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Early science laboratory at the College of Saint Benedict

Science at the College of Saint Benedict

In 1913, the community of the Benedictine women in St. Joseph, MN founded College of Saint Benedict  a women’s college that has flourished for over 100 years. One of four Catholic women's colleges in Minnesota at that time. This required sisters to finish college degrees and go beyond to obtain advanced degrees. This exhibit focuses on the Sisters in the Order of Saint Benedict who studied science - Biology, Chemistry, and Physics, featuring sisters who obtained advanced degrees.

Education and educating women was not new to the Benedictine sisters, staffing parish and boarding schools. It established St. Benedict’s Academy in 1883, a boarding "finishing" high school for women. 

Science was integral in the curriculum at St. Benedict's Academy and the College. The course catalog lists science in later grades. The women learned science from a text, "First Lessons in Natural Philosophy" by Dr. Joseph Martindale (1881), which covered topics of light, heat, air, and water in a question-and-answer format. From the college's founding, the College of Saint Benedict offered vocation-specific courses in home economics (later dietetics and nutrition), teaching, and business to help women in different professions. While few of the sisters had experience with higher education, they moved quickly to obtain degrees to be one step ahead of the students. In earlier times, sisters taught grade school with very little education.

As the women established the College, the sisters played multiple roles throughout the year, teaching lay students during the school year and teaching sisters and teachers during the summer while maintaining their religious obligations. From 1913 to the present, around forty sisters at St. Benedict's Monastery obtained degrees in the sciences (biology, chemistry, and physics). The sisters navigated a religious life along with teaching science. This number does not include a few women who studied science and left the community or religious women from other monasteries who came to the college to study science.  Many of the sisters also held leadership positions within the college and monastery. 

Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict, St. Joseph, Minnesota. Used with permission.

Science at the College of Saint Benedict