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Pax Priory Imagines its Next 50 Years in the City

Photo 1: Front view of St. Benedict Center. Pax Priory is on the third floor.

In 1972, Benedictine Sister Mary Lou Kownacki had a vision of bringing the charism of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie beyond the walls of the monastery and into the city. With the support of her monastic community , Sister Mary Lou started Pax Center– a living community in the city of Erie, Pennsylvania dedicated to nonviolence.  For twenty-five years, sisters and lay people served the needs of the city, welcoming the stranger at the door in need of food, shelter, or support. 

During that first era of Pax Center, the community responded to needs that they encountered–beginning a soup kitchen in 1974 that continues as Emmaus Ministries and includes the soup kitchen, food pantry, and other services that provide a more sustainable response to the needs of the city than a doorbell ministry ever could. Pax members created movements for peace and justice that helped shape the thinking of the larger community. As the services and witness provided by Pax became more mainstream and as the community demographic shifted, so has the Pax community itself changed. There are fewer residents now, and they now share three floors of the building with the Benedictine community’s daycare center. Instead of welcoming the stranger at the door like in the early days of the Center, each resident goes out to meet the needs of the city directly where they are. “Internally at Pax we don’t hold that ministry for the city in the way that they did in the seventies, but those ministries continue on their own,” reflects Pax resident Katie Gordon. “Now each of us individually are involved in Benedictine ministries or in local spiritual community, and each of us individually is committed in our own ways and we share the rhythm of life that sustains us to keep doing that work.”

Pax Priory community dinner. Photo courtesy of Katie Gordon.

Currently, there are four women living in the walls of the Priory, ranging in age from 33 to 88. Two of the Pax residents are professed Benedictine Sisters, one is an Oblate of the Benedictines, and one identifies as a seeker. Katie comments on the make-up of the Priory: “there’s this mix of sisters, oblates, and seekers coming through the space and I think it’s a good sign. We are not all necessarily professed sisters but still longing for a community structure to our lives. There is a hunger for this space to exist. The fact that we’re here is (I hope) a hospitality to seekers around the neighborhood or city as well– not only those of us who live here.” 

She adds, “If Pax Priory had a ministry, it would be hospitality for seekers. The gift of a place like Pax or community like this is giving people time and space to connect with Spirit. That’s all it is– time and space.” 

“If Pax Priory had a ministry, it would be hospitality for seekers.” Katie Gordon, Pax Resident

On any given day, friends will be passing through the Priory– some stay for a week, others just for a meal. But it is the hospitality of the residents and the sacred schedule that they keep that offers a moment of respite for seekers along the way. Katie reflects, “our priorities are centered in a different kind of way in the space- in a way that people find to be a gift.” From the twice daily pauses for communal prayer to the intentional meal schedule, the residents of Pax offer each other and guests an invitation to the Benedictine charism. Katie and Linda Romey, a Pax resident and Benedictine Sister, thoughtfully share that core Benedictine ministry is prayer and community. “Everything we do in the city is an outgrowth of our prayer and community. And  so it evolves as our prayer is evolving. Who are we praying for? Who are we sitting in community with? It is a fluid evolving way of understanding our charism, which is that it is going to be open to who is present to us in our prayer and in our community.” 

Given this understanding of charism, the residents live in a perpetual state of openness to the ways in which the Benedictine presence in the city can continue to evolve. From  supporting food sustainability, to new business models, from systems of accountability between neighbors to impact investing, there is no shortage of dreams of how to live into the future. The residents and the larger group of seekers in which they move are actively dreaming and visualizing the continual evolution of their presence in the city.

Residents Katie Gordon and Rosanne Lindal-Hynes, OSB before the 2020 election. Photo courtesy of Katie Gordon.

As Linda considers the role of the Pax in Erie, she reflects, “within the next five to seven years the Benedictine community of professed sisters is going to look really different. So I think it’s great that there’s potentially another way of living this life already at work in the wings. And that’s part of our work– seeing things, and getting enough of the vision out there for others to see it, too.” 

Katie adds, “Pax Center began as an experiment, and it continues as an experiment. It is an iterative process of becoming monastic community in the city of Erie. I think that’s the best way to understand Pax:  as an evolving, unfolding experiment.” And, fifty years since the experiment of Pax began, it is continuing to live into its purpose in the city of Erie. But however the need may evolve, and however the next iteration of the Pax comes to fruition, resident Priscilla expresses what all of the residents believe: 

“we will continue to know that it is holy to live here.”

Focus Questions

  1. Instead of welcoming the stranger at the door like in the early days of the Center, each resident goes out to meet the needs of the city directly where they are.” – How does your faith community go out to meet the needs of the people in your area?
  2. Pax Priory lives in a “perpetual state of openness” about their community’s charism of prayer and community. What would you say your faith community’s charism is? How has it evolved over time? How is your community ensuring your charism lives on into the future?

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