The mansion on North Broad Street in Elizabeth is out of the Gilded Age, the classic kind you see on Bernardsville Mountain, tucked away in Short Hills or on the Watchung ridge roads of Upper Montclair.
Its architect, C.H.P. Gilbert, built some of the grandest townhomes on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Park Slope in Brooklyn, for the turn-of-the-last century’s wealthiest elite, most notably F.W. Woolworth and Otto Kahn.
Its owner was Frank Davis, a railroad man. He commissioned the massive, pillared home and lived there until 1923 among the decorative wood carvings and moldings, marble floors and sweeping staircases.
But this is not a story about the fabulously wealthy. Quite the opposite.
Because the historic mansion is now owned by an order of monastic nuns, who own the mansion but choose not to live in it. Instead, it is maintained as a retreat center, and the sisters of the St. Walburga reside in a very plain circa 1960s building behind it.
Still, the history of the Benedictine Sisters of Elizabeth goes much deeper than the palatial mansion they own. The order came to Elizabeth by way of Newark 150 years ago, and has been in existence since 870. There is no missing 1 there – 870 as in the 9th Century.
For that reason, Sr. Mary Feehan, the prioress, at the Elizabeth monastery since 2014, has a good sense of perspective as she speaks about the vocation of religious life.
“We are part of the history of monastic life,” she said. “We are going through a sea change. I think there will always be vocations now and then, but I also see an increase in lay people seeking retreats and quiet reflective time. There are many ways the Lord calls us.”
There were 250 sisters living in the monastery in the 1960s and 1970s. Now there are 24. Three others live outside the convent.
“Those years were the high point for many reasons,” Feehan said.
Large Catholic families of Irish, Italian and German descent always produced at least one priest or nun.
Young Mary Feehan, who was the youngest of seven and came of age in Elizabeth in the early late 1950s and early ‘60s, was determined not to be one of those people.
She was taught by Benedictine nuns in grammar school and high school and said “the nudge was always there, and then it got stronger.”
“I felt the calling for several years,” she said. “But I resisted and resisted. I did not want to go into a convent.”
Still, she said, “I was always looking for a deeper meaning in things.”
She entered the monastery at age 20.
“I was the youngest in my family and thought, ‘Well, everything had already been done.’ This was different so I tried it. I thought I’d get it out of my system and get on with my life.”
That was in 1962.
“Many of the people who say they resisted it, also say they never regretted it,” said Sr. Mariette Bernier, who also grew up in Elizabeth and was taught by Benedictine sisters.
She also entered as a young woman, but in a different era, when choosing vocational life became more uncommon.
“I found myself explaining I was just a normal person,” she said. “I liked to have fun. I was interested in boys. But as I thought more about a religious life, I gained clarity. This was the best fit for me.”
The Benedictine Sisters came to America a decade before the Civil War from Eichstatt, Bavaria, and settled in Pennsylvania. A small group branched off to Newark in 1857, summoned by the Benedictine monks of the Newark Abbey. A few years later, three of the sisters began to teach the predominantly German immigrant children of St. Michael’s Parish in Elizabeth.
“We were not founded as a teaching order but, historically, we accepted that role,” Feehan said.
By 1869, they established a convent and moved to their present site in 1923, first inhabiting the mansion.
Like the Benedictine monks, the sisters take a vow of stability. They stay in one place through their vocational life.
“I remember people saying to me, ‘What if you get stuck there?’” Bernier said. “I said, ‘What if I want to get stuck there?’”
The stability allows Benedictines to build an internal community and impact the external community. The Newark Abbey’s St. Benedict’s Prep celebrated its 150th Anniversary last year. The sisters sponsor the Benedictine Academy in Elizabeth, which they founded in 1925.
St. Benedict’s Prep has a national reputation as an urban success story. Likewise, the Benedictine Academy has survived and thrived as Elizabeth’s population has changed, in the loving shadow of the sisters who first came to teach German children 150 years ago.
“St. Benedict said, ‘Listen with the ear of your heart,’’’ Feehan said. “This is what calls to us, and tells us what we should be doing with our lives.”