BY ALEX GRUBER
The Norbertine confreres at St. Norbert Abbey received a pleasant surprise a few weeks ago: a collection of cheeses from the Norbertine Canonesses of the Bethlehem Priory of St. Joseph in Tehachapi, Calif.
The canonesses are the first and only community of Norbertine nuns in North America and the Western Hemisphere. The Bethlehem Priory began in 1997 when a group of five women in California decided to pursue the Norbertine way of life. They became associates of St. Michael’s Abbey in eastern Orange County, Calif. and began a year of formation in the Dominican Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary in Buffalo, New York.
After returning from Buffalo, the sisters travelled to Europe for two further months of formation as they visited male and female Norbertine communities across the continent. The women returned and moved to their current location in the mountains outside of Tehachapi, a community about three hours from St. Michael’s Abbey, in 2000.
The original group of five women officially became the Norbertine Association of St. Joseph on moving to Tehachapi and began to attract new members to their community. The nuns did not have a monastery on their property. They converted a ranch house into a chapel and used modular trailers as living quarters.
While pursuing the regular Norbertine activities of daily prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours, the women also took classes online or through the Norbertine canons from St. Michael’s Abbey. They also sought to become self-sustaining through activities like sewing vestments and making jam, cheese, honey and biscotti.
The Norbertine community continued to grow, sending members to the first international meeting of Norbertine Canonesses and Sisters in 2004 in Krakow, Poland and the General Chapters of the Norbertine Order in 2006 at Windberg Abbey in Germany and 2012 at St. Norbert College.
Throughout this time, the women in Tehachapi could only make temporary vows (three years) to their vocation. In January of 2011, the community was officially raised to an independent canonry of the Norbertine order and nine of the women were able to make their Solemn (lifelong) Processions, officially becoming Norbertine canonesses. Mother Mary Augustine was elected as the priory’s first prioress the next day.
The Tehachapi community began construction on an actual monastery in 2012 to replace the modular trailers and accommodate the growing number of members. The new monastery was finished in 2013 and complete with professional kitchens for making cheese, jam and biscotti and included living space for up to 48 women. Currently, 32 women in various stages of profession call the Bethlehem Priory their home.
Although the Norbertine canonesses have made cheese and other foods since the early 2000s, they did not have a Grade A dairy license from the state, limiting their sales to their site at Tehachapi and hampering their efforts toward self-sufficiency.
Earlier this year, the Bethlehem Priory received the funding for the modifications to their milking parlor and cheese kitchen, allowing them to obtain the dairy license. As a sign of their success, joy and gratitude, they sent a variety of cheeses to the Norbertine canons in De Pere. The fruits of the canonesses’ hard work were readily evident, at least in the excellent taste of the three-month aged Gouda given to this reporter.
For more information on the Norbertine Canonesses of the Bethlehem Priory of St. Joseph, contact Mother Mary Augustine, O. Praem., at MotherMaryA@aol.com, or stop by the Center for Norbertine Studies in the Mulva Library to read the community’s newsletter, “Firstfruits.”