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In the Spirit: Holy Wisdom Monastery now off-limits to Catholic priests

In the Spirit: Holy Wisdom Monastery now off-limits to Catholic priests

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Holy Wisdom Monastery

The Holy Wisdom Monastery building.

Bishop Robert Morlino is continuing to put more distance between the Madison Catholic Diocese and Holy Wisdom Monastery, a former Catholic monastery on the outskirts of Madison that is now a non-Catholic ecumenical retreat center.

In the latest development, Morlino is now prohibiting priests in the diocese from “attendance or participation at all events held at Holy Wisdom Monastery and all events sponsored or co-sponsored by Holy Wisdom Monastery or the Benedictine Women of Madison,” according to a March 7 letter to priests leaked to the State Journal.

A February visit to the monastery by Sister Simone Campbell, an outspoken, progressive Catholic nun, appeared to be the final straw for Morlino.

The monastery, in the town of Westport on the northwest side of Lake Mendota, once was a Catholic high school for girls run by Benedictine nuns. After the school closed in 1966, the nuns turned the site into an ecumenical retreat center, offering a place of hospitality to a wide range of people and groups.

In 2000, the monastic Catholic sisters at the site welcomed a Protestant woman to live with them, a move that led them to seek independence from the Catholic Church. The Vatican approved their request in 2006. The monastery is now managed by the Benedictine Women of Madison, an ecumenical community led by Sister Mary David Walgenbach, who is Catholic.

Morlino’s action highlights a longstanding beef some Catholics, especially those who are more tradition-minded, have with the monastery. The monastery’s worship services, they say, retain so many elements of a Mass that unsuspecting Catholics could be duped into thinking the services are valid representations of Catholic teaching. This is especially worrisome, they say, because the worship services diverge from church doctrine in profound ways, such as allowing women to preach and embracing the relationships of gay couples.

“Holy Wisdom Monastery is perhaps best known among local Catholics for substantive rejection of the Catholic faith, so I would think priests or sisters should know they are not sending a good message if they attend events there,” said Elizabeth Durack of Madison, who attends the Cathedral Parish in Downtown Madison and has been vocal in encouraging “faithful Catholics” not to attend activities at the monastery.

The monastery’s worship services, while attended by people from many Christian backgrounds, have become particularly popular among liberal Catholics and those displeased with Morlino.

Morlino, in his letter to priests, said it was his duty “to protect the integrity and unity of the faith.” There “is a grave potential for scandal and confusion among the faithful, owing to Holy Wisdom Monastery’s status as a former Catholic monastery,” he wrote.

Diocesan spokesman Brent King said no single incident or priest precipitated the bishop’s decree; however, King said, publicity surrounding Campbell’s Feb. 14 appearance at the monastery “brought more attention to a Catholic giving an address at a former Catholic monastery” and “added to the ongoing confusion.”

Campbell led the “Nuns on the Bus” campaign last year in opposition to Janesville Congressman Paul Ryan’s federal budget proposal, which she viewed as detrimental to the country’s social safety net. Her February appearance at the monastery was sponsored by the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin.

Among those at the event was the Rev. Stephen Umhoefer, pastor of Nativity of Mary Catholic Church in Janesville, who gave the benediction and spoke warmly of Campbell’s work. His parish is part of the Madison diocese, and he is a diocesan priest. He declined comment.

Walgenbach also declined to comment. In the past, she and others at the monastery have said they do not consider themselves less Catholic because of their ecumenism. “The Catholic spirituality is bigger than the Roman Catholic Church,” Walgenbach told me last year.

You can reach reporter Doug Erickson at or 608-252-6149.


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