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Nina Nolan

Communication Specialist

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Tue
30
Jun '09

Final trip to the mother ship

Some people in ‘s-Hertogenbosch stay up way too late! There was a lot of noise on the street last night until 4 a.m. Don’t these people have jobs? I think people must be taking advantage of the summer vacation season.

Today was the last day of the tour and our trip to Berne was wonderful. We were welcomed at the door by a couple of the Norbertines of Berne. They ushered us in and had coffee and cookies all set up just waiting for us. Maybe I’m coloring my own thoughts (probably) but the Prior bore a resemblance to Abbot Pennings. He was a tall Dutchman with glasses and I could see him in the Pennings statue I’ve passed on campus so many times before.

Berne Abbey

Berne Abbey

While we had coffee and cookies, the Abbot of Berne gave us a quick history lesson. The Norbertines founded Berne Abbey in 1134. The abbey took on its first parish in 1240 already. The community at Berne has always been a small one. At the moment, they have 45 confrères. During the Eighty Years’ War, the abbey was confiscated and in 1579, it was burned down. Even during periods where the Norbertines and the abbots were hiding, the order went on and as of now, it has existed for 875 years.

Getting a history lesson from the Abbot at Berne

Getting a history lesson from the Abbot at Berne

Our history with Berne collides in 1893 when Fr. Pennings arrived in De Pere. A Dutch-speaking gentleman was threatening Catholicism in the Door County peninsula area and the Berne Abbey was contacted by the bishop of Green Bay to send someone who could come and proclaim the truth in Dutch to the Belgian settlers. Abbot Pennings founded the priory of St. Norbert and the beginnings of St. Norbert College in 1898 and was the first abbot of St. Norbert in 1925. He served as the abbot and the president of the college almost until his death.

The Berne Abbey also founded abbeys in India and in Windberg, Germany.

The abbot expressed that one of their most important works is to live as a good community.

As we took our tour, you could clearly see which parts of the buildings were constructed during a certain time period. The style of the architecture was very diverse. The building had a castle part that was sort of medieval looking, a gothic church and a much more modern living quarters at the back. The tour revealed the deep history because many of the rooms in the medieval part of the building still had furnishings and décor from the earlier periods.

Church at Berne Abbey

Church at Berne Abbey

We had Mass with the community and again, several of our Norbertines concelebrated. They made it really special for us by having President Kunkel do one of the readings and by praying for us in English. When you’re participating in a Mass in the Dutch language and all of the sudden a language is spoken that you understand it has a huge impact.

After Mass, we dined with the community. The dining room was quite full and they really took care of us. I have had more ice cream on this trip than I care to think about.

Norbertines serving lunch at Berne

Norbertines serving lunch at Berne

The abbot and the prior walked us out to the bus and I got a little emotional as they waved us away. We honked the horn a couple of times and then we were off to Amsterdam, our final stop of the tour.

As we entered Amsterdam, the bus passed all kinds of impressive buildings that some people on the bus were able to identify as museums, opera houses, etc. I got really excited to have some time to explore the city tomorrow. We checked into our hotel just on the outskirts of town and it’s pretty neat. The lobby is filled with works of installation art and canvases that left me hopeful for a clean room. I was right!

When we boarded the bus for the final time to go to the restaurant, a tour guide named Hank joined us. I wasn’t expecting it at all and when this strange man appeared on the bus I was a little confused. It was a great touch for the end of the tour. He took us on a little route around the city and introduced us to other buildings and provided us with some background.

Hank told us that at one point the city of Amsterdam was nothing but a swamp and people decided to settle the area because it would be fertile.  During the 1500-1600’s, Amsterdam experienced its Golden Age, during which it was the staple of the commercial trading world. Now, there are about 740,000 people living in the city and they are comprised of more than 75 nationalities. The city of Amsterdam has more than 220 canals and 2,500 houseboats.

Houseboat on a canal in Amsterdam

Houseboat on a canal in Amsterdam

In Amsterdam there are 18 million bikes. They were zooming everywhere just like in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Hank told us that Amsterdammers just “borrow” each other’s bikes. People tend to lock their bikes up but many still get stolen. He said it wouldn’t be uncommon to have your bike stolen and run into it somewhere a year later. This whole idea of stealing bikes was so foreign to me.

We had a farewell dinner tonight at a little restaurant just around the corner from one of the canals in the city. They had gorgeous salads waiting for us and we were all eager to sit down and relax after a hot day. We had a great meal, conversation and we took a moment to give a big toast to Fr. Xavier and Fr. Jay for planning such a wonderful trip. There were so many little details to work out and many different personalities to accommodate for and they pulled everything off without a hitch.

It’s going to be a sad day on Thursday when I have to head home. I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that this trip has turned out to be one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. I feel like I’ve grown in my own spirituality and I’ve definitely developed a much better understanding of communio and what it means for St. Norbert College to be a “Norbertine” institution. It was incredible to see the common thread of Norbertine values woven through so many different communities of men and women across each of the countries and regions we visited. Each community was so much more vibrant than I expected and they all work tirelessly in their own ways for the good of their communities and for the good of others. The inner peace I saw in these communities was also amazing to me. Needless to say, I’m proud to be an alum of the college and I continue to be excited about working to get the word out about how GREAT the college is!

Mon
29
Jun '09

Our visit to the Norbertine sisters

Today was another beautiful day in the Netherlands. The sun was shining all day and the weather was quite hot. The Norbertine sisters at Oosterhout were very happy to see us. We were welcomed with cookies and tea.

The Prioress Maria Magdelena joined our table and she was just delightful. She told us that there are 25 women in the order ranging in age from 31 to 93. The women have one novice and one other woman who has already taken her first vows and is on her way to becoming a member.  The prioress told us her vocation story and it was pretty interesting. Early in her life she intended to get married and have lots of children. Fate had a different plan and at 18 or 19, she started thinking about what God wanted her to do with her life. She read a book about religious orders that mentioned the Norbertines and the seed was planted. She did two retreats at the Norbertine community in a short period of time and got homesick for the Order. The rest as they say, is history.

Before we went on our tour the sisters offered us a chance to look at and purchase some of their crafts. The crafts ranged from postcards to jewelry and from religious icons to lace. In selling their crafts, they are able to make some additional income.

Sr. Norberta gave us a tour of the priory. She was really on her toes and full of good humor. We started the tour in the church where we learned that the nuns were at one time cloistered which meant they could have limited contact with their friends and family. They were allowed visitors but they were not allowed to touch them and they could not leave the priory, even to attend the funerals of loved ones. In 1968, their way of living changed and the sisters were no longer required to live behind the grills.

Church interior at Oosterhaut Priory

Church interior at Oosterhaut Priory

The sisters see their main job as to pray for the priests, the needs of the people and to Jesus and the Holy Mother.

The church was constructed as it stands today in 1966. I was amazed when Sr. Norberta told us the floors were heated and the books were digital. They’re pretty cutting edge in that regard. They also have a swimming pool to enjoy when the weather is nice.

A typical day for the sisters includes a morning prayer, afternoon prayer, evening prayer, work and meals. After their final meal of the day, they have recreational time where they use the pool, play cards or sit outside.

Sr. Roberta was happy to report that in general, there is more interest in religious life. The struggle they have is keeping the girls once they express interest. When hardship occurs in the transition, the women sometimes return to secular life.

The primary source of income for the sisters comes from the restoration of old books. They have a quite sophisticated and specialized operation wherein they repair the pages and encasements of ancient and/or damaged books. Sr. Norberta said humbly that they’re “world famous” for this trade. It offers them the chance to be creators of beauty like God.  This work is very delicate, time consuming and often expensive. The trade is something that they pass down from generation to generation so that the knowledge is preserved.

The priory was impeccably clean. You could tell that the community spends a lot of time on the upkeep of their quarters. This attentiveness extended outside too; the bushes were perfectly pruned and the gardens were well kept.

We joined the sisters for lunch. We had tomato soup and ham sandwiches. While we were eating, the nuns were constantly circling to make sure everyone was cared for. When Fr. Joel Garner had finished his soup, there was another bowl in its place before he could object.

After lunch we sat down with the sisters for their midday prayer and just over 20 of the sisters were there. The wide age range was very apparent as they all made their way into their stalls.

After lunch the prioress insisted on a group photo and after Mass, the prints of the photos were already available for sale. What entrepreneurs they are at Oosterhaut!

One of the sisters taking our photo

One of the sisters taking our photo

When we boarded the bus and drove away they were outside waving until we were out of view. It was really nice to be able to spend the day with them and see how the female Norbertine population lives.

It is 9:30 p.m. here now and it’s still bright as daylight out. Last night it was 10:30 before the sun set (no exaggeration). It makes trying to get to bed early a bit of a challenge.

Tomorrow we’re off to our last abbey of the tour, Berne. Berne is the mother ship, the abbey from which St. Norbert Abbey was founded. I’m interested to hear more about the history of Abbot Pennings and our foundation in De Pere.

Goede nacht!

Sun
28
Jun '09

Averbode now!

We arrived at Averbode Abbey in Belgium this morning. We attended Mass in their church this morning. When the priests processed out, they just kept coming and coming and coming. Averbode has just fewer than 80 priests who belong to the Order; approximately 40 are living at the abbey. I would guess that 20 priests processed out at the beginning of Mass. Some of our Norbertines put on vestments and joined. It was really a nice surprise to see such numbers.

Averbode Abbey

Averbode Abbey

The Mass was very nice. There were children from a Gregorian choir who had traveled a couple of hours to participate in the liturgy this morning. They were quite impressive! I was also struck by how often during Mass they used incense. They were already burning the incense when we entered and they used it throughout Mass. Tim and Sue Reilly got booted out of the first pew they sat down in. I didn’t see it but I was not surprised when they pointed out the older couple. Squatter’s rights I guess.

Following Mass we were led through the “forbidden” doors to an outside courtyard where we had champagne and Pringles. That’s right, Pringles. They were served on a silver platter too. It was so sweet the way they had it all set up immediately following Mass. Later we found out that the celebration was in part because we were visiting and in part because it is the end of the work term in Belgium. People of this country will take July and August holidays.

After the reception we had lunch with the community. Even more Norbertines turned out there. There had to be at least 30 Norbertines who joined us. This dining area was huge. The announcements were made via a microphone so we could all hear. This is a huge change from the smaller settings we’ve dined in thus far. The spread they had was incredible; kabobs, salads, pasta salads, potato salads, vegetables, tongue, shrimp, salmon, bread, wine and more. Imagine the best buffet you’ve ever been to and multiply it by two. To top it off they had dessert for us and after that cookies and chocolate. Oddly enough, they also passed out cigars after dinner. Just now I’m thinking I should have snagged one as a gift for my Papa.

Norbertines of the Averbode community gathered for lunch

Norbertines of the Averbode community gathered for lunch

Fr. Stephen took us on a tour following dinner. We began in the tour in the church where we had mass. The church is a synthesis between the gothic and early Baroque styles and it’s filled with white. There was much vegetation and other creation carved into the ornamentation.

Interior of the church at Averbode

Interior of the church at Averbode

In one area of the chapel there exists an altar shrine to Our Lady. This shrine has received many pilgrims throughout the years and at one point in time the abbey saw a need to print informational pamphlets to distribute. From this small scale printing project, the Abbey grew into one of the most important publishing houses in Belgium. The Abbey does not print any longer but they are still operating as a publishing house, the only educational publishing house in Belgian hands. The abbey employs 104 lay people, 2 confrères and publishes mainly books for children and youth. Averbode also publishes books to train professionals who work with children who’ve experienced the loss of someone through suicide and they’ve published a book of accounts of sexual violence and incest. Fr. Steve said these are topics that do not make publishers any money so if they don’t publish them, nobody will.

Averbode has a foundation in Brazil and another in the mainly Protestant country of Denmark.

Another interesting fact, during World War II, the abbey kept Jewish refugees in the crypt beneath their building and consequently, these Jews survived the war.

Before we left Averbode, they had coffee waiting for us in a meeting room. Imagine that!

We arrived in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands this afternoon. This city is filled with bicycles. They’re pretty skilled riders. Some have passengers on the backs of their bikes and others smoke or talk on their cell phones as they cruise around.

Bicycles in 's-Hertogenbosch

Bicycles in 's-Hertogenbosch

Artist Hieronymus Bosch is the town’s claim to fame. He was born in the town and there is a monument dedicated to him in one of the squares.

I am glad that we will be here for two nights because many of the churches, museums and shops were closed today.

Flowers in 's-Hertogenbosch

Flowers in 's-Hertogenbosch

It ended up being beautiful out tonight and I hope the weather repeats tomorrow. In the morning we are going to Oosterhout Priory, a community of cloistered nuns that was established from Prémontré in 1271. It will be our first visit to a religious community of women.

Sat
27
Jun '09

R.I.P Michael Jackson

Today was a beautifully sunny day. We boarded a new bus this morning. We were sad to see Gunther go and especially sad to see the cleanliness of this new bus. I’d say there’s a good chance that it may not have been vacuumed in the last month. All of the bus trips are much shorter from here on out so I have a suspicion that we’ll be just fine.

As soon as we got into the city, we ventured to Our Lady of Antwerp Cathedral in the heart of the city. There are a number of mementos of St. Norbert scattered about the church. St. Norbert came to preach against the heresy of Tanchelm in Antwerp and his success led to the founding of a St. Michael’s Abbey, no longer in existence. From this former abbey, Averbode Abbey (and maybe others across Belgium) were formed. That said, St. Norbert’s early presence in the city has had an effect that lives on.

Interior of Our Lady’s Cathedral of Antwerp

Interior of Our Lady’s Cathedral of Antwerp

The massive gothic cathedral was begun in 1351 and its size was intended to act as a large finger pointing to God. Our tour guide said the church was almost destroyed during the French Revolution but was spared due to the wise thinking of a townsman. The man commissioned to disassemble the cathedral structure bought himself some time by convincing the French soldiers that plans were necessary for the project and telling them that other things also needed to be done before the process could begin. By the time everything was sorted, the French soldiers had already gone and the cathedral was spared. The people of Antwerp recognize and are very grateful for this man.

The artist Peter Paul Rubens was a child of Antwerp and we were fortunate to tour the cathedral today because there was an exhibit inside that housed some of his works. A number of the pieces in the exhibit originally existed in the space and it was a unique experience to see them there once again.

After our cathedral tour we were able to spend the day doing what we pleased. I did some shopping and was kind of taken aback to hear Michael Jackson’s songs blaring in some of the stores as an homage of sorts. The world is a very small place.

Horse-drawn carriage on the streets of Antwerp

Horse-drawn carriage on the streets of Antwerp

Tomorrow morning we are off to Averbode Abbey where we will take a tour, celebrate Sunday Mass and have lunch with the Norbertines there.

Until then!

Fri
26
Jun '09

Roosters in the church (and Fr. James wins big)

We made the journey from Germany to Belgium today. Not unlike Germany, the part of Belgium we drove through was full of dense forests. Unlike Germany, many cows in pastures dotted the countryside. The drive went pretty quickly and it was a beautiful day to watch the world pass by out the window. We even got a little peek of Luxembourg, as we had to cross through the country en route to Belgium.

I swear everyone in this country and Germany drive what we would consider luxury vehicles, BMWs, Mercedes, etc. What gives?

As we approached the Leffe Abbey located in the town Dinant, Gunther had to pull a tricky maneuver to get the bus through a narrow stone passage that was an extension of the cliffs surrounding the town. I had much faith in Gunther since he got us out of a few tight spots but it was quite the experience. Imagine seeing a bus stuck in a narrow passage. I’m not sure what we would have done had we ended up getting lodged. Everyone on the bus clapped when we made it through. At one point during the trip I suggested we play the game of “guest bus driver,” where we all take turns driving for a stretch. The idea didn’t really catch on. I can’t figure out why.

Gunther squeezing the bus through the cliffs in Dinant

Gunther squeezing the bus through the cliffs in Dinant

Dinant is the most picturesque town we’ve visited so far and quite possibly the quaintest town I’ve ever seen. It’s located in a valley on the River Meuse and there were many boats ported along the banks. Restaurants have outdoor tables along the river offering seats with quite the views. The streets are narrow and it’s almost like you’re stepping back in time. Especially when you hear the train roar through and see the ancient ruins lining the cliffs.

Dinant, Belgium

Dinant, Belgium

The Leffe Abbey is a Romanesque structure that felt to me sort of like a castle. As soon as we arrived, we were greeted by Abbot Bruno and led to lunch. My first impression was that this abbey operated more like a monastery than any of the others we’ve seen. All of the Norbertines were cooperating in the cooking and the service provided us. We sat next to a little old man who was so excited to see us but we couldn’t quite understand the French he was speaking to us.

Leffe Abbey

Leffe Abbey

Following lunch, we were led to a room to watch a DVD the Leffe Abbey produced in 2002 for their 800-year anniversary. The video highlighted many of the common threads of the Norbertine community the main focus being that they live together and worship together but they also serve the community. Leffe has Norbertines that are involved with helping the sick, providing counsel at an AIDS outreach center and doing parish work, among other things.

Abbot Bruno gave us our tour. He was a very animated man filled with humor. In the beginning of the church tour he was telling us about our surroundings and then a loud rooster crow interrupted us. After meeting Felix at Schlagl, we’d learned to expect the unexpected so we were all looking around wondering where the rooster was. As it turned out the crowing noise belonged to the Abbot’s phone. Everyone just started roaring. The rooster is the symbol of the area of Belgium that we are in so he said it’s only right that it’s his ringer.

The gardens at Leffe were unbelievable. I felt like I was in the secret garden. There were winding vines, fountains and statuary everywhere. The old buildings added to the feeling of being swept up in a fairy tale.

The garden at Leffe Abbey

The garden at Leffe Abbey

Leffe can be translated to “life.” It’s quite fitting for these men who serve to be bearers of Christ. Abbot Bruno was quick to point out that it’s good for marketing their Leffe brew too. The Norbertines used to produce their beer until the production took on such a large scale that they had to hand the recipe and the production responsibilities over to a facility better equipped. Phil Oswald, the vice president of advancement at St. Norbert, came to the college from Texas and he said you could get a hold of the beer there, which puts into perspective the scale of the operation.

After our initial visit, we took some time out to check into our hotel and do some wandering around the town. The shops were so cute and the town was really bustling. I tried to search out some Belgium chocolate but it wasn’t as available as I expected, maybe I’ll have better luck in Antwerp tomorrow.

Yours truly, Sue Reilly and Mary Hill near the River Meuse

Me, Sue Reilly and Mary Hill near the River Meuse

We met for dinner at the casino across from the hotel and had some interesting grub. It was pork, I think, and some deep fried sort of potato. It was all very good but the meat was a little mysterious.

We met back at the abbey for post-dinner conversation. Four of the Norbertines joined us. Last year when the St. Norbert group was at Leffe, the Abbot said they asked him a lot of questions so this year they decided to ask us questions. One of the things they wanted to know was why the people in the group got involved with a Norbertine college and the Norbertine Order. I think they got the essence of the college in the various answers. President Kunkel told them about our charge to lead by word and example and about the outcomes we see from our students post-graduation. Bill Hyland explained how he found his Mecca there with the Center for Norbertine Studies where he has been able to combine his isolated studies of the Norbertine history and culture with the living order. Kathryn Hasselblad Pascale and Michael Ariens, either current or past members of the board of trustees at the college expressed that the time they’ve spent involved with the college has been one of the bright spots of their careers. Michael noted that he and his wife Mimi believe in the college so deeply that they sent 5 or 6 of their kids to St. Norbert.

One of the Norbertines at Leffe told us why he decided to be a Norbertine and it was kind of an inspiring little story. He was working elsewhere with people with special needs and one individual in particular had severe autism wherein he would rock back and forth in his chair and make a lot of noise. Each time this now Norbertine accompanied this individual to Mass or to the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, he would quiet. It was almost like a miracle. At that point, this Norbertine really discovered that the Lord is present and active and that he needed to dedicate his life to this kind of work.

In equally big news, Father James Herring won big last night at the casino. After being turned away twice, once for not having on long pants and then because he was without socks, he finally made his way in and ended up winning on one of the slot machines. I guess I spent my night in the wrong place. Father James has agreed to split his winnings with the first person who calls 1-800-WIN-CASH. May the force be with you.

Thu
25
Jun '09

Swooned by Ulrich

I knew that this trip was going to be great but it’s truly turning out to be more enlightening and inspiring than I expected. Our experience at Roggenburg yesterday and particularly today has really left an impression on me.

Roggenburg Abbey

Roggenburg Abbey

This morning we met Ulrich for a tour of the abbey church. The church itself is 70 meters long and is dedicated to the assumption of the Virgin Mary. An interesting fact: As you move from the back to the front of the church, there are subtle changes in the tone of the white paint used. The closer you get to the altar, the whiter the paint gets because you are, in essence, “moving toward the light.”

Ulrich touring us through the church

Ulrich touring us through the church

Four of the side altars of the church contained relics of early Catholic martyrs whose skeletons were transferred to Roggenburg from Rome. Each year, the Norbertines at Roggenburg have a celebration wherein they parade around the abbey grounds with the relics. Many of the people in the surrounding community have a strong sense of faith and join the Norbertines in this celebration. In front of the tomb of St. Laurentia, Ulrich gave a really moving explanation of why these relics are important today and how they influence his life as a Christian.

Reliquary of St. Laurentia

Reliquary of St. Laurentia

First off, the saints who have found their resting place in the church date back to the early years of the church, reminding us of not only the deep heritage of the church but also that we are not alone in our faith. He noted that the saints pray for us and they pray with us so one should never feel alone. Also, one should never be afraid of death because the saints stand as testament to the fact that a life well lived lives on long after our mortal passing. Of course life is full of suffering and sorrows but it is also filled with so much joy and so much hope for the future. Ulrich said that he hopes the church at Roggenburg is a place of hope for all who come. Christ crucified appears in the center of the church to remind visitors that it is because of him that we have hope and promise of heaven.

I think we were all really inspired by his talk. The lack of a language barrier really allowed us to connect in a way that we haven’t thus far. With a Norbertine community that is so full of hope it’s no wonder vocations aren’t suffering in this Abbey. It was almost as if you could see inner peace just oozing out of the Norbertines we met during our time there.

The interior of the Roggenburg Abbey Church

The interior of the Roggenburg Abbey Church

Following our tour of the church, Roman gave us a tour of the rest of the grounds including the cultural center and the formation center. First we toured the cultural center that houses exhibits aimed at helping people discover the possibilities of creativity. Presently, the center is housing an exhibit dedicated to Dr. Theo Weigel, the former finance minister of Germany who is a generous friend and ally of the abbey. Weigel has assisted the abbey in many ways. He was instrumental in helping the Norbertines develop their formation center and he aided in positioning it such that there would be government monies available for the construction and the operation of the facility.

We learned that Weigel sometimes goes by the name of “father of the Euro,” because of his substantial role in pulling part of Europe together to use a single currency. That said, you can imagine the influence and power he has in the country and how helpful he has been in the flourishing of the Roggenburg Abbey’s formation operation. When we were touring this exhibit in his honor, there were several gifts that Weigel had received from foreign leaders including china from Bill Clinton and a nativity scene made in Bethlehem from Yassir Arafat.

Roman shared that during the Christmas season last year, the center had a nativity scene exhibit that drew 10,000 people in 4 weeks.

Housed nearby in the same structure as the cultural center were the village’s primary school, the city hall and the fire brigade, so the area was a bustling place when the kids were switching classes.

Next we ventured over to the formation center. The formation center houses activity rooms and accommodation areas for the families who come to participate in the different programs the center offers. The programs focus on issues including the environment, strengthening families and culture.

Roman talking about the green technologies in the formation center

Roman talking about the green technologies in the formation center

The formation center has been constructed using cutting edge environmentally friendly technologies. For example, holes in the ceiling collect warm air that rises and pulls the energy from this warm air to power other units in the center. No oil or gas is burned, only wood. The emissions from the wood burning are filtered such that they aren’t harmful to the environment. You can’t really ask for a better area in which to teach respect for the environment and creation.

Ninety school classes come through the center each year and they stay anywhere from 3 days to a week. Families are also invited and there are apartment-style accommodations for 4-person families and more.

Although the classes at the center don’t focus on the Catholic faith, it tends to well up with the Norbertine presence. Roman recognized that green initiatives of the abbey are deeply connected with the Order because the global energy crisis is a social justice issue. Some countries have excess, others have none and wars are being waged over limited resources.

The whole experience at Roggenburg was really enlightening and what their doing there is really pretty extraordinary.

After leaving the abbey we stopped in Ulm to see the tallest church tower in the world. The exterior was pretty impressive. Some of the folks went in but there’s a chance that I may have ventured into a few shops. Those of you who know me are in no way surprised by this. (Sorry, Mom!)

Ulm Cathedral, the tallest church in the world

Exterior of Ulm Cathedral, the tallest church in the world

We spent the better part of the afternoon on the bus and I got some much-needed rest. An accident on the highway caused us to get into our hotel at Saarbrücken much later than expected.

Blue skies over the German countryside (finally)

Blue skies over the German countryside (finally)

Dinner was great tonight. We went to an Italian restaurant near our hotel. There were a lot of laughs, some tiramisu and maybe some grappa.

Wed
24
Jun '09

Arrival at Roggenburg

This morning we left Straubing and toured two of the rural churches that the confrères of Windberg Abbey serve. The first was the church of St. Petera, a Romanesque church surrounded by a cemetery. The gravestones were very old and when we walked in the church, there was a crew installing some of the older looking ones as art on the wall. I thought it was a really neat way to honor the history of their parish. St. Petera was in strike contrast to the Baroque-style churches we spent the last few days touring. The interior and the exterior were stone.

St. Petera Church served by Windberg Abbey

St. Petera Church served by Windberg Abbey

There were some really stunning pieces in the interior and the simplicity of the place gave them a chance to shout.

Pietà sculpture in St. Petera

Pietà sculpture in St. Petera

The second area church we stopped at had a late Baroque-style interior. It was much along the same lines as Strahov, Schlägl and maybe even more similar to Windberg. The Windberg Abbey was depicted in some of the art on the wall since this is a parish those confrères serve.

Interior of church #2

Interior of church #2

We arrived in Roggenburg this afternoon after a short stop at a rest stop with a Burger King. Our group learned that ketchup is not complementary everywhere. Burger King charges 20 euro cents additional. Who knew? The bus ride was a little longer than the others but I found it relaxing. The lay of the area we are in now reminds me alot of Northeastern Wisconsin. We drove through the countryside and it was filled with fields and what I think were hunting stands.

As soon as we drove into Roggenburg Abbey the first thing that caught my eye was the koi pond and how modern parts of the abbey looked. Before we even checked into the hotel I knew it was going to be nice. The rooms have all sorts of cool features, some are really environmentally friendly. The lights are motion sensitive, they go on and off automatically, select outlets don’t work unless you’re in the bathroom and the coolest feature is the shade that closes down over the window with the flick of a switch.

Flowers outside of Roggenburg Abbey

Flowers outside of Roggenburg Abbey

We joined the community here for vespers before we went to dinner. The church here is massive. On our way over to the church we were guided by Gilbert, a Norbertine who belongs to the community. He said that the church underwent a 18 million euro renovation during the early Rococo period which is what we see today.

Following vespers, we had what I think was the best food on the trip so far. We were served cream of asparagus soup and pork with spaetzel. The pork and spaetzel dish has some sort of thistle cream sauce. For the record, I’m not some sort of cooking guru. Stefen, a Norbertine who joined our table for dinner, gave me the inside scoop. The spaetzel reminded me of both of my grandmas because they both make it at home.

Tonight's dessert :)

Tonight's dessert :)

Dinner was a very good time. The Norbertines here are a lively and humorous bunch. There was some translation that had to occur but their English language skills are pretty polished so it made it much easier to communicate. The service we received during dinner was a real reflection of Norbertine hospitality. I think it could be equated to a fine dining experience for sure.

The group at dinner

The group at dinner

After dinner we talked with the Norbertines who belong to Roggenberg about this particular abbey. They existed at one point in time and were refounded as recently as 1980 from the Windberg Abbey. They model their abbey after both Saint Augustine and St. Norbert. They strive to be not one priest for one parish but a community of priests for a community of parishioners.

This abbey is unique in that they reach out to families. They have a center on the grounds that focuses on family, creation and the environment and culture. It’s a unique offering that drives people from distances of 100 km to come to the abbey for courses and to enjoy the exhibitions. In the same spirit of catering to families, there is a restaurant, gift shop, beer gardens and a hotel. Ulrich, one of the younger Norbertines said that the center is a huge draw and it gets very crowded.

When this abbey was refounded in 1980, many people said they were crazy. Why would an Order with an aging population try to put roots down again? The Norbertines this evening said that through the grace of God in combination with some clever thinking and the financial backing of friends, they were able to grow a vivid community of young men that nobody guessed possible. The median age of the community currently is 40. There are 13 confrères and another will be vested in September.

They also noted that in some ways their specialties have helped them grow. For example, Stefen is an organist who is influential in the music community, one Norbertine is a “vinotech” a.k.a. a winemaker and yet others are out in the parish making their marks.

Theresa with Stefen, the organist and musician at the abbey

Theresa with Stefen, the organist and musician at the abbey

Tomorrow morning we are going on a tour with Ulrich so I’ll have all kinds of stuff to share.

Tue
23
Jun '09

Germany here we come!

I said I would report on the accommodations at Schlägl and I’m happy to say that the beds at Schlägl were very comfortable. I think the down comforters they had should be required at all hotels.

Our first item of business today was breakfast as a community. Breakfast included a variety of meats, cheeses and breads plus fresh fruit, eggs, cereal and more. Lucky for us, the abbeys do not skimp when it comes to meals. In fact, at Schlägl we got to choose our preferred dinner entrée.

Who wants chicken cordon bleu for dinner tonight?

Who wants chicken cordon bleu for dinner tonight?

Paulus took us on a tour of Schlägl Abbey first thing this morning. The abbey was built step-by-step throughout the ages. Today, the Schlägl Abbey continues to be an important sector in their local economy. They employ 200 people to operate and maintain their properties including a forest, the Schlägl brewery and the tourist inn. The halls were really winding and at one point we ended up in Romanesque area catacombs. The lights went out for a brief moment and let me tell you, there are few things quite like being in an ancient catacomb in the dark. The temperature difference was crazy; the air in the catacombs was really cold compared to the rest of the building. The Norbertines at Schlägl have talked about converting the space into something usable but the temperature poses some problems for them.

The Romanesque catacombs at Schlägl Abbey

The Romanesque catacombs at Schlägl Abbey

Next up were the galleries. They had some really stunning pieces in their gallery. The most interesting room had painted portraits of all of the men who have been in the Order throughout the ages. Paulus’ photo didn’t appear because they’ve made it a practice to paint the men at age 60. They believe that more character comes through in the photos at an older age. If the men pass before age 60, they are painted from memory or from a photo. I think the room could be quite moving for others in the order that recognize the men on the walls around them. The library at Schlägl was similar to Strahov’s. It was filled with ancient books. Early Christian scientists were painted in the fresco across the ceiling.

Detail from a piece in the gallery at Schlägl

Detail from a piece in the gallery at Schlägl

We ended the tour in the abbey church. The church at Schlägl is not a parish. People from the community are welcome to join the Norbertines in prayer but it’s not a church that caters to the masses. When we were wrapping up in the church, we met Felix, the official tour guide cat. Apparently Felix has free rein over the building. He was quite friendly and we all got a real kick out of him being there.

Our Schlägl tour guides, Paulus and Felix the cat

Our Schlägl tour guides, Paulus and Felix the cat

We got a tour of the Schlägl Brewery before next. The brewery was founded in 1518 and it was more of a sophisticated operation than I was expecting. We saw the entire operation from mashing of the raw ingredients through filtration of the final product and finally bottling.

Tour of the Schlägl Brewery

Tour of the Schlägl Brewery

The bottling operation was my favorite part. Reason one, it was a normal temperature and humidity level and it didn’t smell. Reason two, it was fascinating to see all of the steps involved in the bottling procedure. We saw recycling at its finest. All of the old, used bottles were pushed through a machine that stripped them of their labels, sanitized them, refilled them, blew the froth off the tops, capped them, rinsed them off and then labeled them. They just printed a series of labels in English for the first time because they’re hoping to export to California.

Empty bottles about to be stripped of their labels and recycled at the Schlägl Brewery

Empty bottles about to be stripped of their labels and recycled at the Schlägl Brewery

We had lunch at the abbey restaurant before we took off. The decor was pretty unique. A couple of tables of people were dining in oversized casks. We were served our choice of chicken cordon blue, salmon or salad and a really good desert with berries a liqueur.

Bonnie and Elliot Elfner at lunch

Bonnie and Elliot Elfner at lunch

We boarded the bus and headed for Windberg Abbey in Germany. When we entered Germany there were huge peaked hills and I noticed a lot of cows, sheep and other animals that we didn’t see much of throughout Austria. On our way to Windberg, I caught site of the Danube River. The rain had the river filled to the brim. Many of the homes scattered throughout the countryside were pastel colored with white paned windows and/or shutters. It’s just the type of architecture you would imagine when you think German.

German countryside

German countryside

Windberg was a very small town. As soon as we arrived it was apparent that many of the buildings had at one time belonged to the abbey because they were contained within the same loosely walled area.

Windberg Abbey

Windberg Abbey

Jakob was our tour guide at the Abbey. He was one of the few confrères that were around today. The abbot happened to be at a conference of religious superiors somewhere in Germany and the prior was serving in his parish. It’s unknown when the Order really took hold at Windberg. The community is some 800+ years old. The first date they have is 1142, the date the altar was consecrated but it’s believed that the community existed 10-15 years prior to that. The abbey was secularized for a number of years circa 1803 and for 120 years there was no Norbertine life, only a brewery. Today the abbey is pretty vibrant. There are 24 confrères affiliated with the Windberg Abbey, some of who reside in Roggenburg, the abbey where we’re going tomorrow. In 1980, there were only 12 confrères so Windberg has seen some significant growth.

One of the men who will be vested this year is a young guy not much more than 20 years old, from Russia. About seven years ago he converted to Catholicism and then he decided he wanted to find a community. There were no communities in Russia so he searched out Windberg on the internet, organized his visa information by himself and came to Windberg to visit for two weeks. Following his first visit, he came back and decided to join the community. In the short time he’s been at the abbey he has already taught himself German. Jakob noted one really sad thing, when the young man is vested, his family will not be able to celebrate the occasion with him because of visa complications.

Adding to the vibrance of the community, the main level of the abbey houses a youth retreat center so there were kids everywhere. When we were touring the group of students who were there today were doing a trust-building activity where one in each pair was blindfolded. It was a little humorous and a little eerie with zombie-looking kids walking around everywhere. Jakob said they have 200,000 young people come to the retreat center each year.

The abbey church is shared with the parish of the community. It has a deceiving Romantic exterior. When you walk in you expect to see the same stone structure you see on the outside but it is done in 18th century Rococo to the max. There were kitschy little stars everywhere and mischievous cherubs peeking out from some of the decor. One of the earlier abbots had an obsession with stars and astrology and he left his mark everywhere (I mean everywhere). There were an excess of 1,000 stars filling the place.

The altar at Windberg Abbey

The altar at Windberg Abbey

An interesting thing about the church was the sequence of the Stations of the Cross. They weren’t in chronological order. Jakob said that at one point when the community did the stations, altar servers would move from station to station to highlight the current with a candle but it got so confusing for even them that they had to abandon the idea. Parishioners were trying to help and it just became too complicated.

Massive built-in cabinets in the Sacristy at Windberg Abbey

Massive built-in cabinets in the sacristy at Windberg Abbey

Before we left, we ate dinner with Jakob and a couple other Norbertines of the community. It was a very Bavarian meal with pretzels, some type of sausage and German potato salad. We are staying over in Straubing, Germany tonight. It’s a very quaint little town of about 40,000 people. There were a lot of shops sadly, we’ve gotten in after they’ve closed.

Bakery window in Straubing

Bakery window in Straubing

Mon
22
Jun '09

I found St. Norbert already

We started the morning with breakfast at the hotel before boarding the bus. The breakfast spread included hot dogs, which I thought was pretty interesting. When the bus arrived, I was surprised at how nice it was. Gunther, the bus driver, has it stocked full of beverages and there are about 2.5 seats for each of us which has already lent itself well to napping.

Today’s visit to Strahov Abbey was really interesting. When we arrived, our tour guide Marek met us. He is a Norbertine who resides at the abbey. His vocation is a nurse and a chaplain at a local Catholic hospital. Consequently, he said that he spends more time there than at home. The abbey church at Strahov is done in the baroque style and is overwhelmingly beautiful. Everywhere you looked there was gold, gold and more gold. To top it off, the church was filled with fresh white carnations. I had to touch the flowers to make sure they were real because they were everywhere.

Exterior of Strahov Abbey

Exterior of Strahov Abbey

Before we toured the abbey with Marek, we celebrated Mass in the chapel where the tomb of St. Norbert is housed. Originally, the chapel was a Gothic-style structure dedicated to St. Ursula. In 1627, when the remains of St. Norbert were transferred from the Magdeburg Abbey to the Strahov Abbey, the chapel was converted to the richly decorated Baroque style we saw and was renamed in St. Norbert’s honor. I must say it was a little surreal being near the tomb of the man who started it all when he founded the Norbertine Order.

Mass at the tomb of St. Norbert of Xanten

Celebrating Mass at the tomb of St. Norbert of Xanten

For a little St. Norbert history before we embarked on the tour, Fr. Xav passed on an account from a book called “The Order of Prémontré: History and Spirituality,” written by Bernard Ardura. O.Praem. The book by Ardura said that  “as soon as the coffin was opened, the sepulcher revealed the entire body of St. Norbert, apparently intact, the head still covered with skin, arrayed in a splendid cope of red damask held by 3 copper clasps.”

On December 4, 1627, St. Norbert’s remains left Magdeburg Abbey of Germany and arrived on December 11 to the nuns at the convent of Doksany who covered the remains and tied them together with gold and silver thread and interlaced the whole covering with gems before they were transferred to Strahov. St. Norbert was finally transferred to Strahov on Sunday, May 2, 1627. His remains entered the city in a wagon drawn by 8 white horses and followed by a procession of a couple hundred coaches. It seemed like quite the celebration. If you’re interested in learning more, you read more on the Norbertine Vocations web site.

I got some great photos of the chapel that I can’t wait to share. Bill Hyland, the director of the Center for Norbertine Studies (CNS), took a photo in front of the altar that I’m sure will find its way into the center as soon as they take up their new residence in the Mulva Library.

View of Prague from Strahov Abbey

View of Prague from Strahov Abbey

Following the Mass, we toured the rest of the abbey. With the exception of the library at Strahov, the abbey is not open to the general public for tours. Marek said that the Czech Republic has such a problem with looting that they require people to call and request a tour if they’re interested. He said that in a rural parish where he worked prior to coming to live at Strahov, they were looted by locals more than five times and had to replace the lock time and time again. It worked out nicely for us because we got to connect with the place in a way that you can’t always when there are droves of people everywhere.

Marek giving a tour of the abbey gardens

Marek giving a tour of the abbey gardens

The Strahov Abbey had an interesting history in that it was suppressed by the Communist regime beginning in 1950. It wasn’t until 1989 that the political circumstances changed, and the Norbertines retook possession of their abbey.

The library at Strahov was incredible. It is the Czech Republic’s second oldest church library and the country’s third most valued one. The library was the only part of the abbey that wasn’t suppressed by the Communists. There are over 250,000 volumes housed in the library and the oldest dates back to 860 B.C. The library is comprised of 2 halls, the Theological Hall and the Philosophical Hall. Marek referred to an area of the library that was once known as the “forbidden books,” books that only properly trained confrères could have access to because their content focused on witchcraft, the zodiac, etc.

Library at Strahov Abbey

The Theological Hall of the Strahov Library

When the tour was all said and done, we had lunch at the Strahov Abbey restaurant. It’s pretty typical of European abbeys to operate restaurants. The St. Norbert beer they brew and served was a big hit. Many people on the tour bought t-shirts, coasters and glasses that said St. Norbert on them. I thought the coasters would make a great gift for an SNC grad, so I picked some up too. The practice of abbeys operating breweries stems from the Middle Ages, it was begun in part as a way to fund their works and in many cases continues today.

After lunch we boarded the bus and headed out of the Czech Republic and into Austria to visit Schlägl Abbey. On our way out of Prague, I learned a new word, “botel.” It is exactly what you would think, a boat that is a hotel. There were a number of botels lining the Vltava River on our way out of town. I think they would make for interesting accommodations. As soon as we got out of Prague it began to rain and many people on the bus found it to be perfect napping weather.

When we entered Austria things got noticeably tidier and many of the rural homes were well kept with flower boxes on the windows. The terrain changed too. As we crossed into Austria, the area was full of green rolling hills.

I knew when we got to Schlägl because we passed the Schlägl Brewery trucks on our way in. The abbey at Schlägl was huge and painted a pastel yellow color. Not something you see everyday in America.

The Schlägl Abbey

The Schlägl Abbey

Lukas, a Norbertine of the Schlägl Abbey, welcomed us when we arrived. We got our room keys and dropped our stuff off in our rooms at the abbey. The rooms were so inviting and very clean. We attended vespers with the Norbertine community of Schlägl once we got settled. All of the singing was done in German and the organ music was beautiful. As it turns out, Rupert, the Norbertine who provided the organ music, is a renown musician in Austria who teaches at the university in Vienna.

Again, the church was in the Baroque style. I thought the most striking piece was the pulpit. Anyone who climbs up into that oversized, gilded structure better have something moving to say. The three organs in the church were a close second.

Altar at Schlägl Abbey

Altar at Schlägl Abbey

We had dinner as a community and got to sample the Schlägl brews and fruit sodas.

Following dinner, we all gathered together in a meeting room and talked about the structure of the abbey, what community means to these particular Norbertines, the demographics of the surrounding area and the future of the order in Austria. Abbot Martin who has been the abbot at Schlägl for 20 years joined us along with Lukas, Paulus and 2 others. It was interesting because although the primary religion in Austria is Catholicism (85% of people) and the majority of the people are baptized, very few people are attending Mass regularly. Someone in the group asked the local Norbertines if they don’t get discouraged. Paulus said that he does not get discouraged because he follows the suit of the apostle Paul. He sees it as his job to proclaim the Gospel and he just has faith that people will follow. The Norbertines at Schlägl put high importance on the notion of community. The men of the abbey have many different vocations. They are primarily teachers and parish priests but in addition to their individual roles, they spend much time together as a community in contemplation and prayer.

For the record, Schlägl Abbey has the best showers I’ve ever seen in Europe and I’ll let you know how the beds are in the morning.

Sun
21
Jun '09

Chicken schnitzel anyone?

What a great night one! This afternoon we all gathered in a room at the hotel for Mass which was offered by Fr. Xavier Colavechio. This was the first time all 24 of us were gathered together. I have to say that It’s the first time I’ve been to Mass in a hotel meeting room. It was so neat though. I guess it just goes to show that the spirit of the Mass is what’s really important not the location.

Following the Mass, we took a jaunt over to a pub for the welcome dinner. The pub was called something along the lines of “dead bird” when translated from Czech. Someone, I think Fr. Xav, had asked the bartender why they named it that and the bartender said the name was chosen because no other pub bore the same name. Imagine that! Unfamiliar with Czech cuisine, I was walking into the meal kind of blind. What a treat though. We were served chicken schnitzel and boiled potatoes for the main course. The schnitzel was great but the fruit filled crepe we were served for desert blew it out of the water.

Post dinner, I got brave and ventured to Old Town to see some of the sights. What a beautiful area. I read that it’s on of the best preserved centers of any major city in Europe because it was spared during the bombings of World War II. The buildings are overwhelmingly beautiful, especially the Church of the Virgin Mary Before Tyn. History has it that originally the gable between the twin black-spires housed a gold chalice but following the defeat of the Czech Protestants by the Catholic Habsburgs, the chalice was removed and replaced by a Madonna. Eventually, the chalice was melted down and made into the Madonna’s gold and glimmering halo. The halo is one of the things that’s most stunning about it.

Cafés in Old Town Square

Cafés in Old Town Square

Tomorrow we’re going to visit the Strahov Abbey which is also in Prague. Strahov is the site of the early remains of St. Norbert so during our visit, we will celebrate Mass at his tomb. How cool is that?

Okay, time for bed now, we’re boarding the bus bright and early and rumor has it that if you’re not on it, well, too bad for you.