The Ursuline Sisters of Villa Maria have come home.
One hundred forty years since their local ministry started, they have been laid to rest where it all started. A blessing of their permanent gravesite will be 3:30 p.m. Saturday, May 20, at St. Mary's of the Lake Cemetery in Lake City.
"St. Mary's has given them a corner of their own in a beautiful setting," said Bonnie Stang of Red Wing, who served six years on the Villa Maria Board of Directors.
Garbed in heavy wool habits and riding in an open barge up river, a handful of Ursulines embarked in 1877 on a 500-mile journey of faith from Alton, Ill., to Lake City.
"There was no going back and they knew that," Stang said. "These were strong women."
Within three years, the nuns had established Our Lady of the Lake, a school for girls. According to the order's records, enrollment had exceeded capacity by 1883, so Israel Garrard of Old Frontenac donated land near his home; the Ursulines began building again and opened Villa Maria Academy in 1891.
"The sisters' catechetical ministries reached the small towns around Frontenac.
"The presence of the sisters, first with the boarding school — and what that meant to those living in outlying areas — where girls could be educated was tremendous," said Provincial Prioress Sister Rita Ann Bregenhorn.
Over the years, the sisters lived out their ministry and were buried in circles beneath the trees behind the Villa. Simple wooden crosses marked the graves and many were laid to rest in pine boxes. Later, a meditation labyrinth was added nearby.
A lightning strike in 1969 sparked the blaze that destroyed a four-story structure on the campus and ultimately ended eight decades of education. A year later, the Ursulines established an ecumenical retreat center in the remaining buildings. Groups and individuals came for 45 years for spiritual renews and personal growth surrounded by serene, natural beauty.
"The theme was 'Where God is center and the world is welcome.' That's truly what was lived at the center," Bregenhorn said.
Financial decline led to the final closing of Villa Maria. Last year, academy alumnae, Villa Maria supporters and 13 Ursulines who had taught or served there held a farewell reunion. The building was put up for sale.
A prospective buyer from the Twin Cities has emerged and is considering renovations to create suites and large rooms to host conferences, family camps and more. But many wondered what would happen to the Villa Cemetery.
The Ursuline leadership started the legal steps to relocate the 52 graves, most of them sisters, but also a few priests and a couple of lay people with special connections to Villa Maria. Bregenhorn said protocol involved using an archeological firm and funeral home both specializing in careful, respectful relocation of remains.
In October 2016, the move to St. Mary's occurred.
The Most Rev. John M. Quinn, bishop of the Winona Diocese, will preside at the May 20 prayer service. People are welcome to participate in the blessing.
"The Villa has been such a part of both communities — Lake City and Red Wing — and Frontenac," Stang said.