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Room for Reflection

At New Skete, Sister Katrina ’70 found the age-old values of monastic life recast for today’s world.

By Susan Cousins Breen

Sister Katrina | Sarah Bancroft

A bright light from the Class of 1970 may already be extinguished by the time you read this profile.

Five years ago, Sister Katrina—better known to classmates as Sarah Bancroft—became a member of the Nuns of New Skete in upstate New York, an Eastern Orthodox monastery that supports itself mainly by making gourmet cheesecakes. She had a strong feeling this was what God wanted her to do, and yet, she had no idea why.

The reason became clear a year ago when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Today, living in the quiet hillside community of Cambridge, N.Y., Sister Katrina says, “This is exactly where I need to be to get the support I need to deal with this disease.”

Centennial Professor Emerita of Classics Helen North, one of the friends Sister Katrina has kept apprised of her illness via e-mail, detects a great sense of well being in Sister Katrina’s life. “The support of the New Skete community has been absolutely priceless to her,” North says.

The beginning of Bancroft’s journey was typical for a Swarthmore classics major—a year studying in Greece and doctoral studies at Princeton. But job prospects were bleak when she graduated with a Ph.D. in classical archeology in 1979, so she completed a six-week business-management program at New York University, emerging as a research associate at a corporate strategic-marketing firm.

Although Bancroft remained in the corporate world through the end of the 1990’s, she found the work increasingly unfulfilling. At the same time, she had gradually become more and more involved with her church. Exploring ways to make religion more central in her life, she stumbled upon a book In The Spirit of Happiness by the Monks of New Skete, the brother community just down the road from the nuns. Intrigued by what she read, she began a series of visits, each time feeling more and more at home. Finally, in fall 2002, she moved in on a trial basis, becoming a novice and receiving her new name the following spring. “It’s a great life that really works and has solid values without rigidity,” she says.

According to Sister Katrina, New Skete has gleaned the essence of the age-old values of monastic life, recasting them into a life that fits into contemporary society. They have working relationships with members of the local community and welcome visitors; area residents worship with them daily.

Gil Rose, Susan Lippincott Professor Emeritus of Modern and Classical Languages, who taught Bancroft in his first three years at the College and is a lifelong friend, believes that her religious life is more emotionally fulfilling than her career.

“When she found this niche in the religious world,” he says, “she also found a home.”

The integrated nature of the nuns’ lives, emphasizing “being” rather than “doing,” is what appeals most to Sister Katrina. “Balance is something we strive for in our lives,” she says. “We do enough work to pay the bills, but because that is not the driving force in our lives, we have time for prayer, reflection, and spiritual development. The different aspects of my life reinforce rather than work against each other as they did in the corporate world. Now I work, play, and pray with the same people, and it makes each part of my life more fulfilling.”

Sister Katrina also appreciates the simple, physical nature of the work she does, whether handling cheesecakes in the nuns’ bakery or helping out with the German shepherd dogs that the monks breed. “It gives me room to reflect while I work. Elijah heard the voice of God not in the earthquake or the whirlwind but in the silence in between. We have no vow of silence, but we make room for it here.”

“This life is the ultimate counterculture that we baby boomers were looking for in the sixties and seventies,” Sister Katrina says. “I often say a quick prayer of thanks for God’s guidance in bringing me here, and I wonder why more people aren’t beating down our doors to be part of the secret.”

Author’s Note: Sister Katrina died peacefully on Aug. 13 in the Nuns of New Skete monastery.

4 Responses to “Room for Reflection”

  1. As a close friend of Sarah's from her first year in graduate school onward, I visited her a number of times at the Monastery of New Skete. She did indeed find a rich life there, contributing to it as well as receiving much from the monks and nuns. She kept some of the old; I enjoyed participating with her and several of the community in reading part of the Book of Mark during an informal Greek class one Saturday. Gifted as a teacher, Sister Katrina wrote and delivered memorable sermons. Her musicianship turned toward singing the lovely polyphonic chants of Matins, Vespers, and the Divine Liturgy for which New Skete is known. Of course her business acumen (as well as her strong arm) was shared in the day-to-day operations of the cheesecake kitchen and online sales. Sarah was still Sarah, with her wit and irrepressible laughter. Never complaining, she bore her illness with a striking matter-of-factness, through the course of it achieving a transformation that moved all who knew her at the monastery.

  2. Dear Carolyn,
    In searching for Sarah, one of 10 classmates at Coburn Classical Insitute in Maine (class of 1966), I found your reflection. We lost touch in 1985. Just now I learned of her becoming Sister Katrina, the pancreatic cancer and her death. Your reflection captured the person I knew in her teens and beyond–thank you for so vividly capturing her essence and sharing her time as Sr. Katrina.

    How connected we all are–
    Jo Champlin Casey Vassar '70

  3. This is wonderful to read, Sister Katrina, was always so kind to me as a younger student who was a bit lost in High School at Coburn Classical Institute in Maine. She was a lovely person and I am so glad to know that she found her way to fulfillment, it is wonderful to read. Thank you for finding this information Jo and to Ellen for sending it along.

  4. I’ve been looking for Sarah for a long time – I found she had become a nun and was Sister Katrina only after she had passed away, and then something made me look again to find this just now. We were classmates in the 5th grade in Waterville, Maine (before we both went to Coburn and then on to lead somewhat parallel lives as classics students, undergrad and grad, at different schools). Sarah was mischievous, funny, and smart. We’d play together on weekend afternoons, ask our mothers what was for dinner that night, and then eat together at the house that was serving the better meal. The picture of her here is so much like her as a ten-year-old (except for the color of her hair!). I’m glad she found the nuns at New Skete, that they found her, and that she found herself as Sister Katrina – I’m sure that when she went there she was answering a call she’d heard distantly, and then closer, since she was a kid.

    Hello Carolyn, Jo and Barbara – strange to see three people I know on the same page here.