gravy,” Boosel said.
There was no meat at the College during the Depression, so this meal was made to satisfy people’s hunger as much as possible.
After living at Saint Vincent for 20 years, the nuns purchased a piece of property in Greensburg and established a retreat house at Saint Emma. Some nuns transferred to this retreat house while others stayed at the college to continue providing food services.
“They realized by the 1980s that they needed more people at the retreat house, and it was too big of a job at the college,” Boosel said. “The college had grown too much for them, with their numbers, to sustain both.”
The nuns ended up permanently transferring their community to Saint Emma Monastery. Today, they have several retreat houses in which they show hospitality to the community, pray seven times a day and engage in other Benedictine practices.
More information on the history of the nuns at SVC can be found at https://www.instagram.com/p/BfZxVgEjhWj/. Also, to find out more about what the nuns are doing today, visit the Greensburg Saint Emma Monastery’s website at https://stemma.org/.