Benedictine Sister Eleanor Mueller: A Holy Spirit-filled leader
By Sister Denise Schonhardt, OSB
Born Jan. 14, 1923, in Mahnomen, Minnesota, Eleanor Katharine was the second of 14 children in the family of John and Elizabeth (Illies) Mueller. Eleanor graduated from Cathedral High School in Crookston while living at Mount Saint Benedict. She entered the Sisters of Saint Benedict, and when invested in the Benedictine habit, she received her baptismal name as the one she would be known as a sister.
Sister Eleanor was known as an outstanding educator. She taught in the schools in Rosen, Minnesota, and Lefor, North Dakota, at Sacred Heart High School, East Grand Forks and as principal and teacher at Mount Saint Benedict Academy, Crookston, for 16 years. She prefected boarding students at the Mount, directed the vocation and initial religious formation programs and worked as Director of Maintenance and Purchasing at the Mount while serving terms on the sisters’ council, the planning committee and the staff of the ministry school at Mount Saint Benedict Center.
In 1989, the Crookston Benedictines chose Sister Eleanor to serve as the eighth prioress of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery, a position she held for four years. Sister Eleanor had absolute trust in the Holy Spirit and she promoted a discernment model of leadership, one that built consensus.
In October 1991, unexpected developments faced the community. An architectural and engineering firm employed to monitor the condition of the 70-year-old original Mount building reported that the structure was unsafe due to shifting soils under the four-story masonry building. They recommended reinforcing the west wall within 30 days and making plans for evacuating the building. It meant relocating the healthcare unit housing about 25 sisters in varying levels of nursing care, Corbett Library, the archives, and heritage room, about 10 offices, besides the bakery, cannery, and five gathering spaces. To where? As the realization of the critical situation sank in, Sister Eleanor felt utterly devastated. “I wanted to sit down and weep!”
Steel supports, placed in the dining room temporarily propped up the west section of the building, but the shifting persisted at a slower rate, continuing the danger of a catastrophic collapse.
Sister Eleanor called a special meeting of all the sisters to inform them of the condition of the building. This was only the first of many meetings during which the sisters discerned the options for the future. One of the key issues revolved around the chapel. If the chapel were kept many challenges would have to be overcome. As the time for decision-making drew near, Sister Eleanor asked the sisters to pray daily for God’s blessing on the endeavor. After two days of discernment, the sisters decided to demolish the chapel and the original monastery building to make space for a building that incorporated a chapel, library, living spaces, archives, and administrative offices.
Immediately after the decision was made, plans were made to sell the furnishings of the original monastery and chapel. After plans for the new building were made and revised, bids were finally submitted.
Days of excitement were interspersed with ones of regret as the ancient oak trees were cut down, the organ dismantled and stored, the chapel stripped of its furnishings and fixtures – woodwork, marble altar and lectern, and lights – almost everything except the flooring. Even the roof was stripped of tile and timber, and birds flew freely in and out of vacant windows. At last, on a cool day in April, sisters gathered on the lawn to pray and ritualize their farewell to Sacred Heart Chapel.
Under the leadership of Sister Denise Schonhardt, the development office began a fundraising campaign inviting people to assist the sisters. People reacted with great generosity, and the sisters responded through handwritten, personalized messages of gratitude and prayer for every donor.
Even before the dust from demolition had settled, the promise of new life appeared as the framework of a new one-story wing began to rise under her discerned guidance. Sister Eleanor took the occasion to remind her sisters of the significance of the building project. “As we watch the old give way to the new, we are reminded that we too are in need of constant renewal. . .”
Near the end of her term, Sister Eleanor informed the community that she would not accept a nomination for a second term. Throughout the final year of her term, she had suffered debilitating pain. At a day of appreciation, her sub-prioress, Sister Lenore Paschke, listed 33 projects that had been initiated, directed or completed by Sister Eleanor.
On August 5, 1993, she passed the leadership of the community into the hands of her successor, Sister Michelle McGurran.
Following the end of her term, Sister Eleanor went to live at Holy Rosary Convent in Detroit Lakes for three years. When she returned to Crookston, she lived at Saint Francis Convent until she moved to the Mount.
In her final address to the community as prioress, Sister Eleanor reminded her sisters: “We will not be remembered for our buildings or the beauty of our charism statement. We will be remembered by how well we did or did not live out what we profess to be, how well we truly live by the Spirit.” Sister Eleanor modeled for the sisters what it meant to live by the Spirit.