In 1893 Fr. Bernard H. Pennings and two confrères from Berne Abbey came to the United States. After traveling by sea and train, plunging into a cultural, technological and societal reality far beyond their familiar European surroundings they found themselves in the midst of the newly settled, diverse, unruly and rural areas of North Eastern Wisconsin.
Last weekend our novice director, Fr. David, and the three novices (myself, Matt and Stephen) went up to visit these first Norbertine foundations, the first parishes given to these early Norbertine missionaries. The Norbertines came not as missionaries to convert the unbaptized to Christianity but rather to minister to existing populations of Christians; calling them to continued conversion within their own lives as settlers in a foreign land.
To walk in the footsteps of these first brave men, men who left all they knew for a life unknown, a foreign continent, a foreign people, a foreign tongue and an often challenging way of life was profoundly moving. They challenged difficulties unimagined to provide sacramental and ministerial services, manifesting the love of God for humanity to a severely under-served population and to plant their ancient way of life in a new and growing nation. We witnessed small churches dotting the rolling hills of Door County and the petite rooms in which these men lived out their first winter.
We, of course, have the priveledge of driving the long distances from parish to parish. That was not the case for these early settling Norbertines. The landscape, farmland and forests, glimpses of Lake Michigan and Green Bay appearing around bends, simple wood and brick farm houses—all remain much the same as these men had come to see it over a century ago.
While in Wisconsin we spent several nights at St. Norbert Abbey, a structure standing as a monumental testament to the fruits of the labors of these earliest white canons. A property distinguished by its immense scale, opulent chapel, and lush grounds stands in testimony not only to the glory of God, as a sign and symbol to manifest the invisible to our humble frail human forms, but also as a temple to the power of hope, faith and love. Its walls, and the men that inhabit the and the ministries that it has fostered (many high schools, the only Norbertine institution of higher education—St. Norbert College, parishes, one independent daughter house, two dependent daughter houses, foreign missions, and the list goes on…) all express the vision of Abbot Pennings, and that of St. Norbert in centuries past. Who could have imagined that this way of life, this prophetic vision of Christian community, would have come to root itself in the United States? Let alone the success and blessings that have fallen upon it and the people it serves in such an unassuming location…
For me, though technology and culture has changed, the ability to walk in the footsteps of this journey of faith has deep meaning. My own community in New Mexico is one that was missioned with little more than a dream, faith and hope for the future building on a heritage of the past. As I read the letters of the earliest north American Norbertines I cant help but notice how, despite being centuries and cultures apart, similar challenges exist in setting up any new foundation. But, it also gives me great hope to see the work of the Spirit in this context, and to believe that the same Spirit is at work in our own humble community striving to witness the reality of a simple Christian community in a new place.
For me, New Mexico is not a new place. It is the land of my birth. However, from this small but vibrant community I can be a missionary in my own context serving those whom I love and who have given me so much and demonstrating the potential for the dream of Premontré to become a reality—that a simple Christian life striving to find unity amidst trials and diversity and hope in a broken world is indeed possible.
On our way back to Chicago we stopped at Holy Hill. A magificent shrine atop one of the highest points in the state of wisconsin. This moving structure, drawing flocks of pilgrims from around the world, stands as a testament to the feats humaniy will undertake in order to honor an ideal–and in reality something greater than an ideal, the foundations of truth and faith.