Sister Maribeth Wentzlaff

It was a year to the day of Sister Maribeth Wentzlaff’s installation as the fourteenth prioress of Sacred Heart Monastery in Yankton, South Dakota, and I felt blessed to be having a conversation with this remarkable woman! In addition to her six year term as prioress, she also serves on the board at Mount Marty College and co-chair of the sponsorship level for Avera. I had been acquainted with Sister Maribeth through seeing her occasionally at Mount Marty and at various monastery/church events, and been a former student in one of the Rule of Benedict classes she’d previously taught at the college. I had never had a one-on-one conversation with her though, and was struck by her genuine love, knowledge and ability to share her inspiring experiences! Her happy personality and frequent laughter made our time together go swiftly.

Most Catholic nuns wear some sort of cross, or crucifix as jewelry, but Sister Maribeth sported a beautiful, golden anchor instead. She also has another silver one she received during a special trip to Rome, this emblem is ancient and was found in the catacombs. When asked what it signified she said, “It’s the Christian symbol for hope. It reminds me to stay anchored in Christ. When I’m floating all around, he’s the one that holds me steady.” She feels this symbol of hope is representative of her belief and hope for religious life and everything in general. The anchor is also the motif used when she made her final vows. This included the very fitting psalm from Isaiah 40, v. 31, “Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint.”

Sister Maribeth has been a prominent personality at Mount Marty College and Sacred Heart Monastery for more than two decades. Born in Huron, and raised in Miller, South Dakota, Sister Maribeth initially thought she’d attend college in Huron as her siblings had, due to the close proximity to family, its good financial aid package and overall convenience. After she visited it though, she knew that “it was just not a right fit at all. Something in my heart just wasn’t right.” She was referred by her priest in Miller, Father Donald Molumby, “to check out Mount Marty College.” He specifically mentioned visiting the monastery next door too. Maribeth’s family faithfully attended church and followed Benedictine traditions, such as praying together at breakfast before school every morning. These Benedictine values served the young woman well in acclimating to life at a Catholic Benedictine college.

That first college visit in 1984 was especially memorable, because there had been torrential amounts of rain. It was flooding all over Yankton, and the campus was under water as well. The tour was especially interesting to Sister Maribeth, because she went to all the different buildings by way of the underground tunnels that networked throughout the grounds. After the tour at Mount Marty, however she described feeling something different that was special, and unlike what she felt at the prior college. The atmosphere felt warm, inviting, and like home to her. Even though she didn’t have a car and was three hours from home, Sister Maribeth decided to attend Mount Marty. It was a little bit of a hardship at first, since this was her first time away from home, but she soon had a “huge group of friends that hung out together all the time. It was like a built in support system.” These friends remained tight throughout their college years.

Being born the youngest into a family with two older brothers, and two older sisters, Sister Maribeth felt certain she’d follow their footsteps of “getting married, and have twelve kids” of her own, but God had other plans. During her freshman year at Mount Marty she was invited by Sister Martin to attend a retreat at the monastery. At first she declined, but a persistent Sister Martin said, “Now don’t say no so fast.” So the then eighteen year old hesitantly agreed to go, but only if she could bring some friends. In all a dozen classmates accompanied her the first time! Her thought was, “There was safety in numbers” she relates with a chortle. This was a wonderful retreat because it brought Sister Maribeth and her college roommate, who had been “fighting like cats and dogs” so much closer, and they actually stayed up late every night of the retreat talking and became really good friends by the end.

In Sister Maribeth’s sophomore year she attended another retreat after feeling deeply shaken by the unexpected death of her good friend, Father John; the priest for the college and monastery at the time. Again Sister Martin reached out to Sister Maribeth, saying that she knew the death had been hard on her, and going to the retreat might give her some time to help her sort out her feelings about this loss. This time she brought only six others along however.

Through her increasing exposure to campus ministry and activities at the monastery such as these annual retreats and involvement with the implementation of the Prayer Partner Program in her junior year, the young student felt herself becoming more and more drawn to living a sacred life at the monastery. She learned that the nuns at the monastery were real people too, people who played cards, prayed together, ate together, and shared their lives together.

“They were joyful, just joyful!”

While feeling a constant pull towards the monastery, Sister Maribeth was also often uncertain. She remembers a pivotal moment after leaving a retreat where she literally had one foot in the door entering a campus building towards her dorm, and the other outside, between the monastery and the college.

She mentally vacillated and appealed to God, “If this is what I’m supposed to be doing please give me a sign.”

One sign came soon after, during her sophomore year. She was engaged in a guided meditation of sorts, as a part of a campus ministry activity. The participants were to imagine themselves climbing up a mountain and that Jesus was with them. Sister Maribeth recalled how she actually felt like she was struggling to get up that mountain towards the end, and that Jesus took her hand and helped her succeed in making it to the top. Once there she implored him, “Jesus, what am I supposed to do with my life?” His answer was inequivicable, “I want you to do my work here on Earth and follow me.” She understood clearly what he meant. Sister Maribeth tried being exceptionally busy in her junior year to focus on campus life and participating in numerous activities thinking it would prevent her from having time to get seriously involved with the monastery, but in her downtime and even in quiet moments while studying, she would still find herself thinking about the monastery. In her junior year she made her final decision.

In August 1987, her junior year in college, she became a postulant and lived at the monastery while completing college and doing her student teaching in English at Yankton High School. Her  cooperating teacher was Donna Fisher, whom she credits for being an inspiration for excellent teaching. “She was amazing, she just loved the students, and showed me how it was more than just about showing up and doing your job. It was about loving the people you were working with too.” Soon after graduating she became a novice and started working in Sioux Falls at O’Gorman High School teaching English and being campus minister from 1990-1996. It was during her tenure where one of her many fun side activities, was being included in the C.L.O.W.N. ministry: Children Learn Other Ways Naturally, which involved working with children and teaching them about the perils of drugs. It was on her birthday, January 16th, 1990 that she made her first vows.

In 2015 Sister Maribeth celebrated her twenty fifth year silver jubilee.

After returning to Yankton from Sioux Falls, Sister Maribeth worked at Mount Marty College in various positions such as residence life director, director of campus ministry, mission director, and also taught a class called the Wisdom of Saint Benedict. She developed many strong and lasting friendships during her time working at Mount Marty from 1996, until being elected to succeed Sister Penny Bingham as prioress. The nuns of the monastery pray for a full year prior to the election time for God to let them know the right sister for the job. Action plans and goals for the next six years are also set during this time. A leader is chosen based on a vote that can help them meet their objectives. The role of the prioress is to serve as the figure of Christ for the monastic community, and a corporate witness or main spokesperson also. This is a commitment that keeps Sister Maribeth extremely busy, since there are many meetings and activities to attend to.

The Benedictine sisters not only work hard and pray often. Play and celebration are import aspects of monastery life too. One way Sister Maribeth celebrates life, is with her passion for fishing. It didn’t come naturally at first though. She gives credit for her conversion to her brother; Brad. Her whole family loved to go fishing, but at age three, little Maribeth “didn’t like to because she was freaked out by bugs, and she was afraid of them”. Her siblings would have to take turns sitting with her in the car, while the others fished. Finally her brother had enough and said “This is ridiculous! You’re going to sit by me and I’ll show you how to fish. You can get over your fear of bugs.” He worked with his sister patiently, and she was permanently hooked when she caught her first fish that day. Once her parents retired and moved to Yankton, they still enjoyed fishing with their youngest daughter.

“Good old fashion bait” is preferred over lures, and she sometimes uses minnows. Sister Maribeth keeps the ones big enough to eat. She cleans and fillets them herself.

“The trick to keeping them fresh, is to freeze the fillets in water. Once we have enough frozen fish saved up, we have a fish fry at the monastery.”

A few years ago she caught an award winning master Angler Bass due to its length of nineteen inches in Yankton on the river. Sister Maribeth had many fishing buddies, Sister Nancy, Sister Pierre, Sister Ritamary and Sister Marie Helene who have since passed on, but is quick to recount happy memories.

Among the many life changing experiences that touched Sister Maribeth deeply, the fire in 1997 which destroyed part of the monastery showcased the love the Yankton community and college students had for the Sacred Heart sisters. It was a bitterly cold February night, and the nuns were gathered in the chapel to see who was unaccounted for, while the firefighters put out the blaze. There was no time to put on a coat or grab a blanket. When the students in the residence hall were alerted to what was happening, huge piles of coats and jackets were instantly provided. “It was so touching to see a ninety year old nun in a baseball jacket.” Later, many donations were made to help the sisters in the short term while they were temporarily housed at the Human Services Center in Yankton. During the five weeks the monastery was under reconstruction Sister Maribeth learned firsthand that “things aren’t important, people are. You can always replace just about anything else.” The sum total of her belongings that survived the fire fit in a small, cardboard box. She recalls how many students later told her how very “eerie it was to have it dark at the monastery next door. The lights had always been on and shining brightly, but with the building dark and vacant, “it felt like their angels were gone.”

The sisters of Sacred Heart Monastery truly are the angels of both Avera Hospital and the Mount Marty campus’. They are blessings to the city of Yankton as well. Their purpose is to be a prayerful presence that continues the mission and ministry of Jesus as a teacher and healer. One of the newly appointed prioress’ first tasks is to adopt a new theme of the year for the monastery. Sister Maribeth chose “Look to God that you may be radiant with joy,” based from Psalm 34 v.5, because it describes her attitude towards life. This fits perfectly with the monastery’s Benedictine theology as well. Sister Maribeth radiates a natural, infectious enthusiasm that exudes happiness. The next five years of her term, are certain to be successful beyond belief. With Sister Maribeth at the helm anything is possible!