Left, the Sisters make molasses from sugar cane at Maria Stein Convent sometime before 1911; middle, the Maria Stein chapel in 1958; CPPS archives photos. Right, the Ohio historical marker sign near the entrance of the building; Mary Knapke photo.
When eight Precious Blood Sisters arrived at Maria Stein in western Ohio in 1846, they had only recently completed a journey from Switzerland — but were just beginning a journey of 170 years for the Sisters of the Precious Blood.
Through Civil War and the Great Depression, two world wars and the turn of two centuries, Precious Blood Sisters have lived and worked at Maria Stein, the Congregation’s original motherhouse and home to over 1,000 holy relics. Beginning that first night, September 24, 1846, the Sisters entered into adoration of the Blessed Sacrament — a tradition which would continue for over 100 years. They farmed the land and made altar bread and wine, candles, vestments, linen, lace, shoes, papier-mâché crucifixes, wax infants and other works, both artistic and functional. They brought up local children who had been orphaned by cholera and influenza. They cared for the holy relics. They reached out to neighbors in need.
“The Sisters lived a monastic and an apostolic life at the same time. They were cloistered and prayerful and didn’t go home to family; they stayed in the convent — and yet, when somebody needed help, they were out there,” said Sister Noreen Jutte, the Congregation’s archivist. “We were never founded for a particular ministry. Where there’s a need, that’s where you find us.”
In the heart of what is called “God’s country,” Maria Stein will continue to be “a place of peace, prayer and hospitality” — the Shrine’s motto — as the building and 24 acres are transferred from the Congregation to a nonprofit corporation.
Sister Joyce Lehman, President of the Congregation, spoke about the spirituality and legacy of Maria Stein Shrine at a recent volunteer training event.
“One of the values that we as Sisters of the Precious Blood hope will continue as the Shrine continues is, first of all, hospitality. When you read some of the early stories of our Sisters, it didn’t make them any difference who it was who came to the door. They welcomed all as Christ and saw to their needs,” she said. “You become the healing presence that Christ offers. We never know, when we stand in front of a person, what their needs are and how we are being Christ to them.”
Fred Wiswell, manager of the Shrine’s gift shop, echoed Sister Joyce’s comments. “Being able to ‘work’ or minister at the Shrine is one of the most meaningful aspects of my personal and spiritual being. The opportunities are endless to build relationships on so many different levels with pilgrims from virtually all over the world who visit,” he said. “Undoubtedly, the most memorable and rewarding opportunities are those when I can enter that space with individuals who are challenged, offering prayer, compassion and empathy — in most of these instances, we both walk away from our sharing and caring with deep appreciation for all that God provides us even in those moments when we feel that He is absent. The Shrine provides a genuine, healing and nonthreatening environment to build and enhance our individual faith journeys.”
Maria Stein is one of 10 convents established by Missionary of the Precious Blood Father Francis de Sales Brunner — and the only one that still survives. Bishop John Baptist Purcell asked Father Brunner to bring Precious Blood Sisters from Switzerland to serve as teachers of the German-speaking immigrants in west central Ohio. Father Brunner also brought relics from Europe, where vandals were desecrating holy objects. The Sisters cared for and venerated the relics and worked within the community. More relics were brought to Maria Stein by Father J.M. Gartner in 1875. The Precious Blood motherhouse moved to Dayton in 1923, but the mission of the Shrine continued, and it continued to grow as an anchor for the rich faith among the German Catholic community in the area.
In the 1950s, the Sisters began offering retreats, and the retreat house (now the Spiritual Center of Maria Stein) was built in 1961. The Shrine was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. A museum was inaugurated at the Shrine in 1982 and renovated in 2015. Today, the Shrine continues to serve the community through programs, prayer services, tours and pilgrimages.
“I have deep respect for those who have gone before us,” Sister Noreen said. “If it weren’t for those people, I wouldn’t be a Sister of the Precious Blood. If it weren’t for those Sisters, we wouldn’t have a place of peace, prayer and hospitality. I love our history. I have such great respect for those Sisters. And we’re here because of them.”
– Story by Mary Knapke