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 | Mary McCoy | Saint Leo University

Saint Leo University Community Celebrates 135th Anniversary of Founding of Benedictine Sisters of Florida

On February 28, 1889, five brave nuns arrived in rural East Pasco County from Pennsylvania at the request of Father Gerald Pilz who asked them to come to Florida to staff schools.

On the day after their arrival — March 1, 1889 — those sisters began teaching in San Antonio and St. Joseph, helping to create the school that would become Saint Leo University and to found the Benedictine Sisters of Florida. 

The university community celebrated the 135th anniversary with a lunch and program at Saint Leo’s Dining Hall. Music for the celebration was provided by a Saint Leo student vocal group, under the direction of Dr. Cynthia Selph, and by J. Paul Schellenberg, University Ministry music minister.

Opening the program in prayer was Father John McEvoy, a retired priest from the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg who assists with campus ministry at Tampa Catholic High School and Saint Leo.

“We give you thanks for the Benedictine Sisters gathered here, and celebrate the 135th anniversary of their founding,” McEvoy said. He noted that the sisters provided a strong foundation for Catholic education, “from elementary to high school, to this place, Saint Leo University.”

Town of St. Leo Mayor Mike D’Ambrosio read a proclamation that was passed by the Town Commission earlier in the month, recognizing the 135th anniversary and in honor of their serving the community “with love, compassion, and unwavering faith.” University President Ed Dadez presented the sisters with a scrapbook, which was filled with well wishes from Saint Leo students, faculty, staff, and guests at the celebration.

Sister Lynn Marie McKenzie, president of the Monastic Congregation of St. Scholastica in North America, also recognized the special occasion. “It is such a pleasure to be here for an anniversary,” she said. McKenize added that the sisters continue in the monastic way of life and work together and pray together. 

Sister Roberta Bailey, OSB, prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Florida, acknowledged the significance of the 135th anniversary and how things have changed for the sisters and the world since the founding in 1889. 

“We are grateful for all that God has done for us throughout these 135 years since our founding sisters ventured forth from Pittsburgh, PA, to Pasco County, Florida. We’ve opened and withdrawn from schools — all still a credit to our transitional skills as they continue in some form to serve the founding purpose. Some changes were welcome and settled in easily; some sat uneasy on the sisters’ shoulders as they, responded to ‘the call of our times.’”

From 1929 to 1959, the sisters operated St. Benedict’s Prep school for boys. Holy Name Academy provided day and boarding programs for girls until 1964. 

“Shifting gears, we built new dormitories and a cafeteria to provide services to Saint Leo College students,” Bailey said. “In 2014, we made the courageous decision to ‘begin again’ the great adventure of the Benedictine Sisters of Florida. We sold our property north of Highway [County Road] 52 to Saint Leo University and build a one-level house on a former citrus grove across the highway.”

She noted the many careers the sisters have held: classroom teachers, principal, mission superior, CCD teachers and coordinators, “mom” at Good Counsel Camp. The Benedictine Sisters of Florida have served as archivists, Hospice volunteers, health care provides, laundry and kitchen staff, seamstresses, artists, and more. 

“The Benedictine Sisters, and the monks, offer an example of flexibility, perseverance and stability. Their many friends within and outside our community clearly pay tribute to our sense of radical Benedictine hospitality. In conclusion, the Benedictine Sisters of Florida, continue to “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, thanking God through him.”

About Saint Leo University

Saint Leo University is a Catholic Benedictine university dedicated to helping learners of all backgrounds and ages gain the competence and courage to be more. Offering 57 degree programs to more than 14,190 students each year, the nonprofit university is known for providing a values-based education in the liberal arts tradition and a community of belonging for those who seek a greater purpose in life. Saint Leo is regionally accredited and offers a campus in the Tampa Bay area of Florida, regional education centers, and several online programs. The university is home to more than 104,000 alumni. Learn more at

Media Contact: Mary McCoy, Senior Editor & Media Relations Manager,, (352) 588-7118 or cell (813) 610-8416

Father John Mcevoy with Sister Roberta Bailey
Sisters and guests enjoying 135th anniversary lunch
Dr. Jen Shaw shows scrapbook to Sister Lynn Maria Mckenzie and Sister Miriam Cosgrove
Sister Roberta Bailey, Prioress, discusses the history of the Benedictine Sisters of Florida
Sister Mary Hydro, Sister Mary Romana Gomez, and Cheryl Chadick pray before lunch
Saint Leo Student Lili Kozlowski greets Benedictine Sisters of Florida