An Old Order in a New World: Norbertine Tradition in America

One of my favorite summer activities is to catch up on reading that I put aside during the school year. The most recent book in my stack that I just finished is Dr. Jean van Stratum’s biography of Abbot Bernard H. Pennings, O.Praem., founder of the Norbertine Order in the United States.

Dr. Jean van Stratum (Rick Evans | The Compass)

Dr. Jean van Stratum
(Rick Evans | The Compass)

Before reading the biography, I knew the historical outline of the Norbertine missionaries’ arrival in the United States in 1893, and the subsequent founding of Saint Norbert Abbey and Saint Norbert College on the Fox River in De Pere, Wisconsin. But van Stratum’s work adds dimension and color to the outline of dates and accomplishments. He assembles stories of people with sometimes common, and sometimes different, visions about the role of the Norbertine community in the New World – stories of collaboration between religious and lay, stories of tension between religious tradition and interpretation of that tradition in Abbey religious life “in ministry” to early 20th century America. I could not help but think how these fundamental issues of “how we should live” are a part of our current thinking.

According to van Stratum, Abbot Pennings addressed a letter to Abbot General Crets in August 1932, asking his support of “two great enterprises.” One of those “enterprises” was the takeover of the Dutch parish of Saint Willebrord in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The other was the purchase of John J. Raskob’s Archmere estate to create Archmere Academy, a boarding and day school for boys. Van Stratum suggests that Abbot Crets felt positive about these Norbertine developments in America.

hagley digital archives john j raskob estate

John J. Raskob Estate, 1927
Dallin Aerial Survey Company

As headmaster of Archmere today, I found it particularly interesting, helpful, and humbling to try to gain insight into Abbot Pennings’ vision and style of leadership. On one hand, he accomplished extraordinary projects in administering parishes and establishing schools, thereby rooting the foundation of Norbertine communities in the United States. On the other hand, some of his confreres criticized his non-collaborative leadership style, and what they considered to be his lack of attention to the spiritual life of the Abbey.

Abbot Bernard H. Pennings, O.Praem.

Abbot Bernard H. Pennings, O.Praem.

A vibrant and well-respected figure in the Church and community, Abbot Pennings enjoyed a long life, singularly leading the Norbertine community until age 86. At that time in 1947, Abbot General Noots recommended that the community elect a Coadjutor Abbot to assist with the duties and responsibilities of the office and assure a smooth transition once Abbot Pennings could no longer serve as Abbot. The transition to a collaborative form of leadership was difficult for Abbot Pennings after so many years of being “in charge.” It was equally difficult for the Coadjutor, 42-year-old Abbot Sylvester Killeen.

I am sure that these were difficult conversations, just as they would be today. However, by reading and studying the dynamics between Abbot Pennings and his colleagues, we can learn about how to be more effective in similar present-day circumstances.

Abbot Sylvester Killeen, O.Praem. saint norbert college

Abbot Sylvester Killeen, O.Praem.

A significant issue that kept surfacing throughout Abbot Pennings’ term was the balance between communicating transparently while maintaining appropriate confidentiality. Managing these two opposite forces, at times, seems impossible – even for effective leaders today. What communities believe they need to know, should know, and want to know can be very different.

Consider that several members of Saint Norbert Abbey that were most critical of Abbot Pennings’ authoritative leadership style were raised and educated in a country with democratic ideals – concepts antithetical to the hierarchical models of the Church and European society. Certainly, Abbot Pennings’ charismatic leadership continued to be effective, but attentiveness to the voice of the growing community seemed to be an issue, particularly as its members became more informed through formal education, religious training, and work experience.

Did Abbot Pennings fail to adapt his communication and leadership styles to adequately address the concerns of the younger community members?

Perhaps he was aware of the need for change, but he simply did not know how to implement such a transition in leadership style. Van Stratum points to a 1949 letter from Abbot Pennings to confrere Alphonse Diedrich:

Reflection on what to do in the case that a new abbey would somewhere be established, he [Abbot Pennings] said that this should occur ‘always where people are, in or near a city.’ In the old times, as he continued, an abbey would be built in the country side ‘ but they had none or little active work – only to sing the office, but that was 700 to 800 years ago: no colleges, only some parish work. It is different today because Tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis.’ (Times are changing and we have to change with them). It sounded like the genuine if not lifelong conviction of the 88-year-old-man. (p. 369)

This duality of mission – monastic and ministerial – is something very Norbertine, and it is subject to varying degrees of interpretation. That interpretation depends on the vision of the Abbot elected by the independent Abbey communities, each influenced by its particular local, national, and international history and circumstances.

I experienced this on our 2012 Heritage Tour of Norbertine Abbeys in Belgium and France. While each community had uniqueness and felt “more” or “less” monastic, there was a common bond of confraternity and hospitality rooted in the Rule of Augustine as interpreted and lived by Saint Norbert nearly 1,000 years ago.

Similarly, Archmere Academy – founded by Norbertine Fathers, more specifically Abbot Pennings – has evolved over its more than 80-year history in its understanding of mission, governance, commitment to academic excellence, and Norbertine spirituality. With many lessons learned from the past, I am excited and hopeful that the members of the Archmere community are in contemporary dialog about these fundamental questions of purpose and relevancy that seem to be in constant evolution and change.

Perhaps Saint Norbert designed it to be that way.

bernard ardura

In Norbertine History and Spirituality, Fr. Bernard Ardura, O.Praem., claims that Norbert’s intention in establishing abbey communities after Premontre was not to build a hierarchical network of houses, which were tightly linked and managed by the founder. Rather, Norbert, with Hugh of Fosse, created a confederation of linked, but independent abbeys with the hope that their communities would grow and respond to the needs of their individual locales. Uniquely, members of the Abbey, in addition to their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, took an additional “vow of place” – a vow to be a member of that particular abbey community for life. This Vita Communis underscored the intentional uniqueness of each abbeys’ work that was to respond to the needs of the larger community, in which it was founded.

A missionary and pioneer, Abbot Pennings was raised in a 19th century, lower-middle class household in an under-industrialized Netherlands where every penny mattered. He was asked to found, grow, and lead a religious community in a New World where adaptation and amalgamation were critical for success. Drawing from his humble upbringing and life experience, Abbot Pennings proved to have the right mix of skills to make a lasting foothold in the then underdeveloped United States frontier. He founded and led a Norbertine community, enduring harsh Wisconsin winters, economic recession, religious schism, and language and cultural barriers.

Can we, as leaders of today’s Norbertine legacy, be as effective as Abbot Pennings in advancing the missions of our institutions? Can we be of the world and not in it, address the needs of our communities and “place,” demonstrate value and importance to exist within the larger international community?

I believe we can.

With the advantage of studying nearly a millenium’s worth of Norbertine successes and failures, we can extract the best lessons that our contemporary culture has to offer and effectively relate them to the unchanged, fundamental beliefs of our Catholic faith. By remaining open to the Holy Spirit, which directs and guides us in the present, we allow ourselves to be filled with God’s will rather than our own.

patio

The Patio at Archmere Academy

Last month, during the week-long Saint Norbert Leadership Corps Program, my wife and I were able to visit with two of my former Archmere teachers – Fathers Sal Cuccia and Steve Rossey, who now live at Saint Norbert Abbey. Father Sal works at the College in Campus Ministry. Annually, he brings his students to visit Archmere as part of their community service trip in working with the Daylesford Abbey initiative Bethesda Project for homeless men in Philadelphia. Father Rossey continues to be my aesthetic inspiration for the revitalization of The Patio.

As my first art teacher and founder of the visual arts program at Archmere, Father Steve is a wealth of knowledge, and he is an important resource for the development of a 21st century Patio that works effectively with the school’s future plans while also respecting the tremendous artistic and historic place it has in our national history.

Throughout the week, we made connections, fortifying relationships between Archmere, Saint Norbert College and Saint Norbert Abbey – Archmere’s founding Abbey. I think Abbot Pennings would have been pleased to see Archmere students being instructed by the faculty of Saint Norbert College.

A highlight of the tour was the students’ visit to the crypt under the Abbey Church where Abbot Pennings and Abbot Killeen are buried. Father Cuccia, in his wonderfully nostalgic teaching style, recounted stories about the history of the communities from Premontre and Berne Abbeys. The students were attentive, respectful, and I think, aware, that they were in a special place and part of a special history. It felt like an afternoon of family story-telling.

As lay men and women who have been entrusted with this wonderfully rich legacy of a millennial religious tradition, we need to work in collaboration with one another and with the ordained members of the Norbertine communities, both in the United States and abroad. As counter-cultural institutions, it is important that we support one another as school and abbey communities, sharing key strategies that are effective in sustaining and fulfilling our missions.

We can learn a lot from successful leaders such as Abbot Pennings while continually “re-learning” how to be in the world rather than of the world. Abbot Penning’s confreres criticized his strategy for balancing these opposing sentiments, but would we be the Norbertine presence in America that we are today without him?