Benedictine Gift Shop in Saint Marys celebrates ten years of serving the Catholic community

By Melanie Sisinni

               The Benedictine Gift Shop at 139 Church Street, St. Marys, has been a community staple for Catholics in the St. Marys area for the last 10 years. With the closure of other local religious goods stores, like Hoffmans in Erie, the store now accommodates the needs of shoppers from all 13 counties in the Diocese of Erie. From sacramental gifts to spiritual knick-knacks, the store has a little bit of everything, including a heritage room dedicated to the lives of the Benedictine sisters who served the St. Marys community for many years.

               On Saturday, June 29, the gift shop celebrated its 10th anniversary, welcoming patrons from across the diocese with ice cream, treats, giveaways and tours of the Historical Room. The parking lot was overflowing with cars, and guests were filled with energy as they enjoyed looking through the variety of items available for sale, like the popular Tiny Saints and Sock Religious collection.

            Mary Lynn Carnovale is one of the faith formation directors at the local St. Mary Parish and volunteers at the gift shop and historical room. She said the anniversary event had been in the works for weeks, knowing people would travel from all over the diocese to celebrate.

               “We had several meetings before this to plan the weekend,” said Carnovale. “The store does well, especially during sacrament seasons. We get people from all over that visit. A lady taking a tour of the historical room said she was from Erie.”

               Bonnie Pearson works at the gift shop as a buyer and tour guide. Her passion for the store was evident, and she was ready and excited to discuss the shop’s rich history as an asset to the community.

Bonnie Pearson gives a tour of the Historical room at the Benedictine
Gift Shop in Saint Marys.
Photo/Melanie Sisinni

            “When the nuns left this area in 2014, they had a gift shop,” said Pearson. “The people who worked in the office agreed to take it over. It’s been a labor of love for all of us at the shop or the office just to carry on their legacy.”

               Pearson said it is fortunate that the church owns the gift shop building. This allows the sale price of items in the store to remain reasonable, and the gift shop to thrive in an industry that hasn't been as fortunate.

               “We’re in it to help the Catholic community far and wide, like the nuns did,” said Pearson. “Their stuff wasn’t expensive, and we don’t have to make money. We’re not paying anybody. We are staffed by volunteers. We all work for the church, and what we do is supposed to be volunteer time. We’re very fortunate that we can provide the service without being expensive.”

               Pearson enjoys anticipating people’s interest and buying for the store.

               “There’s so much stuff out there, and you don’t see it,” said Pearson. “There are not many Christian gift shops around. I don’t even know of another one.”

               In addition to her buying role, Pearson is always willing to give a tour of the Historical Room, which is filled with artifacts and memorabilia from the early days of the Benedictine nuns in Saint Marys.

               “The St. Vincent Monastery in Latrobe was the first monastery in the United States, and the convent in St. Marys was the first convent in the United States,” said Pearson. “It was really sad when they had to tear the convent down.”

Statues from the original Benedictine Convent are on display
in the Heritage room at the Benedictine Gift Shop.
Photo/Melanie Sisinni

            When the convent was torn down, saving as much of the history as possible became a priority. The marble altars were moved in pieces from the convent chapel to a new one just down the road.

      “It took Steger Masonry from Ridgway three weeks to move the altars up because they had to take them apart like a puzzle and then put them all back together,” said Pearson.

            Life-size statues that were once next to the original altar in the convent are displayed in the Historical Room.

            “They’re made of concrete, so they weighed like a thousand pounds,” said Pearson. “I don’t even know how they got them down.”

            Though the anniversary celebration lasted for one weekend, the store and Historical Room are open to the public, Tuesdays through Saturdays. For more information, visit the store's facebook page here