Our Lady of the Prairie’s ‘master gardener’ moves on

Sister Joann Kuebrich, CHM, Our Lady of the Prairie’s out-going director, helped cultivate the seeds for the Wheatland-area retreat center and directed it for the first 11 years of its existence. Here she talks with those gathered last month at The Prairie for a celebration.

By Barb Arland-Fye

Our Lady of the Prairie took root long before occupying the tranquil acreage near Wheatland where people of various faiths come for retreats, educational programs or time alone.

A ministry of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary, the retreat center seeks to “provide hospitality and service in a sacred space of beauty that promotes respect for all creation in the tradition of the Humility Sisters.”

Sister Joann Kuebrich, The Prairie’s out-going director, helped cultivate the seeds for the retreat center in the 1970s and directed it for the first 11 years of its existence.


In appreciation for the gifts Sr. Joann and her helpers have brought to The Prairie, the Sisters of Humility celebrated Oct. 19 with a Mass of thanksgiving and a dinner at the Humility of Mary Center in Davenport.

“Truly the seed that was sown by Father Vincent and Sisters Bernadine and Mary John found fertile ground where it has been cultivated by Sister Joann and the others we recognize today so that it has borne much fruit after just 11 years,” said Sister Mary Rehmann, president of the Sisters of Humility.

“ Those who have come to The Prairie have been nourished by the beauty and mysteries of God’s creation, the programs and events that drew them to the site, the delicious food and hospitality that kept them returning.  

“For those many participants and for our Sisters and associates, I say ‘Thank you, well done,’ for your footprints on this ‘holy ground,’” Sr. Mary said.

Several decades earlier the Sisters of Humility, then based in Ottumwa where they operated Ottumwa Heights College, were searching for ways to provide adult religious education. They circulated a questionnaire in the Ottumwa Deanery (one of six regions in the Davenport Diocese), which asked respondents:  “How can Ottumwa Heights College better serve your needs in religious education and family life enrichment?”

In August 1978, Ottumwa Heights’ administrative team shared the survey results. Scripture, personal growth and the laws and teachings of the Church were top choices of the 60 respondents.  They wanted to meet in their own or nearby parishes, with costs shared by parishes.

New Horizons of Faith Corp. formed in response. Sr. Joann, an Ottumwa Heights administrator, and  faculty member Father Vincent Fabula, a Cistercian Trappist monk , were asked to organize adult religious education.

The programs were so successful that New Horizons expanded to other areas of the diocese, Sr. Joann said. People began requesting a retreat center. With New Horizons’ blessing, the search for a site got underway.

The idea was to find a farm with tillable land that could generate revenue for the retreat center. In the early 1990s, a site was found:  a 200-acre farm with woodland about a 30-minute drive from Davenport.

“It was a huge amount of work to renovate the house  and buildings,” Sr. Joann said. “There were many volunteers who helped make the property usable for a retreat center.”

In the late 1990s, the property was ready, but Fr. Vincent was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. After his death, the property became the possession of his religious community based at New Melleray Abbey in Peosta, which eventually sold the farm to the Congregation of the Humility of Mary.

“Sr. Bernadine Pieper and Sr. Mary John Byers were the driving force for this ministry,” Sr. Joann said. Responding to the needs of changing times has always been a mission of the Sisters. “At the same time, our mission states that we are called to care for the earth.”

The Sisters of Humility asked Sr. Joann and Sister Cathleen Real to assume leadership of Our Lady of the Prairie.

They sponsored programs on Scripture, prayer, spirituality, and for spiritual directors. A unique program featuring knitting has become especially popular.

Sr. Joann is fascinated with the groups that have visited The Prairie during her tenure, among them: children’s literature authors and illustrators, quilting groups, men’s and women’s church groups, priests’ groups, Sisters’ groups, parish staffs, women’s Bible studies, and individuals making private retreats.

“It’s our guests that really make this place what it is,” Sr. Joann says. “You have to respond to who they are and what they’re about. It makes us more aware of our guests.”

She also appreciates the Sisters and associates who help out at The Prairie and the staff who provide additional services maintaining the grounds, providing housekeeping, laundry, maintenance and other tasks.  

In his homily during the Mass of Thanksgiving, Msgr. Frank Henricksen referred to the opening song, “The Canticle of St. Francis.” “Francis should be the patron saint of our ecology, and the stewardship of our natural resources.

“I think that’s what The Prairie stands for: a place of silence and reflection and appreciation of God’s creation.

“What the Sisters of Humility have done in support of it — and the team that is being honored — is a reflection of God’s presence in a place like Our Lady of the Prairie.”

Helpers honored

These individuals were honored for their service to Our Lady of the Prairie during a Mass of Thanksgiving Oct. 19 in the Magnificat Chapel of the Humility of Mary Center: Sisters Joann Kuebrich, Marcia Eckerman, Roberta Brich, Harriett Ping, Joan Sheil, Marie Ven Horst, Dolores Schuh, Miriam Ehrhardt and Cathleen Real.

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