I recently had the opportunity to spend a week of retreat with the Benedictine nuns at the Abbey of St. Walburga in the beautiful rocky hills of northern Colorado. What a treat! I commend this community for your interest and support.
Founded in 1935 from the historic Abbey of St. Walburga in Eichstatt, Germany, the Colorado community began as rural foundation near Boulder. As their numbers grew, the urban sprawl of the city spread, and in 1997 the community moved to Virginia Dale, a more remote location two hours north of Denver, about five miles from the Wyoming border.
Today the demographically balanced community numbers about 25 nuns. They pray the liturgical hours of the day beginning with 4:50 am Matins (Vigils or Office of Readings), and concluding with 7:30 pm Compline. Their major works involve managing a herd of beef cattle and distributing altar breads, but they also host retreats, and their Sr. Genevieve Glen is a well-known writer. They also serve a community of affiliated oblates. The week I was there, a number of sisters were involved with cutting and baling hay.
This is a well-read, well-grounded community that has come into its own. The properly cataloged library rooms for guests feature only solid works of spirituality, theology, and some literature. The hallways and the chapel are marked by a refined aesthetic. Hand-woven tapestries create a unity throughout the space; the striking corpus on the sanctuary crucifix was made from the red clay of the fields near their first location. Recently, one of their own sisters, Sr. Hildegard Dubnick, was chosen to be the 60th abbess for the community in Eichstatt.
Most impressive, though, is their beautiful, well-organized liturgy. By and large, the substance of the liturgy comes directly from Eichstatt, and has been artfully translated into English. Guests are provided a whole rack of well-designed worship aids for the various hours of the day; a helpful arrow clip moves down the rack as the day progresses. The antiphons around each psalm summarize well the spiritual meaning of what is being sung. Readings for Vigils include a biographical sketch of the saint of the day, and a well-chosen excerpt from the person’s works or a homily about him or her. While one cantor clearly is responsible for most of the intoning for a week, multiple cantors help keep things moving.
Their singing is marked by a light, fluid tone, and exquisite blend. In the fairly small, acoustically live space of the chapel, diction and pitch are precise. To attain such perfect blend, each choir is “led” by a particular sister, whose pitch, tone, and volume others are to match.Antiphons sung by the nuns alone sometimes can be complex, but guests can easily follow along with most of the psalm tones used. Not to be missed is the hauntingly beautiful daily antiphon sung to St. Walburga, “O Benigna,” which includes a prayer for benefactors.
Compline ends the day, marked by a Marian antiphon sung by sisters and guests gathered at the back of the chapel around a hand-carved statue of the Blessed Mother and Child. The abbess, Mother Maria-Michael Newe, blesses each person with holy water before all bow together and the sisters process out.
I found myself charmed by the grace and dignity of how the sisters move within the liturgical space. Sisters arriving one by one for Vigils genuflect to Christ in the tabernacle, then bow to the sisters of one choir, then to the other. Vespers begins with the call from the abbess, “Venite Adoremus”; the community then processes into church, following her two by two, genuflecting or bowing together as they are able. Sisters sit in their choir stalls by rank; each has a place she belongs. In choir, they wear the habit with the traditional pleated coif and veil of Eichstatt until mass each day; after mass, a simpler cotton coif suffices.
For the most part, the community appears healthy and in good spirits, with several younger sisters moving into the ranks. They appear to be attracting interest from other young women; several discerners were visiting the week I was there, as well as a longer-term live-in volunteer.
If you should choose to visit or make retreat at the abbey, do call ahead to see if arrangements are possible. For their own sense of balance, the community aims to alternate between hosting larger and smaller groups of guests, so accommodation may not be available all the time. The chapel has room for about 25 guests. For more information, see www.walburga.org.