Holy and Healthy Formation

Sitting high among southern Indiana’s rolling hills, St. Meinrad Archabbey and Seminary’s picturesque campus is anchored by its Archabbey Church, a towering sandstone structure built more than a century ago. A series of labyrinthlike corridors and hallways run through and under the campus’ main buildings, connecting the church, the seminary classes and housing and various administrative buildings. The more than 120 seminarians and 90 monks who live, work and study at St. Meinrad can likely navigate the twists and turns with ease, but a visitor quickly can lose his or her sense of direction.

I found this out a number of times during my two days at St. Meinrad reporting on its comprehensive health initiatives. Thankfully, while running late for an appointment in the wellness center with the archabbey’s director of health services, I ran into a friendly face who could tell I had gotten turned around.

“What can I help you find?” asked Father Denis Robinson, rector of the seminary.

Red-faced and a little out of breath from the aimless walking, I responded: “I’m looking for wellness.”

“Aren’t we all?” he asked.

Archabbey’s History

St. Meinrad was a Benedictine hermit and martyr who died in the mid-ninth century at the hands of two robbers who clubbed him to death thinking he might have valuable treasures. The story goes that his last breath, as the soul left his body, filled the room with a sweet aroma.

On the site where he lived in what is now Switzerland, his brother monks later founded a monastery, Einsiedeln Abbey. Nearly 900 years after the monastery was consecrated, a priest in the middle part of the United States reached out to the monastic community. He needed priests to help minister to the German-speaking settlers in southern Indiana.

In 1854, the monks from Einsiedeln, Switzerland, established St. Meinrad in order to meet the spiritual needs of the local population, as well as to form the men in the area who were interested in becoming priests. Soon after they arrived, the Benedictines set up a high school and began educating the area’s youth. In 1861, they expanded their educational efforts to include undergraduate courses in theology and philosophy.

With 123 seminarians from nearly 30 dioceses and 10 religious communities, St. Meinrad is one of the largest seminaries in the United States, and its monastic community is thriving, with 90 brothers living in the monastery.

Ongoing Formation

The formation of priests at St. Meinrad doesn’t stop on the graduates’ ordination day. Since 2004, the school’s Institute for Priests and Presbyterates, according to its website, “aims to help priests sharpen their skills for more effective ministry and to keep both priests and presbyterates holy, healthy and effective in various ministry settings and stages of life.”

St. Meinrad offers programs and workshops that range from helping newly ordained priests transition into parish ministry, to preparation for the responsibilities of being a pastor, to helping retired priests find new meaning and new direction in their priestly vocation, to assisting international priests assimilate into the culture of the Church in the United States.

For those who are in the heart of their service years, the institute offers a four-week sabbatical program meant to help priests take a break from the rigors of their daily lives while they recharge their bodies and their minds. The mission of the sabbatical, as reflected by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “The Basic Plan for Ongoing Formation of Diocesan Priests,” is to get middle-aged priests to refocus on their physical and psychological well-being, ministerial and pastoral responsibilities, as well as where they stand in their spiritual lives.

“The overall goal,” according to the bishops’ document, “is not to remedy or conquer midlife but to let it be a season of grace, a time of greater integration, another passage that leads to fuller transformation in the Lord and greater communion with him and with others.”

While other formation programs might gloss over the physical needs of priests at midlife, taking care of both body and mind is an area of special concern at St. Meinrad, said Joseph Cook, director of programing within the Institute for Priests and Presbyterates.

“It’s really about stewardship,” Cook said. “Stewardship is about taking care of what we’ve been given to us by God. It’s the entire Christian missionary discipleship. It’s not only a wholeness of mind and spirit, but it’s also a wellness of body.”

‘If You Build It’

The emphasis on wellness at St. Meinrad originally was not motived by the desire to have a healthier community of seminarians, monks and employees but by the need to have a trimmer bottom line. Looking for ways to keep health care costs under control in the mid-1990s, the leadership team instituted a program that rewarded its co-workers for meeting wellness goals. But as the program evolved, it became a double blessing.

Ann Rohleder, director of health services who has been at St. Meinrad for 18 years, said early on the program didn’t gain much traction on campus.

“It wasn’t growing with the times,” she said. “There were a handful of us who were actively trying to lead a healthful life, and we saw a big need to have a more robust health and fitness program, so I approached one of the nurses and said, ‘What if we build a gym? Just start small and you could work with the monks a couple days a week.’ She said, ‘No way; they won’t come.’ And I said, ‘Build it, and they will come.’ And they did.”

A room in the bowels of the archabbey that started with an elliptical machine, a treadmill and some free weights has grown into a full-scale fitness center. “We just kept adding to it, piece by piece,” Rohleder said.

But the biggest addition, Rohleder said, wasn’t in a piece of equipment. A few years ago, wellness coordinator Jill Memmer came to St. Meinrad two or three days a week. Rohleder said the two of them saw a need to expand that position, even though she thought it would “be like pulling teeth” to get the archabbey leadership to hire Memmer full-time. “She and I together wrote up a proposal, and much to my surprise, they bought it. And she’s really taken the program to the next level.”

Focus on Fitness

Monthly calendars that show the scheduled wellness activities hang on bulletin boards and are taped to walls across campus. All are welcome to participate, from seminarians to monks to St. Meinrad’s more than 250 employees. These calendars are Memmer’s doing, and they show the dates and times of everything from when flu shots are available to when and where health services will be checking blood pressure. It also shows the slate of fitness classes for the month, taught by Memmer, who is a certified exercise physiologist. Classes include yoga, Tabata strength training, step aerobics, stability ball workouts and even Frisbee golf.

At St. Meinrad, the archabbey’s oldest residents aren’t forgotten about, as Memmer regularly leads low-intensity exercise classes for monks in their 80s and 90s in the monastery’s infirmary.

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Brother Lorenzo Peñalosa, OSB, works out with a group at St. Meinrad. Courtesy photo

Other Memmer initiatives include the “On the Hill” 5K for the St. Meinrad family that is held in September and a “snack shop” set up in the wellness area that is stocked with low-calorie, high-fiber, portion-controlled foods that gives the community healthy alternatives to normal vending-machine staples.

“If I can help one person every day, I feel I have accomplished my personal mission,” Memmer said. “Christ has blessed me with the opportunity to help others physically, mentally and spiritually grow within themselves to be the best person they can be …. When you take care of yourself, you have the energy and stamina to help others and be a good steward for Christ.”

‘Tremendous Blessing’

Father Noel Mueller, the formation dean at St. Meinrad Seminary, doesn’t look his 74 years. It’s clear he’s familiar with the fitness center, partly by choice and partly out of necessity. The braces on his legs and the crutches he carries around are reminders of being struck with polio as a child growing up in nearby Louisville, Kentucky.

“If you go down there at six in the morning, it’s generally packed,” Father Mueller said of the gym during an interview in a common area outside of his office. Father Mueller turns to a seminarian from the Diocese of Burlington, Vermont, sitting at a table awaiting an appointment, and asks the young man if he ever goes to the fitness center.

“Occasionally,” the seminarian said.

“Oh, just occasionally?” Father Mueller said with the tone of a longtime professor. “Regularly is how it’s supposed to work.”

His voice booms, and his laugh is loud and easy. He goes regularly. And he talks about how convenient the wellness staff has made fitness. Years ago, before it was torn down because of its poor physical condition, the school gymnasium was a bit of a hike. But now, the new fitness center is essentially in the basement of the seminary. Father Mueller turns back to the young seminarian for another lecture: “You have no excuse! All you have to do is go downstairs!”

“Needless to say, I go down with the other seniors to work out with Jill [Memmer]. As a polio victim, I have to really limit my work to upper body, which is very important to me now, because I’m going to depend upon it someday. We do stretching as well, but there’s also a lot of what I call ‘psychological fitness,’ because Jill is so entertaining. We do a lot of laughing and a lot of talking.”

Across from Father Mueller, eased into one of the leather chairs that sinks a little too deep — nobody is sure how long it will take us all to extract ourselves from them — is Father Barnabus Gillespie, a 69-year-old brother who came to St. Meinrad in 1971 by way of Cincinnati. Father Gillespie has diabetes and some balance issues that have caused him to fall into a handful of injuries.

“I’ve struggled with my health,” he said, laughing that he and Father Mueller, whose polio crutches are resting nearby, are representing the St. Meinrad community for a story about health and fitness. But he is thankful for the wellness staff and the work they do for those living and working on the hill.

“We have such great health care here,” Father Gillespie said. “They really know what to do and how to advise us. We have nurses on staff and a doctor that comes in one day a week. For me to be able to have most of my needs taken care of here, without having to go somewhere else, is a tremendous blessing.”

Stewards of Body and Mind

At St. Meinrad, the emphasis on health and fitness starts from the top down — God, first and foremost, but also Archabbot Father Kurt Stasiak and other members of the leadership team.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into the abbot in the hallway, and he’s in a T-shirt and gym shorts either going to or coming from an exercise class with a towel slung over his shoulder,” said Mary Jeanne Schumacher, director of communications. “The leadership has really bought in.”

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A view of the Archabbey Church at St. Meinrad in St. Meinrad, Ind. Photo by Scott Warden

Unlike those whom you’d find at the local health club or fitness center, everyone at St. Meinrad who spoke to The Priest carried with them a clear sense of perspective and mission regarding the archabbey’s health initiatives. Getting fit isn’t about vanity. It’s not about looking better in a Benedictine habit or priestly vestments.

“Everything we have is God’s gift to us, including our own bodies,” Schumacher said. “If we don’t take care of that, then we’re not respecting that gift and aren’t using that gift to its ultimate potential. It’s just as important to keep yourself physically fit as it is spiritually and mentally fit. You simply cannot do as good a job in ministry or in whatever vocation you’ve chosen if you aren’t a whole person. You have to take care of yourself before you can go out and take care of others. That’s really driven home here. It’s part of the formation.”

Bishop John E. Stowe, OFM Conv., of the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky, has seen the formation of his priests at St. Meinrad firsthand and appreciates that their physical well-being is being tended to along with their spiritual, intellectual and pastoral well-being.

The Church’s guidelines as to what constitutes healthy formation of priests pertains not only to seminarians but to all clergy — from the newly ordained to middle-aged priests needing a sabbatical to retired priests still looking to bring people closer to Christ.

“I think St. Meinrad is a good example of a place that really knows the men as who they are and doesn’t try to force them into a mold of what a priest is. They draw out the best of them and try to conform that into the example of Christ,” Bishop Stowe said.

“Wellness is important to being good ministers, and I think we should be good examples of what being sound of body and mind is all about. A healthy priest is going to be able to do a lot more to serve the faithful and to serve God.”

Scott Warden is associate editor for content at Our Sunday Visitor.

Brother in Training
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Brother Nathaniel Szidik  Courtesy photo
When he was a sophomore in high school, Brother Nathaniel Szidik visited St. Meinrad Archabbey for the first time. While he enjoyed the visit with his classmates to the 150-year-old monastery in southern Indiana, he put the memory on a shelf and proceeded with the rest of his young life, occasionally dusting it off when the mood struck.