Rescue dog from Louisiana lifts spirits at Yankton monastery


YANKTON, S.D. (AP) — The newest member of Sacred Heart Monastery walks on all fours and begs for food. She also likes a good scratch behind the ears and going for walks on a leash.

In short, she leads a dog’s life.

She’s Lexi, a purebred Yorskhire Terrier some refer to as the “Monastery Mascot.” The dog, who turns 4 this spring, arrived last October to live with the 69 Benedictine Sisters on the hill overlooking the Missouri River.

Lexi has brought joy to the nuns, but she has also found happiness after leading a difficult life and being transported hundreds of miles to South Dakota.

“We call her Lexi, the rescue dog, because she was rescued after Hurricane Ida in Louisiana,” said Sister Maribeth Wentzlaff, referring to the major storm Aug. 26-Sept. 4, 2021.

The match quickly came together.

“When there was the hurricane in Louisiana, the dogs had to go to shelters,” Sister Maribeth said. “When the shelters were getting flooded, the dogs needed someone to rescue them. What a neat match when an animal can find a place that really cares about them.”

While the match occurred quickly, it was the answer to a long-held prayer among the nuns, especially Sister Maribeth, the Yankton Press and Dakotan reported.

“I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s last July, so I had done a lot of reading about how dogs or other animals help people with Parkinson’s calm down the tremors and the shaking,” she said.

“I have wanted a dog for a long time. I kept in contact with Heartland Humane Society to be on the lookout for a dog. But it had to be a certain type that didn’t shed, preferably was a female and wasn’t just a new puppy.”

Then came the unexpected call. A Sioux Falls animal shelter learned it would be getting a shipment of displaced dogs from Louisiana, and officials wondered if the nuns were still interested and able to take one of the incoming canines.

“Heartland Humane Society was going to get 300 rescue dogs from Louisiana, so they were contacting all of their local shelters, including the one here in Yankton,” Sister Maribeth said.

“The dogs would arrive at Sioux Falls in four or five days. They had a healthy dog for us and were going to bring her down to the monastery.”

The nuns were overjoyed to welcome the Yorkie, reminiscent of St. Francis of Assisi and his love for animals. And in a manner befitting the monastery, the nuns named the dog Lexi — after a prayer known as the Lectio (lexy-o) Divina.

The prayer can be recited by anyone and combines Scripture readings with reflection, Sister Maribeth said.

“You pray and reflect on whatever comes to you, some wisdom or insight,” she said. “And here, Lexi was someone who could teach us some wisdom because we learn a lot from dogs and other animals. They give us unconditional love, and they just bring out the happiness and joy in all of us.”

Before she arrived, Lexi was hit by a car that broke her pelvis and required surgery, Sister Maribeth said.

But the nun believes Lexi was injured in additional ways.

“Lexi has been a real day brightener for people. They look forward to seeing her, and she just loves attention,” the nun said. “I think, honestly, she was abused when she was young. She wasn’t in a family who really cared for her and truly loved her. Now, she is learning how to trust. She has a lot of people around her at one time.”

Sister Margo Tschetter has seen many of the same signs that the dog was mistreated in the past.

“I really think she was abused by a man at one time, so she has a hard time with men employees (at the monastery),” she said. “Some of them can visit with her and pet her, while others she wants nothing to do with them.”

The Sisters knew the dog would face a major transition living among the 69 nuns, along with monastery employees and visitors. The nuns formed a team to plan for the dog’s arrival and needed care.

The nuns knew the dog couldn’t be allowed in the dining room or certain other areas. In addition, the dog would need someone to care for her, feed her, take her for walks and make sure that she received general care.

At first, Lexi was housed in the main section of the care center (infirmary or nursing home). However, the center created too much activity and stimulation for the newly-arrived dog.

After rethinking the situation, the nuns made Sister Margo’s room the dog’s home during the day and Sister Maribeth’s room as the canine’s place at night. Lexi was free to come and go, and nuns come to visit her.

“It’s stabilized Lexi a lot more,” Sister Maribeth said. “And a lot of the Sisters stop by Margo’s room for some ‘Lexi time.’”

Sister Margo relishes her role as “dog whisperer.”

“Lexi reminds me of when I was growing up. We always had dogs at our house,” she said. “So, when we got Lexi, it was a breath of fresh air, something different that gave some of the Sisters something to do and something different to talk about.”

The canine companionship has become especially important with the pandemic entering its third year, Sister Margo said. The monastery has been closed to the public since March 13, 2020. The nuns recently opened Sunday Mass in Bishop Marty Chapel to outside worshippers, requiring masks for all persons.

However, the recent surge of a new variant may mean a return to some of the former rules, Sister Maribeth said. “With omicron, we just had a COVID meeting and are tightening things up again,” she said.

With the ongoing pandemic, Lexi has lifted spirits and benefited the nuns’ mental health and need for outside socialization, Sister Margo said.

“I think it has really helped all of us. A lot of places have the Eden project where they bring animals into a place,” she said. “They have found research showing animals bring new life to those that they’re around and give people something to look forward to.”

Lexi has worked on her socialization skills, Sister Maribeth said.

“Lexi is learning how to shake hands and all sorts of other things. She’s really learning the tricks of the trade,” the nun said.

After the initial shock of arriving from weather in the Deep South, Lexi has adjusted well to South Dakota winters, Sister Margo said.

“Lexi loves going outside,” the nun said. “When the Sisters put on their winter coats to go out and take her for a walk, she acts perfectly comfortable. I think she has a really thick undercoat.”

But not always, Sister Maribeth said.

“When we had our first snow, 6 or 7 inches, it came to her chest,” the nun said. “She’s from Louisiana, and she didn’t know what to make of it. Now, she lifts her paws high when she walks in the snow.”

Lexi holds an extremely sensitive sense of smell and recognizes the different sights, sounds and smells of the Sisters and where she has been taken for walks, Sister Margo said.

The dog has even adapted to the surrounding wildlife, she added.

“The squirrels drive her nuts, but the coyotes didn’t bother her when they were howling the other night,” she said.

Lexi has given a new dimension to monastery life, especially during a pandemic that limits contact with the outside world, Sister Margo said.

“It’s so satisfying to have Lexi around. I think it has you seeing a different way of a new life, and I think COVID has a lot to do with that,” she said. “You get (69) people living together, that’s one thing, but having the animal makes things completely different. They also have a need to be cared for and to be sheltered, fed and loved.”

Sister Maribeth agrees, noting the dog has lifted spirits, including hers.

“When I look…

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