Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Turkey Girls

The Christmas season is very important in our monastery with liturgical celebrations a top priority. But also important is the common table and the festivities that surround it. I'd like to share the story of the “turkey girls,” who added significantly to holiday celebrations in the 1930s.

The Depression years were hard for everyone. Here at Saint Benedict’s it was doubly hard because of the nearly $2 million debt on the newly-constructed St. Cloud Hospital which the sisters opened in 1928, shortly before the financial crash. To help reduce operating costs and hopefully, realize some funds, Sister Ruth Kann, who worked with aspirants and postulants (those newly come to the monastery), initiated the turkey project in spring 1931. With 27 eggs and the expertise of postulants from farms where poultry was raised, the turkey industry began at Saint Benedict’s. Fifteen chicks were hatched from the first 27 eggs. The first chick, already spoiled by the time all were hatched, was named Bernadine.

A space in a sheep pasture was fenced off for the turkeys. More eggs and several turkeys were brought from the home farms of postulants. A shed was built for the birds. Those postulants with turkey “experience” took charge of the brood. In between classes, after school hours, and on week-ends, the “turkey girls” could be found feeding, watering, cajoling, and taking care of any sick birds. By November thirteen birds provided the main course at Thanksgiving; another thirteen in December for the Christmas dinner at Saint Benedict’s. Others were dressed and sold. Ten hens and two gobblers were kept to be the start of the second year’s flock.

In spring 1932, turkey raising began in earnest. A turkey committee was formed and decisions made about the amounts of proper feed, the best incubator to purchase, where and how to house the growing flock, and who would take responsibility for what. Another decision became identifying new “turkey girls” when the postulants who were caring for the birds would enter the novitiate.

Many of the details of the venture were recorded in yearly reports prepared by the “turkey girls” themselves. It is evident that they enjoyed their work, took their responsibilities very seriously, and loved the birds: “Every evening before coming home the turkeys were well sprinkled with Holy Water and our Blessed Mother was implored to protect them” (Ottilia Bleth 1933). “Delano [one of the flock] had a bad cold. We put Vicks in her nose and fed her with wormwood tea….You could hear that her windpipe and nose were all closed up….After a few months of conscientious doctoring, she was healthy again” (Theresa Weber 1934). “To be sure, the girls had a few pets—Blindy, Grandpa, Peacock, and a few others—who received individual attention and special lunches” (Mildred Blatz 1936).

The enterprise continued to grow. Sister Carolinda (Catherine Medernach, who celebrated her 75th jubilee last year) continued to work with the flock when she completed her novitiate in 1934 and assumed responsibility for the enterprise in 1937. The postulants discontinued their work in 1938. Sister Carolinda with help of farm employees continued the operation until 1961.

During 1937, the last full year of work for the “turkey girls,” the number of birds sold to butcher shops was 1,515. The average price received per pound was 23 cents. After expenses were paid, the profit realized was $1,767.95. The year’s report ends with a sentence that reflects the tenor of all the years: “We all had a very successful and happy year” (Evelyn Reller). Way to go, “Turkey Girls.”

by Dolores Super, OSB

photos: top left: novice Veronica (S. Ruthelda) Klein holding a turkey
center right: the turkey girls of 1933
bottom left: Sister Carolinda Medernach with turkeys.

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