photo by Daniel Gomez-Ibanez

Sisters – the heart of the Holy Wisdom community

The Benedictine sisters who form the heart of this community come from a variety of Christian traditions. The OSB (Order of Saint Benedict) that follows our names stands for our commitment to live as Benedictine monastic women, following the Gospel and the Rule of Benedict. Holy Wisdom Monastery is our home and our Benedictine tradition touches every aspect of community life here, providing hospitality and welcome to all. While community life is essential to Benedictine spirituality, it also recognizes the uniqueness of the individual. Each sister has a story to tell about her journey to becoming a sister in this community.


After you meet the sisters by reading their stories, you may be interested in learn more about:



We welcome diversity among members, changing traditional boundaries to include Christian women of any denomination as full members. Within the community we live a practical ecumenism grounded in hospitality, listening, and service to one another, following the Rule of Benedict as a contemporary way of living the Gospel.

Sister Mary David Walgenbach, OSB

“Our ecumenical community is a daily reminder that in Christ we are one.”

marydavid_580 (1)Sister Mary David Walgenbach joined the Sisters of Saint Benedict following a call to religious life that grew steadily after high school graduation. Early on she took an active part in the community life and ecumenical ministries. She co-founded the Community of Benedict and the monastery’s oblate community, setting a path toward the dream of an ecumenical sisters’ community that became reality in 2006 as Benedictine Women of Madison. Sister Mary David has a lifetime involvement in interreligious gatherings, including the Bossey Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland and the World Council of Churches “Ecumenical Decade of the Churches’ Solidarity with Women” in Harare, Zimbabwe. She is currently prioress, guided daily by the desire to make the monastery an inclusive place for people of all faith traditions.

Sister Mary David shares her story:

“My friends didn’t think I’d last.”

After graduating from high school, I considered a call to become a sister. A year later, in nurse’s training, it became clearer to me that I needed to try this way of life. My friends didn’t think I’d last. My parents wanted me to wait until I graduated from nursing school. Amidst all the concern for my well-being, I took the train from Sioux City, Iowa, to Madison, Wisconsin, to join the community. Despite initial concerns, they soon realized it was the right place for me.

Mary David celebrating her 50th jubilee with friends and familyFaith is my response to God’s love in my life. It has changed over the years from my initial call to religious life. I rely more on God leading and supporting me than on doing it all my way. God takes me to the depths of my being and to the heights of my joy. Letting go and trusting God is the challenge for me on this roller coaster called life. Some days I do it well, and some days, I don’t.

Community life is my crucible: the place where I come to know myself and others. Together, we come to the awareness that we weave a common vision and a sense of belonging into a vibrant community. Here I discover the gifts I have received and the joy of sharing them. I learn, too, that my needs provide other community members the opportunity to share their gifts with me.

I am grateful that my family and friends continue their love and support.



Contact Mary David Walgenbach, OSB, at mwalgenbach@benedictinewomen.org, 608-831-9300.


Sister Joanne Kollasch, OSB

“I love life in a monastic community and share it with whomever I can.”

joanne_580More than 60 years ago, Sister Joanne Kollasch put down roots for a community of Benedictine Sisters in a beautiful place overlooking Lake Mendota and the city of Madison. A strong call to spiritual life led her to join an order as a young woman and work with other sisters to form Saint Benedict Center (now Holy Wisdom Monastery). Her life-giving relationship with the community continued to evolve as she served for over a decade as prioress. A lifelong goal to provide a home for spiritual seekers of all kinds led Sister Joanne to co-found the ecumenical communities Benedictine Women of Madison, the Oblates of Holy Wisdom Monastery and the Community of Benedict. She now serves as a spiritual guide for guests who visit the monastery and serves the community as co-director of formation. Joanne helps to maintain a home that welcomes people from around the world for spiritual and personal growth, promotes caring for the land and preserves space for people to reflect on God’s presence in their lives.

Sister Joanne shares her story:

“Being a Benedictine sister suits me well.”

In my family, becoming a sister was not surprising. Aunts, cousins and siblings had followed their own calls to become priests and sisters.

Sister Joanne listens as spiritual guideI believed nursing was my vocation, only I was feeling a strong call to teach. Even stronger, I felt a pull toward entering an order. And so, I came to our community with a strong conviction of God’s call to this way of life. At the same time, I thought the sisters could use my help. Now, more than 60 years later, it’s clear to me that the sisters thought I could use their help!

The community and I need each other. Together we form a life-giving, life-long relationship that nurtures and sustains us and sends us out of ourselves in love and service to God’s people. Neither the community nor I imagined that one day we would create an ecumenical community. This was beyond our Catholic imagination. But we have done it.

As Benedictine Women of Madison, we are a Christ-centered community of women from different church affiliations. Who would have imagined that we would share among us the 1,500-year-old Benedictine life of prayer, hospitality, justice and care for the earth?! We are eager for other women to join us.



Contact Joanne Kollasch, OSB, at jkollasch@benedictinewomen.org, 608-831-9302.


Sister Lynne Smith, OSB

“My favorite community activity is cooking Sunday night dinner together.”

Sister Lynne reading in the gardenSister Lynne Smith was called to spiritual life as a young girl, telling her mother that she wanted to become a nun when she grew up. While her mother told her that only Catholic women could become nuns, Sister Lynne continued to feel a call to give her life in service to God and others. Lynne became a Presbyterian pastor and led parishes in Kansas and Iowa for over 15 years before discovering Benedictine Women of Madison. She visited Holy Wisdom Monastery and soon began to attend retreats with the sisters and explore the different resources for spiritual development at the monastery. Sister Lynne felt that she had found her heart’s home in the sisters’ community and decided to start the journey of becoming a community member. In 2000, she made her profession to the community as the first Protestant member. She is active at the monastery and at events around the country. Sister Lynne currently serves the community as director of monastic ritual & formation team coordinator.

Sister Lynne shares her story:

“Life in community calls me to go deeper.”

By the time I saw the third ad for Benedictine Women of Madison that read “We welcome women of any Christian denomination,” I told myself I had to look into it because it could mean me.

At the time, I was a Presbyterian minister serving a church in Iowa. My spiritual life had taken a turn toward the contemplative life as a result of a retreat I made some years before. I contacted the community and began to come periodically for retreats.

After a process of discernment with the sisters, I moved here in June 1998. Common prayer (especially singing the Psalms), the community’s vision and a desire to lead a balanced life drew me here. Ecumenism and care for the earth are also dear to my heart. Living here gives me an opportunity to offer my gifts both to the community and to the many people who come here. RAW_487Life in the community calls me to go deeper into myself and into God and to develop new parts of myself.

As a life-long Presbyterian, I find many connections between my faith tradition and the Rule of Benedict. The priority of scripture and collaborative decision-making are just two places where these traditions are complementary.

In addition to raising awareness about our community, I like to work in the garden, ice skate, cross country ski, and work with clay.



Contact Lynne Smith, OSB, at lwsmith@benedictinewomen.org, 608-831-9305.


Sister Paz Vital, OSB

Sister Paz Vital has been called to religious life since she was a child. After three years of catechism preparation she celebrated her First Communion. She kept going to catechism classes until a priest told her that there was no more to teach her at catechism, but that she could become a catechist for other children. This scared her and so she stopped going to catechism. However, when she was a teenager she felt she had a call for priesthood. Later in life after finishing college her friends kidded her saying she behaved like a nun. Instead of feeling offended she felt intrigued. She wondered if religious life was really for her. But the religious congregations back in Mexico did not appeal to her. Later, when she was working at the Medical Center in Houston Texas, she attended a Methodist Sunday class called Ordinary Life –  it was like catechism for adults! Her spiritual director, a Methodist Minister and Jungian Analyst, gave her the Rule of Benedict and warned her, “read it at your own risk because this little book will change your life.” She laughed at the suggestion, but a few months later she was attending a retreat at a Benedictine monastery in Wisconsin called Holy Wisdom Monastery. This led to Sister Paz’s decision to enter the novitiate and eventually to make her first profession.

Sister Paz shares her story:

“My family could not believe it … neither did I.”

I have had the call for religious life my whole life. And I resisted it very well for 45 years until my friend Mary Jo told me that she always wondered how different her life would have been if she had followed her call to religious life instead of getting married. I understood that this call would haunt me all my life if I did not try and find out if religious life was for me or not. It was not an easy decision. I left my work and my friends and entered the uncertainty of the unknown. If the year before someone told me I would leave my research work and move to live at a monastery I would have laughed, thinking of it as a good joke. My family was puzzled. They didn’t know what was happening to me. My mother, trying to make sense of my decision, told them about me attending every event at my home church. It wasn’t until my family came to Holy Wisdom Monastery for my first profession that each one of them told me “Now I know why you want to live here.” It was not an easy move but I am so glad I did it. My family felt the peace of the monastery just as I did the first time I arrived here in April 2015. I am a beginner in the monastic life. May God give me the perseverance and stability to continue to deepen in Benedictine Spirituality for many more years.



Contact Paz Vital, OSB, at pazv@benedictinewomen.org, 608-836-1631, x131.


Sister Denise West, OSB

Sister Denise West’s first call was to teaching. She has a master’s degree in Elementary and Early Childhood Education from Bank Street College of Education, New York City, and served as a teacher and tutor on the East coast for 20 years. Her desire for spiritual growth led her to seek out new experiences. Sister Denise first came to the monastery in 2015, eager to learn contemplative prayer practices that would deepen her relationship with God. After six months as a Sojourner, culminating in her baptism at the Easter Vigil, she returned to her home in New York City and waited for the next step in her life. To her surprise, what she found was simply a desire to return to the monastery – she has been here ever since. Working in the garden, taking care of the monastery houseplants, birdwatching and walking the prairie keeps her grounded. Since arriving, Sister Denise has taken the master gardener class at UW-Extension; several courses at St. John’s University and Catholic Theological Union; and a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at Meriter Hospital. Her work includes developing and co-leading Benedictine retreats and administrative support.

Sister Denise shares her story:

“Is life in a monastery possible for me?”

I wasn’t raised in a faith tradition. Though my parents had grown up Southern Baptist, by the time I came along my family was thoroughly secular. Yet something in me always desired faith and desired God. I rejected Christianity for a long while because of its negative connotations and looked to other traditions for wisdom. When I finally did return to “my roots” in my 30s, it was hard work separating the image of Christianity and the doctrines that I struggled with on the one hand, and what I found by actually reading and studying the Bible on the other hand. Peeling away the layers of cultural baggage, I found love at the heart of gospels and have desired to understand more and more deeply how God is calling me to grow in love and live a life of faith. Benedictine spirituality suits me because of its call both to community life as well as the necessity of looking inward, to know and love oneself so that I may be free to know and love others with a whole heart. Looking back, I think God was calling me to community life for a long time, but I never imagined that I would be led to a life in the monastery!  



Contact Denise West, OSB, at denisew@benedictinewomen.org, 608-836-1631, x131.