(A quick note: The Sisters at the Monastery of St. Gertrude refer to the place where they live as a monastery, not a convent. And they refer to themselves as Monks and Sisters, not nuns. I asked a previous Prioress of the Monastery about that and she said, “You know, historically, monks and monasteries have had more power within the Catholic Church than nuns have. So we decided that we are monks.” Another slightly less fiery Sister later explained it to me in more depth, and it was a complex story regarding Pope John Paul II and the original St Benedict, but I like the succinct explanation the best. I think it says a lot about these woman – things that I would not have guessed before I visited.)
The Monastery of St. Gertrude found a home base in Cottonwood, Idaho in 1907. From its beginnings as a frame house and chapel, it has evolved into a highly renowned destination for travelers. Visitors can experience down-home luxury at The Inn at St. Gertrude’s, a dive into Idaho history at the on-site museum, or a solo or group-focused spiritual retreat. Or all of the above.
The Sisters follow the Rule of Saint Benedict, and as Benedictine monastics they consider hospitality to be the foremost of Christian values. With roots as far back as 900 A.D., they’ve had plenty of time to hone their ability to make even the most wayward traveler feel welcome. As a digital nomad with a tenuous (at best) connection to Christianity, it’s hard to imagine a place where I’m more likely to feel uncomfortable than in a monastery – a place full of people devoted to living a spiritual practice with location-specific roots for their whole lives. But from my first phone conversation with the person who takes reservations for The Inn, to a lovely breakfast with Sister Chanelle (“just like Chanel No. 5”, she says by way of pronunciation help), I felt welcome and as though space would be made for whatever my needs were.
The Inn itself is an environmentally-responsible bed and breakfast, with the option to have a continental breakfast in the inn or to join the Sisters in the nearby Refectory for breakfast (enjoyed in silence on weekdays). After breakfast, a trip to the onsite museum will give you a good introduction to the history of the monastery as well as amazing insights into the surrounding areas of the Camas Prairie and the Snake and Salmon Rivers. The 8,000 sq ft facility houses collections from historical medical tools to personal items from some of the original (and colorful) pioneers who came to the area. Of special interest to me was the history of the Chinese miners who influenced much of the area in the gold fields of the 1860s. On your way out, don’t forget to stop at the Gift Shop to pick up some of the jam made by the Sisters on site (you probably had some on your fresh-baked bread this morning.)
You might also take a tour of the main Monastery building – built in the 1920s out of a beautiful stone called blue porphyry which was quarried from the hill directly behind the building. The chapel has become well known for its acoustics – the result of the thick stone walls used to construct it. My tour actually began in the basement below the chapel, the laundry room, because my tour guide wanted me to see how the whole architecture of the building contributed to the majestic effect that you feel when approaching the building from the front or hearing the chorus in the chapel. You’ll also get some insight into the daily lives of the residents, as well as finding the library, which you are welcome to peruse throughout your stay. The tour will also get you oriented to the walking paths and other points of interest on the property, which was my main interest.
The Monastery owns about 1400 acres of the surrounding land and in their Philosophy of Land Use they describe themselves as “a community of women intimately connected to this land”. Wandering the property adjacent to the Monastery, as guests are welcome to do, one gets a visceral sense of what land is like when it has been nurtured by a committed group of people as a part of a spiritual practice. Wandering up the hill behind the buildings, immersed in the smell of pine trees, you eventually come across a small grotto dedicated to Mary. Then above that you find the cemetery where 100 years of Sisters were laid to rest. Sisters live out their final days in the Monastery, in the onsite infirmary when needed. They return to the earth here on the same land that they committed their lives to supporting.
There is a profound sense of something sacred here, standing on the top of this hill looking out over the surrounding prairie and distant mountain peaks. Even for me, a digital nomad with no tendency toward flights of fancy and with hardly any sense of personal roots, it feels like a foreign and special magic to be in a place where so many people are so firmly planted – like being held in a basket made of intertwined and living roots. Make time to have a seat on a nearby bench and watch the sunset before you wander back to the Inn.
But don’t be late back to the Inn, because home-baked dessert awaits you. On the evening I was there, generous portions of chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream was on the menu – the cake baked by Sister Chanelle herself.
The room itself was well appointed, with a comfortable queen-sized bed, private in-room bathroom, sufficient wifi, and beautiful view of the prairie. Called the Bluebird Room, my room had a legit family of bluebirds nesting in the bird box just outside my window.
Whether you want to curl up in your room with some of the wide range of reading material available (Benedictines also consider reading to be a spiritual practice), or spend your days wandering the surrounding countryside, The Inn at St. Gertrude’s is sure to provide some much-needed respite to even the most footloose of wanderers.