California’s Norbertine Canonesses celebrate 20 years in the mountains

The Bethlehem Priory of St. Joseph in Tehachapi offers a life of prayer and holy austerity, for the cloistered sisters who live there and for their many visitors.

Some of the Norbertine Canonesses of the Bethlehem Priory of St. Joseph in Tehachapi, California venerate a statue of Our Lady. (Photo courtesy of the Bethlehem Priory of St. Joseph)

Mother Mary Augustine, O. Praem. is the mother superior, or prioress, of the Norbertine Canonesses of the Bethlehem Priory of St. Joseph, in Tehachapi, California. Her community was founded by the Norbertine Fathers of St. Michael’s Abbey in Orange County; this year it is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its founding.

CWR: Can you give our readers an overview of your community?

Mother Mary Augustine: We currently have 43 sisters. Our monastery is nestled in the mountains outside of Tehachapi, California, in the silence and solitude of 470 acres of forest, apple orchards, and farm land. Though our life is hidden, as Norbertine canonesses, we are at the heart of the Church, delegated for the solemn and reverential celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, with the public welcome to attend our weekday life of prayer.

Regarding our monastic buildings, Phase I of our Monastery Expansion Project was completed in 2013. Although we were 26 sisters when we moved into this building (which has a dorm capacity for 48 sisters), we are already running out of space again. Thus, Phase II—our future chapel and wing/accessory areas (with plans for at least 20 more rooms for sisters)—is our most pressing need at this time. In addition to Phase I, we are grateful to have additional structures in our cloister monastic enclosure, including a ranch house (which includes our current chapel, expanded three times with no further room for extension), a large greenhouse, outdoor sheds and buildings, storage areas, barns for our daily and livestock needs, a guest house, and related buildings, all as a part of our makeshift monastery until Phase II and the completion of our monastery are built.

CWR: What is the mission of your community?

Mother Mary Augustine: As cloistered contemplatives, our primary apostolate is prayer and sacrifice, for the glory of God and for the needs of the Church and the world. More specifically, as Norbertine canonesses, this life of prayer centers around the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy—we are deputed by the Church for the solemn and reverential celebration of the Eucharist and the seven canonical hours of the Liturgy of the Hours, the Church’s official prayer. We spend approximately seven-to-eight hours each day and night, including the celebration of daily midnight Matins, in prayer together in our small chapel, praising God and bringing the needs of the world before our Eucharistic Lord through our Blessed Mother and her Immaculate Heart.

Specifically regarding “work,” we have striven since our inception to become ever more self-sufficient, a tradition for all Norbertine communities. We sell in our gift shop many different items made by the sisters, including our popular specialty anise-almond biscotti, walnut-almond granola, almond macaroons, and a great variety of our home-made jams; rosaries and rosary bracelets, greeting cards, aprons, apothecary and all-natural body care items (e.g., salve, lotion alternative, cream, lip balm, soap), lavender sachets (with the lavender from our own gardens), vestments for priests, etc., and other religious items as well. We have a large greenhouse and vegetable gardens, fruit trees, vines (grapes and berries), and, when we can, we share our produce with families and others in need. We raise chickens (currently well over 150), daily gathering eggs for the community (as we perpetually abstain from meat, following in the monastic tradition so beloved by our holy father, St. Norbert), and we also have a small working dairy farm, milking and caring for our livestock (cows and goats), and making cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products for the community. All of this takes a lot of physical effort, which is, in fact, very healthy for the sisters. We also have a guest house, as a part of our limited yet impor­tant apostolate of hospitality, a traditional monastic practice deeply valued by our holy founder, St. Norbert; indeed, it is one of the three things he especially recommended, along with clean­liness about the altar and correction of excesses and negligences in chapter and elsewhere. He never ceased to insist that no house would ever suffer want beyond what it could bear if it care­fully tended to these three things. The hospitality part of our work requires continual cleaning, laundry, care and maintenance of the guest house, as well as the preparation of meals, etc.

CWR: Can you tell us about your community’s founding?

Mother Mary Augustine: Our community was officially founded on October 7, 1997 by our Norbertine Fathers of St. Michael’s Abbey in Orange County, following about two years of discernment, wherein a num­ber of women who felt drawn to the Norbertine charism and way of life, and had been attending Mass and prayers at the Abbey, were meeting together to pray about God’s will and plan for the group. I was asked by the Abbey to found and form this new community of future canonesses, beginning with four other women who felt called to commit themselves to this new foundation. Father Abbot and our Norbertine Fathers supported us in pursuing this way of life, offering classes and instruction as we began to live the common life together near the Abbey. We spent our canonical novitiate year with the Buffalo Dominican Nuns in 1998-1999, and in 1999, returning to California, we began to accept new entrants. In May 2000, we moved to Tehachapi.

CWR: Tell me about the clothing you wear.

Mother Mary Augustine: Our Norbertine habit is the full, traditional white habit with the tunic, scapular, belt, and capella (choir cape) of a canoness. The postulant (new entrant) wears a short black veil, a long, black pleated skirt, and a blazer until she becomes a novice, and then is clothed in the white habit and receives her religious name. After the canonical novitiate period (two years for our community), the novice has the opportunity to apply for first profession of vows (temporary vows), at which time she receives the traditional black veil and becomes a canoness “in training.” The next stage in our religious life is the solemn profession of vows (final and perpetual), at which time the sister becomes a canoness and receives a ring to wear on her right hand, signifying her “marriage” to Christ, her Spouse, and total dedication through vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience; she also receives the traditional rochet proper to canons and canonesses (similar to a surplice), which she wears at Holy Mass and Vespers.

CWR: Can you give us an overview of your typical day?

Mother Mary Augustine: Each day begins at midnight with Midnight Matins (office of readings). We then rest until 5:15 am, when the bell awakens us for an optional light breakfast, after which, at 6:00 am, we pray Lauds (morning prayer). After Lauds, we pray the morning offering and Angelus, which are then followed by Chapter of Faults (where the Church’s Martyrology is read and an exhortation given). This common exercise is followed by Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and a Holy Hour of Eucharistic Adoration and Terce (mid-morning prayer), and then Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament at 8:15 am. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass takes place at 8:30 am, and is the source and summit of life around which our whole day is centered and flows. After Mass and Thanksgiving, at approximately 10:00 am, we have work, class, or study until 11:45 am, at which time we pray Sext (mid-day prayer), the Angelus, our daily Rosary, and then have dinner (always eaten in silence, while listening to table reading). Dinner is followed by None (mid-afternoon prayer) and an hour of silence (a time for exercise, rest, spiritual reading, prayer, etc.). Our second work period of the day is from 2:30 to 5:05 pm, and sometimes includes classes or study for novitiate. This work period is followed by Vespers (evening prayer), lectio divina, and supper, and then an hour of recreation, at which time the sisters can speak freely (during the day they maintain silence, speaking only as necessary for the work at hand). At 8:00 pm, we pray Compline (night prayer), followed by lights-out at 9:00 pm, with a new day starting when the bell awakens us at 11:45 pm for Matins. We follow the Rule of St. Augustine and lead an intense community life, with all of our work, classes, and study done in common, and our liturgical prayers celebrated together in choir, always with plainchant in the Premonstratensian Gregorian tradition.

CWR: What are your thoughts on your community’s 20th anniversary celebration?

Mother Mary Augustine: This community and our growth is truly God’s work—and that of our Blessed Mother—and his grace and mercy have brought us to this point, ever calling more young women to give their lives totally to him in our Norbertine way of life. When we put all of our trust in him, we know that whether there are joys or trials, he wills or allows it all—always for a greater good—for his honor and glory and for the salvation of souls. Following in the footsteps of our beloved founder, St. Norbert, we pray that a deep, living, active faith and trust in God, and surrender and abandonment to his divine providence, mark our life, such that there are no trials beyond our strength. Without Jesus we can do nothing, but with him, all things are possible.

CWR: You’ve enjoyed some significant growth since your founding. To what do you attribute this success?

Mother Mary Augustine: Again, it is God’s project and God’s work; we are just his instruments. We believe that in fidelity to the original founding charism of St. Norbert and our Order; in faithfulness to our Rule and Constitutions and way of life; in taking seriously our call to holiness and sanctity; in following the narrow path of the Gospel—we are striving each day to seek and do His will. It is in all of this, we pray, that he is pleased, and blesses us. He sends us vocations because we hope to do, with his grace and mercy, all for him and him alone, for his honor and glory, for souls.

CWR: Many women’s religious communities have seen significant declines in their numbers of members over the past 50 years, in contrast to your significant growth. Any thoughts as to why this is?

Mother Mary Augustine: Again, we believe that fidelity is foundational; and not just any fidelity, but fidelity to Holy Mother Church and to the original inspiration of our Founder and the charism and traditions of our Order. Young people—all people today who are on a sincere journey toward Truth, seeking God—are looking for authenticity, a real way of life. They want a community which is serious about their vocation, mission, and way of life, about a deep abiding union with Christ through our Blessed Mother Mary, about living the Truth of the Gospel in all its depth and breadth of becoming saints. And that involves a number of things that people today are understanding less and less: sacrifice and suffering, a total gift of self, deep and true forgiveness from the heart, true charity (not that love based only on emotional attraction that modern culture too often idolizes), and the Cross. Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and he is the same today, tomorrow, and forever. Like St. Norbert, we seek to live the Gospel message of Jesus to the full, in our cloistered mission and way of life.

CWR: Do you follow the daily news? Are there any issues in society that concern the sisters in particular?

Mother Mary Augustine: We do follow the daily news. While the sisters do not read newspapers, listen to the radio, or watch television, and only certain sisters have limited use of the Internet to complete their duties for the running of the convent, we do have one sister assigned to review and share succinctly with the community the necessary daily world news. We follow current events in this way to ensure that our lives of prayer, our hearts, take in and encompass all of the needs, intentions, pain, suffering, and joys throughout the globe. We bring the concerns of all mankind into our daily prayers, placing them into the hearts of Jesus and Mary, uniting them with him on the Cross, and with Mary standing by the Cross, and offering them to our Heavenly Father. There is no issue that is not of concern to the hearts of Jesus and Mary. God loves all souls, and he wants each of us to come to him, forever. Although we are separated from the world in order to strive to cleave to God alone, we are as a result more intimately united spiritually with all peoples through him, becoming spiritual mothers to countless souls, and bringing all of the intentions of hearts to the Father.

CWR: Can you tell us your personal vocation story?

Mother Mary Augustine: I am from a family coming from Alsace (France), and was born and raised in New Caledonia, a French territory in the South Pacific between Australia and New Zealand. I had no religious formation until God brought about my conversion at the age of 42. I am perhaps similar in this way to my patron, St. Augustine, as, like him, my conversion became the very beginning of my true life.

From that point on, there was no going back, and it became whatever God’s will would be for my life. Like Jesus, my food became to do the Father’s Will. Over time, and through many trials, it became clear that God wanted me to have an undivided heart for him alone. It was through time and events that his plan unfolded for me, bringing me first to the Catholic Church, then religious life, and then specifically, at the request of the Norbertine Fathers, to become the foundress of this community.

CWR: What kind of woman is a good fit for your community?

Mother Mary Augustine: God calls all types of persons to the cloistered life—those who are naturally more quiet and reserved, those who are by nature more out-going and boisterous. Some sisters are artistically inclined, others are mathematically gifted, etc. There is truly no one mold for the ideal canoness, just as there no one mold for all the saints. However, the one essential quality for all those who are interested in entering our community is that they have good desires. Thus, a woman would be a good fit for our community if she wishes to strive to walk the narrow path of the Gospel, to follow Christ intimately, with Our Lady; if she appreciates the value of an intense common life; and if she desires to be totally surrendered and abandoned to God’s holy will. She should be filled with the desire to have a deep love for God, for Christ, for the Eucharist, for the Church, for Mary, and for the Liturgy, and wish to foster a spirit of reparation and zeal for souls, including the souls in Purgatory.

CWR: Of what diocese are you a part, and what relationship do you have to the local bishop?

Mother Mary Augustine: As canonesses, we are daughters of the Church in a special way, given our canonical mission and vocation, and thus are an integral part of the Fresno diocese, albeit hidden. We have a close relationship with His Excellency Armando Ochoa, our bishop, who deeply appreciates our life of prayer and sacrifice, and supports our unique mission. He is especially supportive of our monastery expansion project.

CWR: What are your plans for future construction at your site, and what financial needs do you have?

Mother Mary Augustine: Our financial needs are pressing, especially for our most urgent project: Phase II of our Monastery Expansion Building, our future chapel and wing/accessory areas (with plans for at least 20 additional rooms for our sisters, as we are reaching dorm capacity in Phase I and in our choir chapel). We are seeking to raise $12 million for this project, with $8 million as our current goal in order break ground and bring the project to a “dried in” stage so that we can move in as we continue with raising funds for the remainder of the project. We have already received permission from our bishop to raise funds for Phase III, which will include a guest house for people looking for quiet and prayer, with the combined project budget for both Phase II and Phase III being at least $25 million. We are focusing at this time, given our dire space needs and the need for proper ecclesial space, on Phase II only.

CWR: Tell me about your fundraisers to support the community and what people should do who want to offer donations.

Mother Mary Augustine: Friends of our community (the “Friends of the Norbertine Canonesses of Tehachapi”) have, in the recent past, been inspired to come to us, asking if they may plan, sponsor, and organize special events on our behalf to assist in raising funds for our future chapel, which have resulted in benefits held here locally in Tehachapi (Night in the Vineyard benefits in 2015 and 2016), in Los Angeles (the first-ever Imperishable Beauty brunch in 2016 and A Vocation of Love brunch just held on October 1, 2017), and in Orange (Autumn Teas held in 2014 and 2015, and an “Un-Tea” Party in 2016), and their Fall Luncheon on Sunday, October 22, at the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel. In addition to these fundraisers organized by friends, we have our own annual Christmas wreath/gift box fundraiser (see our website for information), and we also welcome donations by whatever means are convenient to the donor, including personal or automatic checks from one’s bank, gifts through estate planning, using credit cards through our website online donation buttons, and/or or setting up regular donations via credit card through our online donation server. We also are blessed by friends who ask for our “wish list needs,” providing generous donations of household/office, food/kitchen, health/infirmary, vestry/sister clothing, and other items; and by the generosity of friends who provide pro bono professional and other services, as well as the volunteering of time, talents, and resources for “work parties” to help with projects such as fencing, etc.

CWR: What should people do if they have prayer petitions for you or wish to visit your monastery?

Mother Mary Augustine: We have a dedicated email prayer request line: pray_req@cybersurfers.net, which is the best way for people to send in prayer requests, given our cloistered life. We also welcome requests through the mail (Norbertine Canonesses of Tehachapi, 17831 Water Canyon Road, Tehachapi, CA 93561), in-person visits (our monastery gift shop and our chapel our open daily), as well as by phone (661-823-1066).

We are very grateful for the prayers and support of friends here in California, throughout the country, and across the globe, and we are blessed to bring the intentions of all before our Eucharistic Lord daily. As mentioned above, our greatest need at this time is indeed our future chapel and wing/accessory areas. If anyone is interested in helping with our future chapel or other needs, we would be blessed to share the various ways in which such assistance is welcomed, inviting all to enter into our Norbertine spiritual family, and ever thankful for the presence of so many faith-filled loving friends in our life.

About Jim Graves 134 Articles

Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.

1 Comment

  1. Worth the trip to visit. Get there VERY EARLY for morning Mass or prayer at lunch time. Visit the gift shop-unlike any you have seen…and tasted.

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