Sister Placida Wemhoff
A life lived with rhythm is a dynamic that we share with the farming and ranching community that surrounds us. As farmers follow the cycle of planting and harvesting and ranchers tend their herds according to when the pasture grows and calves are born, monastic life is structured around the daily prayer schedule of the Divine Office and the liturgical year of feasts and other observances.
Sister Placida lives according to both of these rhythms. Born on the Camas Prairie to a farming family along with five sisters and three brothers, she helped with raising grain, hay, cattle, pigs, and chickens. At the age of 13, she entered St. Gertrude’s, seven miles from the family farm, and was professed on June 11, 1960, at the age of 17.
“From the very beginning I loved the Divine Office — praying together every day at the same time. Repetition feeds my spiritual life,” says Sister Placida. “Benedict put into his rule this creative monotony. The spirit will rebel against it. This culture is based on the next exciting thing. But you need monotony, sameness, a schedule to quiet the spirit within you. You go to God and from this discipline comes creativity.”
Her parents inspired steady devotion. “We were so blessed. My parents were committed to each other and the family. They were down to earth, with simple faith and peaceful hearts. We prayed together and went to church. I remember working and going horseback riding with my dad. My dad did a lot of his praying on the tractor.” The family suffered tragedy when her sister was killed in a car accident. Another sister would die in a car accident many years later. “My mother said the hardest thing in life is to lose a child,” remembers Sister Placida.
Sister Placida’s first ministry as a Benedictine sister was teaching. Although she had been mostly educated by the Benedictines, she was not immediately sure if she was cut out to be a teacher. “At first I felt like a failure,” she explains. “I thought I should perhaps go into nurses’ training. Then I was out picking cherries in the orchard one day and realized that the cherries in front of me were just as good as the ones on another branch. I decided I might as well be happy with what was before me. My first priority was being a nun but I decided I would commit to being a good teacher.” Sister Placida taught mostly 7th and 8th grades, mostly math, for 30 years: 14 years at various Catholic schools and 16 years at Cottonwood Middle School.
The novice mistress at the time, Sister Lucille Nachtsheim, was an inspiration to happiness. “She taught us to live in the present moment,” says Sister Placida. “I notice that whenever I am disgruntled or dissatisfied, I have failed to do that.” This guidance would help as she learned to be confident in addressing men in her work (having not been around boys in high school) and navigating the changes of religious life such as going from wearing a habit to lay clothes. “I was at first afraid the kids and parents would not respect me. But I realized that’s dumb confidence in the clothes. I need to be a person they will respect; my focus became on being that person.”
After retiring from the classroom in 1993, Sister Placida became our monastery’s Director of Maintenance and Operations. She tends to building repairs, mows the lawns, takes care of the orchard (including the cherry trees that inspired her to stay with teaching), and seeing to a host of other outside duties. Fall and winter bring another set of activities. In her first floor office and studio, she repairs antique books. “I am called to the solitariness of the work; I enjoy the solitude. Underneath the concentration of the craft is another element: I can go to God.”
On the top floor of the Monastery, at a forties-era Singer sewing machine that is in front of a window overlooking the Camas Prairie, she also sews clothes for underpriveged children. She sends her handmade creations to parish relief projects and sometimes to international programs as far as Africa and Central America. While she sews, Sister Placida imagines that perhaps in heaven, she will one day meet the children who received her work. “I pray for the kids who will wear my clothes,” she says, “that the clothes will help and their lives won’t be too hard.” In May her prayer became an earthly reality. With support from family and the oblates, she was able to join Eleanor’s Project on a trip to Peru to help children.
Besides a few worries about her chronic tendonitis, Sister Placida never experienced any concerns about living her vocation. Her family has been supportive and many sisters have inspired her along the way. “I am filled with hope for our community because we aren’t giving up. There is a lot of excitement: we are looking for new ways of ministry, we are still getting vocations, and we are working on relationships among ourselves. There was a period where we were grumbling and griping a lot. I think we have come through that. The key to happiness is living in the present moment — that present moment being filled with God.”
The Art of Mending Books
If you visit the monastery in the summer, it is very likely you’ve seen Sister Placida Wemhoff about the campus. As maintenance manager, she stays busy tending to building repairs, mowing the lawns, taking care of the orchard, and seeing to a host of other outside duties.
But by October, Sister Placida turns to work that is much more meticulous and even contemplative. In her first floor office and studio, she repairs antique books. “I am called to the solitariness of the work; I enjoy the solitude. Underneath the concentration of the craft is another element: I can go to God.”
After retiring from teaching in 1993, Sister Placida took lessons in bookbinding from an artisan in Pullman, Washington. As more people learned of her skill in repairing books, Sister Placida was able to get the practice she needed to become an adept. She repairs both cloth-bound and leather-bound books and uses bookbinding equipment that has been at the Monastery for as long as Sister Placida can remember.
“To be with a book that way is a funny feeling. This book has been through a lot of history I haven’t,” says Sister Placida. “I have to make sure I don’t get too engrossed and start reading the book!”
Most of the books that Sister Placida repairs were published in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s. “Back then books were made with water soluble glue,” explains Sister Placida. “That is what I use to repair the books. But by the fifties and sixties, books were being made with plastic-based glue that is irremovable and books like that cannot be repaired.”
The glue is essentially what determines the repair time. “It is always difficult to say how long it will take the glue to dry. You just can’t push a book repair project. It has to unfold.” That is why Sister Placida can’t be specific as to when a repair job will be completed. At the least, she promises that the book will be finished by early May, when she has to return to her outside work. If there are not books to repair, she makes journals that are available in the Monastery book and gift shop.
Sister Placida acknowledges that some books aren’t worth the time and cost to repair them, but family heirlooms and Bibles that have been handed down from generation to generation are certainly worth the investment.
To inquire about an estimate for repairing an antique book, call Sister Placida at 208-962-5015.
In the Orchard
Like all the pioneers in the area, when our sisters first settled in Cottonwood, they immediately set about planting an orchard. These original trees provided welcome fruit for the Community for many years but eventually grew old and unproductive. In the early 1990’s a decision was made to rejuvenate the orchard.
When Sister Placida Wemhoff became plant manager in 1993 she assumed responsibility for its care. The first major task was to erect an 8-foot high fence to keep out the deer that had discovered this luscious source of food.
Caring for the fruit trees was a new experience for Sister Placida and through the years she has learned much about them. She discovered that the best fertilizer was ordinary grass clippings that also provided a moisture-retaining mulch. She devised a water drip system to keep the soil moist without damaging leaves and fruit.
From an experienced fruit grower she learned the proper methods of pruning trees. But the biggest challenge she faced was the presence of apple fungus that had spread from the older trees. She keeps this pest under control with a carefully timed application of selected, environmentally-friendly herbicides. The fungus is able to survive the winter in the accumulated leaves and grass clippings, so before the first snow she removes the layer of mulch from around each tree.
Proper care of an orchard is hard work but the reward comes each fall when the fruit is ready to be harvested. Plums, cherries, pears and an assortment of apples are picked and enjoyed by the Sisters and our guests. For these fruits of the earth we are indeed grateful.