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Lady Abbess Benedict Duss, 94; Co-Founded First Abbey for Benedictine Nuns in the U.S.

October 05, 2005|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Lady Abbess Benedict Duss, a co-founder of the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn., the first cloistered Benedictine abbey for women in the United States, has died. She was 94.

She died Sunday at the abbey of natural causes, according to Sister Angele, a member of the community that now includes 37 nuns.

Lady Abbess Benedict saw the abbey through several unusually public periods from the time it was established as a monastery in 1948. A Hollywood movie, a recording contract and a Vatican investigation of abbey leadership all took place during her years as head of the community.

Born Vera Duss in Pittsburgh, Pa., she moved to France with her family at age 3. She graduated from the Sorbonne with a degree in medicine in 1936 and entered the Benedictine Abbey of Notre Dame de Jouarre near Paris. She received the name Sister Benedict at that time and became the community's physician.

After World War II, Sister Benedict and Sister Mary Aline Trilles de Warren, from the same abbey, sailed to New York. Their plan was to establish a contemplative Benedictine community for women.

They lived with a friend in Connecticut until they could get established. Their first major step in that direction was made possible by a gift of 50 acres of land from a wealthy donor who liked knowing the land would be maintained essentially unchanged.

Later contributions to the community of nuns resulted in a 400-acre monastery that is now a working farm. The sisters live in a converted factory building.

Their impressive start caught the attention of writer Clare Boothe Luce, who shared the screenwriting credit for the 1949 movie version of the monastery's beginnings, "Come to the Stable." Loretta Young and Celeste Holm played the pioneering sisters who arrived from France with an ambitious plan.

The abbey attracted attention again in the early 1960s when Hollywood starlet Dolores Hart met with Mother Benedict and later entered the community. Hart had made nearly a dozen movies, including two starring Elvis Presley: "Loving You" and "King Creole."

She became Mother Dolores Hart and is now prioress of the abbey, second in charge after the abbess. She oversees the monastery's theater program, The Act Association, that puts on plays open to the public in a theater that was largely financed by actress Patricia Neal.

The abbey offered a number of community-outreach programs, many of which were well received. However, there were complaints from former associates of the abbey that led to a Vatican investigation beginning in 1994.

There were allegations that Lady Abbess Benedict and the abbey's spiritual advisor, the Rev. Francis J. Prokes, imposed a cult-like discipline on the nuns and some lay people associated with the abbey.

After an extensive probe, Lady Abbess Benedict stepped down under pressure in 1998. Prokes was removed from his position.

Another of the sisters, Mother David Serna, was named the new abbess.

But Lady Abbess Benedict remained an integral part of the religious community, with the title of abbess emerita.

Her devotion to Gregorian chant sung in Latin led the nuns at Regina Laudis abbey to chant seven times each day and once at night, preserving a centuries-old tradition. They made their first recording, "Women in Chant," in 1996.

Asked once how she helped build the Abbey of Regina Laudis from nothing, Lady Abbess Benedict was specific. "The secret to keeping this place going was to do the next thing that had to be done without wasting time worrying," she said. "If you do something concrete, that opens the possibilities."

Sister Angele said of Lady Abbess Benedict: "She had an extraordinary wisdom, vision and holiness."

She is survived by the members of her religious community, two nephews and several great-nephews and great-nieces.

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