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?

Gothic Cathedrals to Gourmet Kitchens

Having just returned from a week-long immersion into the Nobertine Midwest culture of Saint Norbert Abbey and College in De Pere, Wisconsin, many ideas and images are circulating in my head. A short stop in Chicago on the return trip to engage Archmere alumni living in the area in an informal reunion added to the experience. It leads me to the question, “What is it about ‘Archmere’ that attracts so many to support the ‘idea’ in so many ways?”

Traveling from the airport to the city center of Chicago, my wife and I noticed so many steeples of churches, closely knit together in neighborhoods, each one so different in architectural style. Similarly, on a tour of Saint Norbert’s campus with Vice President for Academics Dr. Jeff Frick we saw two former Catholic churches. One was being transformed into a Womens’ Studies center, while the other church, completely renovated, was a concert hall. Formerly Catholic churches for specific ethnic immigrant groups, these beautiful buildings were repurposed with great care to provide new services to the 21st century community of Saint Norbert College.

As I thought about these images, I saw a tangible effect of our contemporary cultural transition from a church-centered, other-worldy, higher-order-thinking culture to a popular culture of immediate gratification. Along the ride into and out of Chicago, there were a number of homes that were being refurbished. I could not help but think of the HGTV show that highlights “miraculous” makeovers for couples and families moving into or remodeling existing homes. It always strikes me when newly married couples are looking for homes with granite counter-top kitchens, stainless steel appliances, and real hardwood floors. The kitchen and the home, in some ways, has become the “church of today,” with a focus on family life as the secret to happiness.

But what about the experience my wife and I had walking the Magnificent Mile? At practically every street corner, we encountered someone, usually a woman and her children, who was begging for help – money for a meal or a place to stay for the night. Walking in and out of the high-end stores with price tags we only laughed about, we wondered, “How do you spend $1,395 for a pair of shoes and simply walk by a beggar who is sitting on the sidewalk?”

I am not sure of the answer; I am sure that many people who shop in these high-end locales are also generous to philanthropic causes. At the same time, are we not asked the question, “And so what do you do in proportion to your own means?”

I often think of the comment that Jesus made to Judas when Mary Magdalene washed the feet of Jesus with perfumed oils:

For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me. (John 12:8)

Judas comments that the funds for the oils could have been used for the poor, but Jesus responds that what Mary had done was an act of faith and devotion.

I suppose we all struggle with this fine line of what is practical and what is over-the-top. Maybe the lesson learned is to not be so judgmental form the perspective that only we see. At the very least, we take from Jesus’ teaching that, as we express ourselves and our questions, we should do so in a manner that is non-accusatory and authentic. In this way, we may engage in good conversation that may transform a process, policy, or approach that previously had been considered the “best” method. We do not intend to put down another, rather build upon each other’s ideas and thoughts. My impression of Jesus in his dealings with the people around him is that he tried very hard to get various factions to communicate on common terms – the same thing that effective leaders are trying to accomplish today.

The Saint Norbert Leadership Corps program at Saint Norbert College was developed collaboratively between Archmere Academy and the College with the purpose of infusing our students with the leadership skills, rooted in the spiritual context of Norbertine Charism, to be successful in school and career. The program involved 39 students – rising Sophomores, Juniors and one Senior – and eight teacher chaperones. Students were presented with servant-leadership models that provided contexts for ethics and faith-based discussion. The goal was not for the students to leave the week-long experience with all the answers, but instead equipped with the tools to become mindful Catholic Christian leaders of the new century.

Personally, I was overwhelmed by the whole experience. My wife Diane and I stayed at Saint Norbert Abbey, while the students and chaperones lived in a residence hall on the College’s campus. Diane and I immersed ourselves in the daily rhythm of the Abbey with morning prayer at 7:30 a.m. and evening prayer at 5 p.m. We were fortunate to be able to attend the viewing of Father Gilbert, O.Praem., who taught at Archmere from 1955 to 1965. It was a most impressive event, and family and community were warmly welcomed at the Abbey.

On the heels of the recent sudden loss of Father Thomas Hagendorf, O.Praem., my Freshman religion teacher at Archmere, the experience reminded me how much like a family experience my Archmere years felt – both those as a student from 1972 to 1976 and as a staff member from 1984 to 1996. I said in my opening letter to the school community when I returned as Headmaster that Archmere is a “place that never leaves you.” I believe that even more after this past week. It is as if we have been tattooed on the heart with the Archmere charism. Once you have it, it is there until you intentionally burn it away.

“Pray Hard”

On Wednesday, March 6, there was a flurry of media coverage around the Dow Jones Industrial Average breaking an all-time high – and, as I write this, the average sits at 14,338.81, up 0.3% from the opening bell.

This news of economic upswing (even if slight,) provides a contrast to the early days of the school, when Father McKeough and the other Norbertines who became the first faculty of Archmere exhausted all of their resources to generate funds for the Academy.

raskob estate hagley museum

John J. Raskob Estate, 1927
Dallin Aerial Survey Company

I recently finished reading “Passages and Transitions: A Reflection on the First Eighty Years of Daylesford Abbey” by Father Francis Cortese, O. Praem. In his researched work, Father devotes a section to the foundation of Archmere Academy, in which he includes some of the correspondence between the first headmaster of Archmere, Father Michael McKeough and Abbot Pennings, head of the Norbertine Community in America at Saint Norbert Abbey in DePere, Wisconsin.

Much of this correspondence deals with the Norbertines’ struggle to keep the school afloat.

In a November 30, 1932 letter to the Abbot, Father McKeough wrote:

“Father Hurley has a thousand dollars coming on an insurance policy which he offered today to collect. We both have our government ‘bonus’ of which we can collect fifty percent of the face value, which in our case would amount to about eight hundred dollars. Even these will not carry us far.”

Not two full months later, on January 28, 1933 he wrote:

“My bank balance is below fifty dollars. I don’t know where I can get the money to pay the salaries due the end of this week. Debts, debts, appeals, demands, every day. Something must be done soon. We must either get some money or quit.”

In the middle of the Depression, Archmere leadership struggled with keeping the school open. On June 19, 1933 in response to Fr. McKeough’s letters, Abbot Pennnings wrote:

“The enclosed 2 items will help you some to tide over the hard times of beginning a new institution. Let us hope and keep hoping that we may pull through the lean years. The one item as you can see is from Fr. Kirkfleet, who cancelled his life insurance and collected what was due him. The other item $700 I have borrowed.”

Apparently, the assistance of the Abbot, though appreciated, was not sufficient to meet all of the obligations. Again, Fr. McKeough writes on July 20, 1933:

“I have been waiting as patiently as I can for some financial help but it is hard to be patient when creditors are calling up and writing letters day after day and asking for their money, which is due them. I have made excuses and promises until I don’t know what to say any more. Our own income since school left out has been insufficient even for salaries. As a result I haven’ t paid the food bills for June and some of them not even for May.”

In another letter, Father McKeough concludes:

“The depression is really getting worse . . . Some people are withdrawing their boys at the 2nd semester. They cannot even meet a reduced rate, and they are honest people, others leave them here with perhaps no intention to pay all their dues. . . I cannot help to feel discouraged at times. Let us pray hard.”

These words – “pray hard” – at a time of seemingly insurmountable obstacles reveal the deep faith and mettle of these founding Norbertines who sacrificed much for generations of students and families they would never know. They were not even sure that their efforts would be lasting and that Archmere would survive the early years, and yet they continued to persevere.

As I read these accounts, I thought about the lessons learned and particularly reflected on during this Lenten season – the meaning of sacrifice; belief in a divine plan that is not your plan; obedience to God’s will (which is not always joyful but sometimes stressful and difficult); and the understanding that riches are not always measured by the Dow, but by the experience of community created by shared work and sacrifice.

In the coming weeks, we have a number of Archmere community events beginning with the Memorial Mass sponsored by the Alumni Association on Sunday, March 10, followed by a celebration of Archmere spirit on Thursday evening, March 14, at the Springfield Country Club.

On March 17, the Green Concert Series presents an afternoon of Irish music and dance in the Patio. The following weekend, the Mothers’ Guild Garage Sale takes place on Saturday, March 23, followed by the Fine Arts Festival on the same day starting at 4:30 PM.

We are so fortunate to be able to share many gifts and talents to present these events for the benefit of preserving and growing the Archmere experience. We follow in the footsteps of our first founders who sacrificed much and stayed the course.

May this Lent be a time for you to reflect on all that you do and all that you willingly sacrifice as a response to God’s will and presence in your life.  And may your Easter be a time of joy and celebration for you and your family.