The Benedictine Sister Who Taught Me To Serve & Now How To Die

Judith Valente
5 min readFeb 25, 2024
Sister Emily Meisel in wheelchair with author Judith Valente kneeling by her side.
Sister Emily Meisel, OSB (left) and author Judith Valente. (Photo courtesy of Charles Reynard)

Mother of God Monastery rises like a white stone mirage above the wind-swept prairie outside of Watertown, South Dakota. It has been one of my favorite monasteries to visit over the years because of the warm hospitality of its sisters. It was also one of the first monasteries to invite me to give a presentation after my first book was published in 2005. Most importantly, Mother of God has a special place in my heart because of a wise, humble sister named Emily Meisel who has been my spiritual director for the past several years.

I will always remember the first time I met Sister Emily. My husband and I had arrived at the monastery late at night. Sister Emily emerged from its doors in a heavy parka, accompanied by the community’s dog Sasha, a mix of collie and German shepherd. What impressed me the most was how Sister Emily approached us with her arms extended. I never forgot that gesture. Ever since then, I’ve adopted that practice of greeting people I’m meeting for the first time in the same way, with open arms. It’s the way I imagine Jesus welcomed people in his time.

Last month I received the stunning news that Sister Emily would no longer be able to give spiritual direction. She is suffering from a virulent form of brain cancer. We had a spiritual direction session a few weeks before her diagnosis in which we enjoyed a long, lively chat about my upcoming retreats and the new book I’m working on. There was no real indication that she was failing. Her illness apparently came on that quickly.

In fact, I would have guessed that this engaging and energetic woman was somewhere in her seventies. I recently learned that she is 92. She decided against any extraordinary treatment for the cancer.

I traveled to South Dakota last weekend to be with Sister Emily. It was a holy time. During this season of Lent, we reflect on Jesus’ ministry, his march toward death on the cross and his resurrection. Watching Sister Emily face her illness with so much humility and grace, I couldn’t help but think of how Jesus confronted his own suffering.

The sprawling white facade of Mother of God Monastery on the prairie in Watertown, South Dakota.
The front of Mother of God Monastery, Watertown SD.

Sister Emily confided to one of our mutual friends that one of her first thoughts after receiving the diagnosis was, “But I still have so many people to help.” This was her thought at the age of 92! Eventually, she says she sensed a message from God. “You have done enough.” Perhaps Jesus felt the same way in the Garden of Gethsemane. Would that we all could receive and absorb that same message as we approach the end of our lives.

Sister Emily was so humble that I really didn’t know about all of her accomplishments until I read her biography on the monastery website. She started out as an elementary teacher, oversaw spirituality centers in Canada. Watertown, and Richardton, ND, taught “The Rule of St. Benedict” at the college level, was the novice director at her monastery, trained spiritual directors and gave spiritual direction to countless people like me, all while guiding retreats, being a talented clay artist and still managing to tend her community’s flower gardens.

Her focus was more commonly on other people’s accomplishments rather than her own.

Sister Emily’s humility shines through even now as she endures her illness. She told me with a calm spirit of acceptance how she had gone from being able to walk on her own just a few weeks ago to having to be pushed now in a wheelchair. She can no longer enjoy reading, something that must be terribly hard for such a bright and educated woman.

I likely would react with anger and frustration if I had to endure the same difficulties. I’d probably “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” I detected none of that in Sister Emily, but rather what she often tried to impress on me in our spiritual direction sessions, that God’s love and mercy is always present, always available, no matter the circumstances.

I felt as though our weekend together was one long spiritual direction session. Sister Emily took my husband and me into the monastery chapel — clearly her cherished space — to see one of her favorite paintings “Ad Sum” (Here I Am) by artist Barbara Younger, OSB. The painting shows a cross-legged figure looking toward an intensely powerful and benevolent light.

Painting titled “Ad Sum” (Here I Am) by Paula Habbena shows an intense circular light surrounding a figure sitting cross-legged in front of a blue background.
Painting title “Ad Sum” (Here I Am) by Barbara Younger, OSB in the chapel of Mother of God Monastery. (Photo courtesy of Charles Reynard)

Sister Emily showed us another of her favorite paintings, an abstract depiction by Paula Habbena of the love of God spreading across the universe. The painting’s powerful images seem to jump off the canvas. Sister Emily says both paintings often move her to tears.

Painting in white and earthtone colors containing spirals, swirls, squares and straight lines meant to depict the power of God’s love moving across the universe.
Painting by Paula Habbena meant to illustrate the power of God’s love moving across the universe. (Photo courtesy of Charles Reynard)

That Sister Emily would be so moved by these artworks didn’t surprise me. She told me her favorite Scripture passage is Chapter 8 of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, which sums up much of what those paintings try to express:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The blessing of being part of a monastic community was also on broad display. Sister Janette LaPlante, one of the community members who studied under Sister Emily when she was a novice, has been taking care of Sister Emily fulltime along with the caring staff at The Village of Harmony Hill, the assisted living wing of the monastery. If only all of us could have such loving care in our later years!

As my spiritual director and as my friend, Sister Emily taught me how to live, how to love and how to serve. As she now travels this stage of her life, she is teaching me how to die.

Sister Emily Meisel, OSB in her younger years holding one of the lambs her monastery took in for healing.
Sister Emily Meisel, OSB in her younger years with one of the lambs her monastery would take in for healing. (Photo courtesy of Sister Janette LaPlante)



Judith Valente

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.