Two religious orders are relocating to East Tennessee from Italy
By Bill Brewer
The Diocese of Knoxville welcomed two new religious communities to East Tennessee on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe as the Benedictines of Divine Will and the Benedictine Daughters of Divine Will formally announced they are relocating from Italy to Blount County.
Both religious orders are contemplative communities; however, they are not cloistered. They were erected in the Diocese of San Marino-Montefeltro a decade ago in concert with their devotion to Servant of God Luisa Piccarreta of Corato, Italy, whose cause for sainthood is under study by the Vatican as are her widely followed Divine Will writings.
Father Elijah John Joseph of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who leads the Benedictines of Divine Will, and Mother Gabrielle Marie Breaux, mother superior and foundress of the Benedictine Daughters of Divine Will, were present for the decree-signing ceremony held on Dec. 12 in the Our Lady of the Mountains Chapel at the Diocese of Knoxville Chancery.
The decrees formally establish the public associations of the faithful in the Diocese of Knoxville.
Bishop Richard F. Stika helped lead the effort to transplant the Benedictine orders near Maryville after the orders had sought guidance on possibly relocating to the United States, where they felt developing vocations would be more productive.
Signatories on the decrees were Bishop Stika, Deacon Sean Smith, who is the Diocese of Knoxville chancellor, Father Elijah, and Mother Gabrielle Marie. The decrees also received the signature of the bishop of the Diocese of San Marino-Montefeltro in Italy, Monsignor Andrea Turazzi, who was not in attendance. Cardinal Justin Rigali was on hand as the documents were signed.
The documents recognized that on April 12, 2011, Monsignor Luigi Negri, then the bishop of the Diocese of San Marino-Montefeltro, erected the Benedictine Daughters of Divine Will as a public association of the faithful.
Then on Sept. 25, 2012, Dec. 31, 2013, March 19, 2015, March 19, 2018, and Feb. 25, 2021, Monsignor Turazzi, the current bishop of the Diocese of San Marino-Montefeltro, renewed and confirmed the Benedictine Daughters of Divine Will.
On Dec. 20, 2014, Bishop Turazzi erected the Benedictines of Divine Will as a public association of the faithful. Then on Oct. 1 of this year, he renewed and confirmed the men’s religious order.
The decrees go on to state that the Benedictine Daughters and the Benedictines formally petition the bishops of San Marino-Montefeltro and Knoxville in writing their desire to transfer their motherhouses and public associations of the faithful from the Diocese of San Marino-Montefeltro to the Diocese of Knoxville “with the complete understanding that this would include the transfer of competent ecclesiastical authority of the public associations from Bishop Turazzi to Bishop Stika.”
Bishop Turazzi and Bishop Stika communicated in writing and directly via Zoom meeting their mutual agreement of the transfer.
The decrees further established that Bishops Turazzi and Stika notified the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life at the Vatican of the transfer in accordance with the apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium.
“This is truly a historic moment for the diocese. This is truly a historic day,” Bishop Stika said as he welcomed the Benedictines to the diocese.
Bishop Stika quipped that initial plans were to hold the ceremony on the site of the Benedictine orders’ monasteries in Blount County, but recent rains dampened that idea and would have left the only appropriate song to be sung as “Slip Slidin’ Away.”
“It was January that I traveled to Knoxville for the first time for a news conference announcing that I was the bishop. It’s been 14 years. I remember that the media asked what my priorities were. What was my goal? It was very simple, and it still is today. It is to teach Jesus. I also carry with me my episcopal motto, which is ‘Jesus, I trust in you,’” Bishop Stika recalled.
“I also said I would love to have a contemplative community in the diocese. A few years later, the Handmaids of the Precious Blood moved from New Mexico to here. Now, they’re blessed with three new vocations. So, they’re growing on a beautiful piece of property in New Market, Tenn. I then told the media I would welcome religious communities. We have the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville, and now I welcome two new communities. It’s the power of prayer. You can come up with new programs, new plans, new ideas to carry us into the future. But those are empty if you don’t have the power of prayer,” the bishop added.
“The Handmaids of the Precious Blood, their primary goal is to pray for priests. I think bringing into the diocese the spirituality of St. Benedict, work and prayer, is very important. So, Mother, it’s good to have you here. Father Elijah, it’s good to have you here. It is a blessing for the diocese. Cardinal Rigali, who is with us today, also rejoices with me in your presence. Thanks be to God that He truly is with us. And we take to heart those words from St. John Paul II, ‘be not afraid,’” the bishop concluded.
Deacon Smith explained that at 2 p.m. on Dec. 12, the Benedictines of Divine Will and the Benedictine Daughters of Divine Will were officially and canonically received into the Diocese of Knoxville.
A long journey
Mother Gabrielle Marie said, “Thank you for accepting us” as Bishop Stika signed the decrees. Then Father Elijah spoke about entering the Diocese of Knoxville.
“Thank you. We’ve been on a long journey. The journey, as you can imagine, has had the cross. When this started a long time ago now—Mother and I have been on this journey together for about 13 years—most people thought we were nuts to try to do this. People who understand the spiritual life told me that was a good sign. The craziest one of all is Jesus. He is the one who leaves the glory of the Father to come down and be with us on earth. This doesn’t make any sense except this is how things work when they’re genuinely of God.
“For whatever reason, we felt that God called us to Italy to do this. That was part of the calling. That made it more difficult because at the end of the day we had to rely more and more on God’s providence. The thing we learned more than anything is that God is utterly faithful. This today is a sign of His fidelity. It means a tremendous amount to us that we are welcomed back into our country with joy and with enthusiasm and with hope,” Father Elijah said.
Father Elijah said he joked with Bishop Stika about how the Benedictines are leaving a diocese that was started 1,700 years ago and coming to a diocese that began a mere 34 years ago.
“Bishop Stika, with his great sense of humor, said, ‘Now you’re bragging.’ I wasn’t bragging; I was just telling it the way it is,” Father Elijah said laughing. “We’re an American community that is rooted in this ancient diocese, and now we’re coming back to this fresh, new diocese that is very American. It’s a new diocese that is building a cathedral, churches, and parishes. And that is exciting. Our prayer is that our presence here will truly be a blessing for the diocese. We ask for your prayers that our mission here can be successful. I think with the faithfulness of God and the faithfulness of Our Lady, we will be.”
Mother Gabrielle Marie echoed Father Elijah in gratitude to Bishop Stika and the Diocese of Knoxville.
“I just want to thank Bishop Stika for welcoming us, Cardinal Rigali, and our dear deacon (Sean Smith) for all your support and all of your help. You’ve been wonderful. And we just appreciate everything you’ve done for us. We hope we can be an asset to the diocese. We’ll try our best. God does it, and we just kind of ride along. We appreciate all of our friends being here and supporting us in every way. We hope we can give prayer support to the diocese. We’re willing to help in any way we can. Thank you. We’re so grateful that you opened your hearts to us. We’re just so happy to be here. God bless you all and thank you,” Mother Gabrielle Marie said.
According to their website, osbdv.com, the Benedictines of Divine Will are born from and exist to love and serve Holy Mother Church. “We fully embrace the Second Vatican Council and seek to live in humble and loving filial-obedience to his holiness, Pope Francis, his successors, and the College of Bishops. . . . Our community is Benedictine. Historically, the word ‘Benedictine’ has meant many different things. It has been used to describe strictly cloistered Camaldolese Benedictines, Missionary Benedictines, and Benedictines that excel in liturgical practice. The charism has also incorporated a wide range of spiritualities, among them: Franciscan, Carmelite, and Passionist.”
Divinely inspired beginnings
According to the Benedictine Daughters of Divine Will, the religious community is dedicated to living a life of prayer and work according to the Rule of St. Benedict, with eucharistic adoration and the Divine Will writings of Servant of God Luisa Piccarreta serving as the core of the order.
“We’re also devoted to the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts of Jesus and Mary, the chaste heart of glorious St. Joseph, and spiritual childhood, which altogether form the cornerstone of our growing family. It’s all very simple really. It’s life at Nazareth, and it’s all about love,” according to the community’s website.
“Outwardly, you won’t find anything particularly remarkable about our community. Though we try to put our whole heart and soul into everything that we do, God has not given us any great talents or abilities that would set us apart from, or even put us on par with, other religious groups. Our mission is much simpler and more hidden, yet no less demanding: to live the Divine Will of God in love and charity like the Holy Family in Nazareth,” the website continues.
According to the Benedictine Daughters of Divine Will website, www.benedictinesofdivinewill.org, Mother Gabrielle Marie began her religious life as a Poor Clare of Perpetual Adoration. For 33 years, she learned much under the holy guidance of her late abbess, Mother Angelica, foundress of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament and EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network) in Alabama.
“Despite meeting many well-known and even saintly religious figures through her monastery’s connection with the highly successful Catholic television network, the most significant moment in Mother Gabrielle Marie’s life came in 1998 through the hands of a young postulant under her care. Through a simple request for permission to read a book given to the Sister by her grandmother, Mother Gabrielle Marie discovered, began reading, and instantly fell in love with the Divine Will writings of Servant of God Luisa Piccarreta,” the website states.
Father Elijah and Mother Gabrielle Marie felt the decree-signing on the feast of the patroness of the Americas was divinely inspired as was the original idea for the orders in 2009.
Mother Gabrielle Marie said she entered the convent in 1978 at age 33, where she served with the Poor Clares for 33 years.
In 2009, after nine years as vicar and 16 years as novice mistress with the Poor Clares, Mother Gabrielle Marie received a sabbatical.
Needing some time to adjust to life away from the cloister, she decided to make a retreat at a Benedictine monastery with her longtime friend and spiritual director, Father Jacques Daley, OSB. Father Elijah happened to be at the same monastery at the same time.
After prayerful discernment with Father Daley and Father Elijah, a Benedictine also under Father Daley’s direction who was enamored with “little” Luisa Piccarreta’s works, the Holy Spirit placed something surprising on each of their hearts.
With Father Daley’s encouragement, Mother Gabrielle Marie and Father Elijah felt a clear call by God to start a new monastic community in Italy dedicated to eucharistic adoration and Luisa Piccarreta’s writings on how to live in God’s Most Holy and Divine Will. It was at this time that Mother Gabrielle Marie decided to leave the Poor Clares community.
Father Elijah was ordained into the priesthood in 2012, a year after Mother Gabrielle Marie founded the Benedictine Daughters.
Composed of brothers, sisters, and laity, the community would strive to unite the Benedictine spirit of prayer, work, and hospitality to the life of the Holy Family, turning their respective monasteries and homes into little Nazareths.
In 2011, the inspiration became a reality when Bishop Monsignor Luigi Negri accepted the Benedictine Daughters of Divine Will as a public association of the faithful in the Diocese of San Marino-Montefeltro. The Benedictine monks followed three years later under Bishop Monsignor Andrea Turazzi in the same diocese. And finally in 2016, the family was completed when Bishop Turazzi gave his permission and blessing to found the Third Order (or lay branch) of Benedictine Oblates of Divine Will.
Italy to East Tennessee
The Benedictine family established a male branch and a female branch. The male community is located in Carpegna, Italy, under the guidance of Father Elijah, while the sister community is located in Talamello, Italy, under the guidance of Mother Gabrielle Marie. The two contemplative families share the same charism and are located 40 minutes from each other, within the same diocese.
The Benedictines of Divine Will have begun the oblate program, with Bishop Turazzi giving his blessing to this lay branch of the religious community.
“All those who feel drawn to the Benedictines of Divine Will, yet not to the religious life, can now live our charism from outside of the monastery walls as oblates,” Father Elijah said.
The Benedictine family is now relocating to East Tennessee, where it will continue its ministry and charism. Mother Gabrielle Marie pointed out that the communities will still have a presence in Italy, where Italian and European members of the religious family will remain to further the ministry.
Through the generous assistance of benefactors, the Benedictines have acquired property in Blount County and have started construction on two monasteries, one for the men and one for the women. They also plan to build a church in between the two monasteries where Masses and other liturgical celebrations can be held.
“We have wanted to come back to the United States because most of our vocations for the women are from the United States. It’s been difficult. As they come, we have to get them religious visas, and they have to learn a new language and get used to a new culture. So, we thought if we can come to the U.S., we can keep some of the community in Italy for all the European vocations, especially for the Italian vocations. You get more vocations here in the U.S. It’s easier,” Sister Gabrielle Marie explained.
“We have friends who wanted us to come back. They helped us find a place. They helped us finance the place because we didn’t have any means to do that. We wanted to come to the U.S., but we didn’t have any money to buy property or build a monastery. So, the doors opened, and we said, ‘Why not go through them when the opportunity arises,’” she added.
She noted that the Blount County monastery will be the motherhouse for the Benedictine Daughters of Divine Will.
“We will not be based in Italy anymore. We will not be under the bishop in Italy anymore. We will remain in his diocese as a satellite house. The motherhouse will be here, so we’re really under the bishop of Knoxville, Tenn., now,” she said.
Father Elijah pointed out that for the Benedictines of Divine Will, the situation is similar.
“For us, it’s the same exact story. We started 13 years ago. We both were in religious communities. We both felt called to begin a new community called the Benedictines of Divine Will. They are the daughters. We are the brothers. We felt called to begin anew. We’re in the same diocese. There are several monasteries there. We’re very blessed with vocations. We have a very close relationship to our bishop of the diocese there. But it remains true that we’re both Americans, so it really makes a lot of sense for us, in the next phase of our community, to be on our home soil here.
“Bishop Stika was incredibly generous in welcoming us into the Diocese of Knoxville. The two bishops were in contact. We did a Zoom call. We had to do all the translations, and Cardinal Rigali was present. Our bishop and Bishop Stika agreed that for our future this next step to the Diocese of Knoxville is the best thing for us,” Father Elijah said.
The Benedictine Daughters of Divine Will’s location in Talamello, Italy, is about five hours and 30 minutes north of Rome. The Benedictine monks of Divine Will are about a 40-minute drive from the Benedictine Daughters of Divine Will in Carpegna.
Another group of Benedictine Daughters live in San Marino, one of the smallest countries in the world, which is surrounded by Italy and is the oldest independent republic in the world.
Mother Gabrielle Marie expects six to seven Benedictine Sisters to relocate to the Diocese of Knoxville. According to Father Elijah, there will be about six Benedictine priests locating in the Blount County monastery. Each monastery will be able to house about 21 members.
Mother Gabrielle Marie is originally from Napoleonville, La., and Father Elijah is originally from Brooklyn, N.Y. Being closer to family is another positive aspect to the move.
“When we went to Italy, we had to get used to a new culture, a new language. The people are lovely there, and Italy is a beautiful country. The scenery is beautiful. But now we’re coming back. It was difficult to get adjusted to all of that, but now we love it. We’re getting adjusted to coming back to the U.S., but it will be easier because we were born and raised here. The American people are so friendly and so helpful. We’re really looking forward to it. We think it will be good, and we think we will get more vocations from it. We think the community can flourish better here than if we remain in Italy,” Mother Gabrielle Marie said.
She noted that Blount County became a focal point for the orders because one of the Benedictine Sisters has a mother who had bought a house in Blount County, and she wanted to give that house to the Benedictine Daughters of Divine Will. They also had been given property in Georgia, but that property was difficult to build on.
“The Maryville house was only big enough to house four Sisters. It wasn’t enough. We need more than that if we’re going to grow. We could use that as a guest house maybe in the future. The benefactors then began looking for property around Maryville,” Mother Gabrielle Marie said, noting that the benefactors knew Father Elijah before they knew her.
She pointed out that the benefactors love the writings of Luisa Piccarreta, too.
“We just felt it was divine providence. There were all the signs, and we really discerned carefully what the will of the Lord was. And together it became very clear that all the signposts were pointing us towards Knoxville, so we take it for being divine providence, and we’re jumping in,” Father Elijah said.
The Benedictine monks and Benedictine Daughters are grateful to the benefactors who are supporting their ministry. They also are hoping for additional financial support from more donors who can assist them in their relocation to the Diocese of Knoxville as they look forward to completing their monastery projects and opening the church to serve them.
Any donations to the religious orders would be tax-exempt. Donors can contact the Diocese of Knoxville at dioknox.org or 865-584-3307 for more information on the Benedictine communities