Sister Cornelia Gust, OSB
Sister Cornelia Gust: Prayer and work through celebrations, challenges
By Sister Denise Schonhardt, OSB
Sister Cornelia Gust was the oldest girl of the children of Julia and George Gust. She and her siblings grew up on a farm near Tabor, Minnesota, where they learned the importance of work and prayer.
After graduating from Sacred Heart High School in East Grand Forks, Sister Cornelia attended a training school to prepare her for teaching in a country school which she did before entering Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. She later graduated from Clark College in Dubuque, Iowa.
Sister Cornelia taught all levels of education from elementary grades through college; worked with high school girls at Mount Saint Benedict Academy; helped young women seeking to become finally professed sisters; directed spirituality programs and served as a spiritual director.
Upon becoming prioress, Sister Cornelia was certain of one thing: the sisters had elected her to be their spiritual leader. Sister Cornelia was determined to lead the community with emphasis on holiness, wholeness and integration of prayer and service.
During her term, Benedictines celebrated 1,500 years since the birth of Saints Benedict and Scholastica. The celebration had three facets. The first was – at the suggestion of The Congress of Benedictine Abbots – in preparation for the celebration, communities began to re-energize their commitment to monastic values through study of the Rule of Benedict. The Benedictine Sisters of Crookston responded by studying the themes of the Rule to come to a consensus on the values found in the Rule of Benedict and key issues facing the community. The sisters at the Mount opened the celebration on the feast of Saint Scholastica (twin sister of Saint Benedict) on February 10, 1980. It was, as Sister Cornelia said, “a wonderful opportunity to realize the wealth of what it means to be Benedictine.”
The second facet of celebrating the anniversary happened when hundreds of Benedictines from Minnesota and surrounding states gathered at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict to hear presentations and share insights about Benedictine values.
The third facet of the celebration occurred when Sister Cornelia convened the monastic community in a life chapter (meeting of all professed members) in which the sisters considered resolutions related to the meaning of Benedictine life, criteria for ministry, social needs in the contemporary world, religious formation, interpersonal relationships, personal growth and prayer. By the end of the chapter, the sisters endorsed 18 resolutions to prioritize during the following year.
During this time of celebration, challenges continued to face the community. One of those challenges was Mount Saint Benedict Academy. Enrollment fell from a peak of 315 students to about 160 in 1977. In 1982, despite efforts of the sisters, the diocese and local Catholic parishes, the school closed, ending more than 70 years of Catholic secondary education in Crookston. This was especially poignant because many of the sisters had graduated from the Mount.
The closing of Mount Saint Benedict Academy brought the challenge of how to use both the high school building and Marian Hall Residence. Marian Hall was used for ministry programs, retreats, workshops and meetings and living accommodations for an increasing number of retired and semi-retired sisters. The classroom building remained vacant for three years before being sold to Cathedral Parish to be used as a grade school.
While Mount Saint Benedict Academy struggled, the healthcare ministry also needed attention. Three healthcare institutions were leased to American Healthcare Management for a period of nine years. Experience with AHM varied in the different institutions. After realizing the sisters did not have the expertise to address the challenges facing the healthcare industry, they terminated sponsorship of the healthcare institutions. The community would continue to sponsor Villa Saint Vincent in Crookston and the Warren Dental Clinic.
Internally, the sisters began experimenting with small group living. Small groups of sisters began living in the former chaplain’s residence and Mary Mount Farm. Another aspect of small group living at the Mount was the formation of small groups for recreation, prayer and study.
The sisters chose to share their life by establishing an Oblate program which grew quickly. Oblates share in Benedictine values to the extent that their way of life permits.
Sister Cornelia’s term ended on August 6, 1985, when Sister Joan LaCoursiere was installed. After she left office Sister Cornelia studied for one year at the Institute of Creation and Culture Spirituality at Holy Names College in Oakland, California. She then became the director of the Spiritual Leadership program at Benedictine Center in Beech Grove, Indiana. In 1991, she returned to the Mount as a retreat and spiritual director. Throughout her life Sister Cornelia took seriously Saint Benedict’s teaching of “Ora et Labora” (prayer and work).