Community of St. Mary



The Community of St. Mary, an Episcopal Benedictine monastic community for women, was founded on the feast of the Presentation, February 2, 1865, in New York, when the Bishop of New York, the Rev. Dr. Horatio Potter, received the vows of Harriet Starr Cannon and four other women, to form the community. It was the first Episcopal monastic community in the United States. In 1873, Bishop Quintard of Tennessee, a friend of Mother Harriet, invited the Community to send Sisters to Memphis to begin a school for girls and establish a Church home for the poor and needy. Four Sisters were sent to start this ministry, but their work was interrupted by the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878 which devastated the population of Memphis, reducing the population to such an extent that Memphis lost its status as an incorporated city. During that time, the Sisters, though they had no formal training as nurses, cared for the sick and dying. All but one of the Sisters died in their attempts and are remembered today as the “Martyrs of Memphis” for their heroic service.

Sr. Hughetta Snowdon, the one surviving Sister from the Yellow Fever Epidemic, moved to Sewanee, TN, after the epidemic and in 1888, with the help of other Sisters, established the Sisters of St. Mary in Sewanee, Tennessee. The Sisters soon opened a school for mountain children known as “St. Mary’s on the Mountain,” for whom the county school was too distant and the road too difficult. As transportation improved, it became a boarding school for girls until 1968. Later, the school buildings became a retreat center sponsored by the Community of St. Mary, Southern Province. In 1988, the Sisters moved to a nearby location where they built the present convent.

Today the Sisters’ ministries include providing spiritual direction, leading retreats, quiet days, and workshops, going out to preach and teach classes at churches both in-state and out-of-state, and training and working with our Oblates, Associates, volunteers, and Organic Prayer Program interns. The Sisters produce items to sell which include jams and jellies from the fruits of their garden, handmade colored cards, and framed photography all made by the Sisters. The Sisters provide Benedictine hospitality to all who visit and invite guests to stay at the Hermitage or the garden level of the convent.

Our Organic Prayer Program (OPP) is one of our primary ministries for that mission. The OPP internship is for college students and recent college graduates, both men and women, who want to experience S.O.I.L. (Sacramental, Organic, Intentional Living) by sharing the rhythm and routine of daily prayer, working in the convent and garden, and representing the Community in the surround community as well as the world at large.

Associates are both men and women, lay and ordained, who wish to commit themselves to a rule of life and to friendship with the Community. They help us through prayer, volunteer service, spiritual and material support, and by their work in the world. Our Oblates are men and women, lay and ordained, who are extensions of the Community – broadening its ministry and representing it in places and ways that Community desires. Oblates have a two year formation program that involves study of the Benedictine Rule, written assignments, reading, and being committed to saying the Daily Office. Oblates live out in the world, following an interpretation of the Benedictine Rule and values it expresses that is consistent with their life situation.  

As a Benedictine Community, we are known for our gracious hospitality to all who come here. We offer the Eucharist and four services of the Daily Office each day, and offer free breakfast after each Eucharist service in the morning. Our guest ministries are another way through which people engage with us. People from different backgrounds, ages, and careers come from across America and beyond to stay with us because we are a place of retreat located on a spectacular setting on the bluff of the mountain. Our guests have been seminarians on ordination retreat, parents of university students who needed a quiet place to stay while visiting their children, and those with stressful jobs or those undergoing crises who needed time to reconnect with God and nature and to process their life changing events. 

Learn more about the Sisters of St. Mary at www.communityofstmarysouth.org .