Benedictine Nuns Get Out of Deadwood Deadwood, S.D., is losing a part of its heritage that might not immediately spring to mind. The iconic Wild West town and "gambling capital of the Black Hills" is saying goodbye to its last two Benedictine nuns. Many residents are sorry to see the sisters go.
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Benedictine Nuns Get Out of Deadwood

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Benedictine Nuns Get Out of Deadwood

Benedictine Nuns Get Out of Deadwood

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The last Benedictine nuns to serve Deadwood, South Dakota retired this month, leaving the South Dakota gambling town without their presence for the first time in more than a century. Jim Kent visited with Sisters Grace and Maureen at St. Martin Monastery, their new home 30 miles away in Rapid City.

JIM KENT: Tradition says that on any given day, Deadwood's narrow streets were filled with gunslingers, gamblers, gold prospectors, women of questionable character, and Catholic nuns. That's right. Benedictine nuns road into town from Switzerland in 1898 in the wake of they typhoid epidemic, established St. Joseph's Hospital, and never left. Well, at least not until this year.

Sister GRACE SCHMIDT(ph) (Benedictine Nun, South Dakota): At first when we heard that we were going to be moved, it was really quite a shock to us.

KENT: That's Sister Grace Schmidt.

Sister GRACE: We both felt very sad about that, because it would take away our ministry, which we will not get here.

KENT: At 90, she's been a Benedictine for more than 70 years. But St. Martin Monastery decided it was time for the nuns to leave Deadwood, due to their ages and a lack of funding. They're still happy to be in the service of the church, but would rather be back in Deadwood caring for patients at the local hospital, offering religious education, and teaching English to immigrant workers in the local casinos.

Sister Maureen has spent 50 of her 88 years as a nun. Like Sister Grace, she's sorry to leave Deadwood, but notes that parishioners from St. Ambrose Catholic Church will be taking over the nuns' responsibilities.

Sister MAUREEN (Benedictine Nun, St. Martin's Monastery): They were very helpful to us when we were there. And so they - we feel like they can be depended upon to try to carry on the work.

KENT: But they are not nuns.

Sister MAUREEN: No, none of them are nuns. Lay people can never fill the positions that we did.

KENT: Especially in a town known as the gambling capital of the Black Hills. Phyllis Schoenfelder has been a member of Deadwood's Catholic parish for 50 years. She says the nuns' presence is sorely needed.

Ms. PHYLLIS SCHOENFELDER (Deadwood Resident): To help our children. The children need help nowadays. Don't you know that? I would say they have no place to go, no place to have any entertainment. It's all gambling. Religion has to keep us in order. I mean, we need - oh, we need a lot of that.

KENT: The city will still have its church, and Father Kerry Prendiville, the local priest. But a lot of people say it just won't be the same without the Benedictine nuns. Elmer Allen has opened doors as a casino greeter for 13 years.

Mr. ELMER ALLEN (Casino Greeter): It's part of the heritage. Yeah, really. I go by - come to work and I go by that church and I always think of them when I - yeah.

KENT: To see what a contribution the Benedictine nuns have made, you don't have to look further than Mayor Francis Toscana. Sister Grace was in the delivery room when he was born.

Mayor FRANCIS TOSCANA (Deadwood, South Dakota): It's left a void in our community and in our parish, in particular. Sister Maureen had a real social conscience, if you will. So she kind of looked out for the people that, you know, are less fortunate.

KENT: And taking care of the less fortunate is exactly what inspired Sister Maureen to become a nun.

Sister MAUREEN: I thought, oh, I would like to be like Sister Genevieve. She was my teacher when I began in high school. The sisters give us such good example, and they took such good care of us, were so interested in helping us.

KENT: It seems that gambling and the Catholic church are here to stay in Deadwood, with or without the Benedictine nuns. But the two elderly sisters who brought a sense of stability to this gambling town will be missed, both in the local church and in the casinos.

(Soundbite of slot machines)

KENT: For NPR News, I'm Jim Kent in Deadwood, South Dakota.

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