ROCK ISLAND — The lush greenery of the rolling hills, the spacious open chapel, the incredible overview from the library’s patio to the man-made lake down below — are all featured in the Benedictine Sisters of Saint Mary Monastery's new virtual monastery experience.
You can still visit the monastery, which is tucked away in southwest Rock Island (2200 W. 88th Ave.), in person. Or you can just take a sneak peek online at www.smmsisters.org and click on the virtual monastery and maybe visit in person later.
Courtesy of a drone, you can soar above the nearly 90 acres of the St. Mary Monastery as well as take a virtual 360-degree tour highlighting the chapel, its altar area, the library and the lush grounds below.
The virtual monastery tour has been up and running since June, and it is the brainchild of Sister Stefanie MacDonald, the Sisters of St. Benedict’s vocation director, along with the Sisters’ former communications director.
MacDonald wanted to reach her audience, which is mostly young people. And she figures most of them are on the internet via their iPhones these days.
“I show them more of where we are at and kind of give them a little feel of who we are in our space,” MacDonald said. She does so also “in the hopes of making them feel a little more comfortable to actually come and visit the monastery.”
Some may live a great distance away. And this site may help intrigue them.
For now, her main goal is recruiting potential sisters to the 32-nun Sisters of St. Benedict.
But the website with the virtual tour has a broader benefit, too.
“It allows anybody who comes to visit our website to see the place and check it out,” MacDonald said.
They will find that among the offerings, is the Benet House Retreat Center with 18 small bedrooms and a hermitage for someone who may want to have a retreat all by themselves. The retreat house is currently used about 36 times a year, mostly on weekends.
The monastery's chapel is also available for the retreat as is the eating area. The Sisters sponsor or run retreats but also let groups run and plan their own.
MacDonald says the virtual tour has been well received based on comments she sees on the Sisters’ Facebook page. She has had one potential recruit mention seeing it, too.
The Sisters of St. Benedict have been at the Rock Island site for almost 20 years, coming here from Nauvoo, where they once ran a boarding school on their property.
Chris Mandle, of Mandle Design Creative Services, who helped create the virtual tour with support from Big Tech River, calls the monastery one of the best-kept secrets in the Quad-Cities.
“These 360-degree type of tours have become very popular in restaurants and downtown settings, where people can go and take a virtual tour of a place before they go eat there or before they go visit there,” he said.
Most religious orders are short on recruits these days, he noted. “So, let's marry the technology with the need because the sisters have such a unique property out there.”
It’s not your typical monastery — to most people.
“When you think of a monastery, you think of very old Gothic buildings, which still applies to a lot of cases,” Mandle said. “But this is such a beautiful setting in southwest Rock Island that would amaze a lot of people.”
MacDonald knows the Sisters of St. Benedict were fortunate when the woman who wanted to sell the property preferred keeping it intact, and not have a developer take it over and divide it up.
The Sisters of St. Benedict, whose motto is 'work and prayer', did not want a place in the city. Driving in off the Milan Beltway to Ridgewood, then to West 88th Avenue one does drive through a neighborhood before the secluded, spacious area engulfs them.
Peaceful is a word many would use to describe the property which also features natural prairie grass and the large pond that has a walking path to and partially around it.
It’s inviting, which is exactly what MacDonald wants to come across in the video.
“I am hoping it gives them another piece of information,” she said.
When people hear the word monastery, they think it’s a place they can’t visit.
“No,” she said. “We want to welcome the public here.
“We want you to join us in whatever way in our lives, whether it’s through the retreat center, becoming a (Benedictine) oblate (a layperson connected to the community), joining as a Sister or volunteering or coming out just to walk the grounds,” she said.