U.S. Norbertines’ varied works as ‘stationaries’ center on education

Not long into her first semester teaching at Loyola University Chicago, Mara Brecht, formerly an associate professor of theology and religious studies at St. Norbert College, encountered a problem: A recalcitrant student had decided he didn’t like the way she taught, and it showed in his attitude. He even used an assigned paper as a platform for criticizing her and the readings she had selected for the course.

Brecht decided it was time to invoke the spirit of hospitality and reconciliation she’d taken away from St. Norbert and Norbertine pedagogy. She believes that students are guests in her classroom, she says, and that there are rules for being a guest. She also believes she herself must abide by certain rules, including being transparent and direct. So, in an effort to set the relationship right, she emailed the student. “You’re not welcome in this class anymore,” Brecht wrote, “until you come meet with me one-on-one.”

She and the student met in her office and “eventually he got back in class and was respectful and fine,” she says. But the relationship still needed work, and, upon later discovering the student was a dedicated and effective writing tutor, Brecht made another attempt to bridge the gap. “He did such good work and was so attentive to the students and helping them understand,” she says, “that I thought, ‘Here’s kind of a moment for me to reconcile with this person who, clearly, there’s a continuing rift with.’” 

It worked. “His senior year, before graduation, he sent me an email and came to meet with me in person – four years later – to tell me how sorry he was about that situation and to say he was seeking my forgiveness,” Brecht recalls. “He’d grown so much, and it was this really beautiful event, because maybe there’s something about this place that has taught us both about maintaining hope for reconciliation.”

Aspects of Norbertine belief and pedagogy still inform Brecht’s teaching, though she’s now at a Jesuit university and immersed in that approach. “I’m really here to try to reconcile multiple ways of looking at the world, not to convince one side or the other,” she says. “And I do think that’s distinctive (of Norbertine pedagogy): not speaking on the side of peace or justice, necessarily, but on the side of reconciliation.”

As Norbertines celebrate their 900th anniversary with an ongoing international jubilee scheduled to culminate on Christmas Day 2021, the ancient religious order’s time in the United States, which dates back to the 1890s, may seem short by comparison, but it’s consequential. A big reason for that is the order’s U.S. education apostolate, which effectively began on the October day in 1988 that an immigrant priest from Holland named Bernard Pennings gave two students their first Latin lesson around a kitchen table at the St. Norbert Priory. 

“That marked the beginning of Norbertine education in the U.S.,” says Father Jim Neilson, a Norbertine of the De Pere, Wis., abbey that has grown from that first foundation and an art professor at St. Norbert College. 

“Pennings’ push for educational apostolates was rooted in a very practical reason: to encourage young men to join him and his fellow Norbertines in a life dedicated to Roman Catholic culture and service to the local community,” Neilson says. “Blessedly, and not without the assistance, encouragement, and contributions of the local community, the work and dream of Abbot Pennings evolved and expanded to include a much larger and inclusive gathering of young men and women in a shared pursuit of truth, beauty, knowledge, wisdom, and grace.”

As Brecht’s experience shows, the Norbertine influence lingers in those it touches.


Norbertines, whose history in the United States, says Father Andrew Ciferni of Daylesford Abbey in Paoli, Pa., began with immigrants “one step off the boat,” are committed to investing themselves in the communities in which they live and work so as to help or enrich those places. “Norbertines make a promise of stability when we make our vows,” says Father James Garvey of Daylesford. “Rather than missionaries – like many of the religious orders who came to the U.S., like the Jesuits or Franciscans – we are what I call ‘stationaries.’ ” Norbertine priests maintain residence in one abbey and commitment to one community all their lives.

That commitment to community extends well beyond providing educational opportunities. Norbertines frequently visit the sick and shut-ins at local private homes and nursing homes. They minister at local hospitals, too, as chaplains, and also to the oppressed, and marginalized. The youngest U.S. abbey, Santa María de la Vid Abbey, in Albuquerque, N.M., – founded in 1985, as a foundation of St. Norbert Abbey, in De Pere – claims an ecumenical pastoral outreach, “including retreat ministry, involvement in interfaith dialogue, advocacy and ministry in the realm of social justice and social concerns and ministry to the poor, the immigrants, the imprisoned, and the sick and dying in area hospitals.”

But the order’s primary legacy in the United States may be its education apostolate, which includes the establishment of St. Norbert College, the only Norbertine institution of higher education in the world; Archmere Academy, a Catholic prep school founded in 1932 in Claymont, Del.; and a recently closed prep school at St. Michael’s Abbey, a monastery of Roman Catholic Canons Regular of the Order of Premontre in Silverado, Calif.. Also, many of the Norbertine houses in the United States have spirituality centers that offer educational programs; the Norbertine Community of Santa Maria De La Vid Abbey offers the St. Norbert College’s Master of Theological Studies program; and the Center for Norbertine Studies at the college is the international repository for scholarly work on the order. The center, a collaborative partnership of the college and the Norbertine order, houses a wealth of rare books and manuscripts, art and other artifacts related to the life of Norbert of Xanten and the order he founded. 

“I think the areas where we have been teachers, we have had a big impact,” Ciferni says. The Norbertine order has had strong leaders nationally in the National Conference for Catholic Education, he says. “We were known as educators.”

“What makes St. Norbert College such a distinctive part of the landscape of American higher education,” says St. Norbert president Brian J. Bruess, “is our unique tripartite mission and how deeply committed the community is to delivering on our promise of student flourishing. … As we launch into the 900th celebration I think it’s important to reflect on the genesis of that. Our Catholic tradition brings the gift of integrating faith and reason in our education, an unrelenting focus on the dignity of each person and holistic development, and a permeating desire to improve the human experience as it relates to social justice. The Norbertine tradition shapes our community and the student experience by values of hospitality, peace, reconciliation, reflection, community, and a commitment to impact both our local and global communities. And, of course, our liberal arts tradition calls us to the pursuit of wisdom and truth, integration of knowledge, critical thinking, and engaging in diverse viewpoints.”


Abbot Pennings built the college on his vision for holistic education and his motto, ‘Let us love one another,’ ” Bruess says. “These two profound ideas have been cornerstones of St. Norbert College for our entire history.”

Brecht and Ciferni explain in their article “Charismatic Circularity: Lay Faculty, Practices of Transmission and Possibilities for Renewal” (in the Journal of Catholic Higher Education) that a Norbertine pedagogy – one that reflects Norbert of Xanten’s own conversion – encourages students to remain open to changes of heart and mind, both large and small. It reassures students that when they face unexpected challenges that they should remain encouraged to see new possibilities in unforeseen circumstances. A Norbertine pedagogy actively encourages pausing, contemplating and intentionally carving out time for reflection. It also actively encourages a teaching-learning environment rooted in deep dialogue, one that consistently honors the questions of both students and teachers.

“The St. Norbert College mission statement states that the college ‘provides an educational environment that fosters intellectual, spiritual and personal development,’” says Rosemary Sands, director of the Center for Norbertine Studies. “I think this can be said of all Norbertine schools throughout the decades. The Norbertines follow the Rule of Augustine, and this informs how they order their lives. I can only surmise that the rule then permeated how the Norbertines taught their classes, and the students would then have absorbed this.”

According to Brecht, a Norbertine pedagogy

  • “recognizes the importance of ‘pausing,’ and prepares students for action by first carving out significant time for contemplation, and encourages students to hear God’s call through the voices of others;
  • “asks students to consider the forms of ‘wealth’ they cling to – be that material goods like expensive clothing, shoes, and devices, or the “wealth” of perfect grades and a full social calendar, and helps students set aside those attachments in favor of building authentic community;
  • “prioritizes dialogue as a primary mode of teaching and learning;
  • “recognizes deep dialogue as the ideal way of addressing conflicts, and promotes reconciliation and peace; 
  • “focuses on treating students with pastoral attention, by deeply caring for their well-being and for their development as full persons; 
  • “models how to act pastorally toward the local community, by connecting student learning to the needs of the wider community;  
  • “creates space for students to think actively about how to build authentic relationships;
  • “helps students learn how to treat one another justly and how to settle differences and disagreements lovingly; and
  • “emphasizes the importance of quiet reflection, meditation, and prayer.”

“As teachers and leaders,” Brecht says, “we’re confronted with so many conundrums all the time. And why I find it so uplifting to teach in a place that has a mission and set of values is that you can be liberated from your own ideals, where the ideals of institution maybe take precedence over what I want. 

“That may be an unpopular view. But in religious communities, you’re not your own authority.”