Norbertine nuns’ monastery expansion blessed

26 nuns now live on their sacred ground in the mountains above Tehachapi, California

TEHACHAPI, CA – A blessing ceremony of the recently completed monastery expansion building was held this past Saturday, marking another milestone in the life of the growing community of Norbertine nuns.

The Bethlehem Priory of St. Joseph’s new extension was designed to suit the growing needs of this first North American community of cloistered contemplative Norbertine canonesses on their sacred ground in the mountains above Tehachapi, California.

“The new building, two stories tall with a half-basement (principally for the aging of our artisan cheese), provides much-needed living and working space for up to 48 women, gratefully replacing the leaking and damaged modular trailers that served as our dormitories and novitiate and which are literally falling apart,” said Mother Mary Augustine, Prioress of the Bethlehem Priory.

Kern County Building Department awarded the Norbertine nuns an occupancy permit for the new building in April 2013, and, following some interior finishing works done by the sisters, the 26 women moved into the expansion in mid-May on Pentecost Sunday, providentially a very special feast day for all Norbertines who follow the Rule of St. Augustine, which is modeled on the life of the first disciples of Christ as in the Acts of the Apostles.

The blessing ceremony at the Priory was officiated by the sisters’ Pater Abbas (“Father Abbot”), The Right Reverend Eugene Joseph Hayes, O. Praem., of St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado/Trabuco Canyon (Diocese of Orange), the sisters’ founding and “Mother Abbey”, and was attended by about 50 guests, including the Fresno Diocese’s Chancellor, Teresa Dominguez; Father Alphonsus Mary Hermes, O. Praem., Provost of the Priory, and other priest-confreres from St. Michael’s Abbey;  local Church clergy, including Fr. Michael Cox, Administrator of St. Malachy’s in Tehachapi, and Deacon Richard Lambert from the Parish ; the sisters’ major benefactors of the project; and other special guests.

The building contractor, Tricorp Hearn Construction, Inc., out of Gold River (Sacramento), was represented by one of its three partner-owners, as well as the project and site managers, who guided the construction over the past year under the prudent and watchful eyes of Mother Mary Augustine, who acted as the “Owner’s Representative”, along with Sr. Mary Joannes Baptista, who had a background in construction before entering the convent, and a very giving local contractor, who helped them along with way with no charge for his services. The sisters were also assisted in this project by their construction advisory team, led by executives of Hathaway-Dinwiddie’s Los Angeles office, who generously offered their time and guidance on a pro bono basis.

Suiting Growing Needs

The population of the mountain-based Priory, which is nestled at 5,400 feet above and between the California’s Mojave Desert and San Joaquin Valley, has grown from the first five founding sisters to 26 nuns in various stages of religious formation, of which the first ten have made their Solemn Profession (final and perpetual vows). The sisters have several young women discerning with them at this time, with four new entrants possible in the coming months.

 “We could not be more grateful to our family, friends and benefactors who have made this expansion a reality with their financial support and prayers. We pray that the Lord is blessing them all a hundred fold,” said Mother Mary Augustine.

“The new expansion,” Mother explained, “has a large refectory (dining room) as well as two government-approved, professional kitchens, which will be carefully equipped at a level required to license the future production and selling of our artisan cheeses, as well as our biscotti and jams at venues outside the convent. The first floor also has a large Chapter Room for meetings of the Prioress’ Council, Canonry Chapter (solemnly-professed sisters), House Chapter (all sisters), etc., and, following in the great monastic and Norbertine tradition, for daily chapter of all sisters, where the Church’s martyrology and a part of the Rule of St. Augustine are read daily, as well as confession of faults by the professed sisters, one of the three things strongly encouraged by St. Norbert if communities were to continue and prosper in the Lord. The first floor also houses the infirmary (for sick or future elderly sisters), a large recreation room which also serves as a dining area when receiving special guests like the Abbot General of the Order or the Bishop, and the inner cloister garden (garth), a quiet and serene nature setting for prayer and meditation, following once again in the great ancient monastic tradition. The upper floor houses the monastic cells  (two sisters to each room) as well as prayer, art, study and other rooms for the Novitiate, Donatae and Professed Sisters.  And last but not least, the basement has, in addition to housing the cheese aging rooms, a large supply/receiving room, the vestry (clothing and personal storage), a mud room (for sisters who come in after working outside), the laundry room, an apothecary and gift shop room, etc.”

With both youth (some of the sisters entered at 18, 19 or 20) and experience, the sisters bring with them various educational degrees as well as a broad background of work experience and talents, all of which the Lord knew would be beneficial to help build this foundation. Most importantly, each has a deep desire to give all of gifts and talents to God in the service of community, to have “one mind and heart” on the way to God, as set forth in the sisters’ rule of life, the Rule of St. Augustine, all for His honor and glory, and the salvation of souls.

The sisters continually strive to be self-sustaining and self-sufficient, a requirement of all Norber­tine communities. They have a small “family working dairy farm,” with cows, goats, and chickens, along with a large year-round greenhouse for organic produce, and outdoor vegetable, berry and vine gardens. The sisters are also involved in variety of income-producing works and activities consistent with their clois­tered contemplative life of prayer, including sewing priest vestments, operating their Bethany Guest House, running the convent gift shop and bookstore, and annually selling Christmas wreaths, with last year being their best season ever, with over 1100 wreaths shipped across the country.

About the Priory and the Order

On Saturday, January 29, 2011, nine sisters of the Bethlehem Priory of St. Joseph of Tehachapi, California made their Solemn Profession at St. John the Baptist’s Cathedral in Fresno, California.  The event marked the community’s formal transition to full integration in the Norbertine Order, the Diocese of Fresno, California, and the Roman Catholic Church as an independent canonry of Norbertine Canonesses, the first in the United States of America.

The Norbertines, more formally The Order of Canons Regular of Prémontré, are also known as the Premonstratensians, or in Britain and Ireland as the White Canons (from the colour of their habit).  Premonstratensians are designated by O. Praem (Ordo Praemonstratensis) following their name. They are a Catholic religious order of men and women founded at Prémontré on what is now northern France near Laon on Christmas Day in 1121 by Saint Norbert, who later became Archbishop of Magdeburg, Germany. 

The Canonesses of the Norbertine Order are Roman Catholic cloistered nuns and their lives are devoted to liturgical prayer, officially deputed by the Church for the solemn and reverential celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, interceding for the needs of the Church and the world day and night during Holy Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, and their other community and private prayers.  The Canonesses of Bethlehem Priory each day perform the full daily cycle of the divine office, sung seven times a day in community in both Latin and English. They also have an e-mail prayer request line, receiving many prayer requests daily which are shared with all the Sisters for prayer:

Mother Mary Augustine, a native of French New Caledonia, and four other women made the first step towards full autonomy as an independent canonry of Norbertine Canonesses on October 7, 1997.  They were founded on that date as a Public Association of the Faithful by the Rt. Rev. Eugene Joseph Hayes, O. Praem., Abbot of St. Michael’s Abbey, their mother abbey, a community of about 70 priests and seminarians in Orange, California, who have faithfully served the community over the years.

The Norbertine community in Tehachapi is the only community of cloistered nuns in the Fresno Diocese, having been welcomed to the Diocese in May of 2000 by the late Bishop John T. Steinbock.  Men’s houses of Norbertines have been in the US since the late 1800’s and there are now full abbeys in DePere, Wisconsin; Daylesford, Pennsylvania; and Orange, California, with houses of these abbeys also in other parts of the United States.

For more information:

Norbertine Canonesses of the Bethlehem Priory of St. Joseph
17831 Water Canyon Road
Tehachapi, California 93561
(661) 823-1066

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