WATERTOWN, SD (KELO)– For more than 60 years, the Benedictine sisters of the Sacred Heart have made their home in Watertown, but their role in the community is undergoing a major shift right now, turning their once rural monastery into one of the largest developments in the state.

In tonight’s Eye on KELOLAND, we head to Watertown to see what’s planned in the Harmony Hill project.

“Monasteries seem peaceful, but they’re really real workhouses of growth,” one sister said during a 2002 interview at the Mother of God Monastery.

Harmony Hill has been the center of spiritual growth for the sisters of Mother of God Monastery for the past six decades.

“The sisters came to Watertown in 1964, they had been stationed in Pierre where they started what is now St. Mary’s Hospital,” sister Barbara Younger, the Assistant Prioress at Mother of God Monastery said.

But the sisters moved to Watertown with a different mission in mind.

“Our sisters did all of the teachings in all of the schools,” one sister said during a 2002 interview with KELOLAND news.

They started a school for girls in the 1960s and 1970s, but by the 1990s their site became a full-time Monastery, creating a permanent home for the 137 sisters who once lived here.

“It’s not a building you’d expect surrounded by South Dakota fields,” our KELOLAND reporter said in a 2002 report.

We visited the sisters in 2002, when their numbers had dropped down to 70, but today the bells are still ringing a top of the now empty Monastery.

“The last sisters moved out of the monastery a couple of weeks ago,” Younger said.

But thanks to some foresight and years of planning…

“The sister’s needs were imminent so we knew we needed to do something,” Younger said.

…the 36 remaining sisters are still living on Harmony Hill.

“Everyone is living on the campus in one way or another, either in assisted living or memory care or independent living,” Younger said.

Since the 1980s, the sisters have been building senior living housing on their rural hilltop, but this May they helped open The Village of Harmony Hill, a new development providing long term medical care for 76 senior residents and independent living space for up another 60 seniors.

“There’s a great need for senior care in our area,” Younger said. 

But as the aging sisters continue to plan for the future…

“At some point, there won’t be any sisters,” Younger said.

…they’re still looking to fulfill their mission in the Watertown community.

“What’s the need, is there a way we can fill that need?” Younger said.

They’ve found an answer in planning for the future of their 485 acres on Harmony Hill.

“We also know we can’t take a dollar or an acre with us, what is it that we’re going to leave to Watertown. So how can we have our land speak about the values we’ve lived by all these years,” Younger said.

They’ve now made it their mission to help more people in Watertown find a place to call home.

“Affordable housing is a problem everywhere across the United States,” Younger said.

In an effort to help solve that problem, the sisters of Mother of God Monastery have now become some of the largest developers in not only Watertown, but the entire state of South Dakota.

“We did not start off saying let’s create the largest planned development in South Dakota history,” Younger said.

But what they have planned for Harmony Hill will completely transform their nearly 500 acre stretch of Watertown.

“Working with a developer to build truly affordable housing: tax credit, income adjusted housing,”  Younger said. “We’re also going to build student housing; Lake Area Tech, their population grows every year so true student housing is needed. The development will be buliding between 150 and 200 units of that.”

The sisters sought out partnerships with developers who could add two large affordable apartment buildings next to The Village and are also planning 100 small single-family lots to help more people realize their dream of home ownership.

“They need starter homes between $200,000 and $250,000. How can we as sisters with our land, bought and paid for decades, how can we help another developer build true starter homes?” Younger said.

In total, the Harmony Hill project will add 700 new residences to the Watertown community.

“Anytime you have a development of that magnitude, the investment along with the construction and all of the operational payroll that comes with that,” Chris Clifton, the executive director of the Watertown Development company said.

The Watertown Development Foundation says the Harmony Hill development will be filling a key concern in the community that currently has a vacancy rate of just 1.5 percent according to a recent housing study.

“In Watertown, we draw from a huge region that goes outside the confines of Codington County,” Clifton said.

As the community continues to add to its population and its economy, the sisters’ land on the southern edge of town is becoming valuable for a number of industries.

“A mile and a half of frontage on two of the busiest roads in Codington County, one is Highway 81, light industrial would be welcome there,” Younger said

The master plan for the harmony hill development includes 100 acres of commercial development, along with 80 acres set aside for a major educational addition to the community.

“One of the key things we decided to do was donate land for the Challenger Learning Center of South Dakota,” Younger said.

Lake Area Tech helped Watertown secure the NASA STEM learning center, a cause the sisters hope will not only attract more visitors and students to the community, but also future workers to the state. All of these different projects coming together to create their vision for a new cohesive development that will reach people of all ages.

“We wanted to develop it intentionally that has multi-generational outlook, that has some synergy to it,” Younger said.

While the sister’s time in Watertown may be coming to a close, this development means they’ll be leaving a legacy to last for a lifetime.

“We believe that this legacy will be a gift to future generations for Codington County and all of South Dakota,” Younger said.

Construction on the student housing and affordable housing projects is expected to begin in the spring. The Challenger Learning Center is also hoping to break ground next year, depending on donations received. As for the future of the monastery building, the sisters hope it will become a commons area and gathering place for the whole development, adding new restaurants and businesses.