Work hard, pray hard: Ranching nuns find ‘balance in life’

Sister Maria-Walburga Schortemeyer has a favorite Scripture verse that emerges in the Office of Readings her contemplative community prays.

“For you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays; and you will gambol like calves out of the stall,” said the sister, quoting Malachi 3:20 while seated on an all-terrain vehicle on a sunny morning in northern Colorado, not far from the Wyoming border. She added: “And a gamboling calf is a very happy little animal.”

This Sister Maria-Walburga knows from experience.

The nun is a member of the Benedictine Abbey of St. Walburga, which relies in part on raising cattle to sustain the community’s way of life. The women themselves do the majority of the work. In the past year, the nuns’ work in cattle ranching has garnered much attention from major media outlets. Catholics and non-Catholics alike have proven to be fascinated by the nuns’ work and community, and many have contacted the abbey with prayer requests. The attention also has led to more women inquiring about life with the community.

But though television footage of nuns dressed in habits while working with cattle in snowy Colorado was novel to the general public, the work is nothing new to the Benedictines. Their tradition of ora et labora (“prayer and work”) goes back 1,000 years to the community’s motherhouse in Bavaria, Germany, and working with cattle has been a mainstay of the abbey since its founding by three of the German nuns in 1935. Now, more than 80 years later, the Abbey of St. Walburga has 24 solemnly professed nuns and postulants discovering more about God through their life of prayer and work.

Living out the rule

Mother Maria-Michael Newe, the abbess of the community since 2003, said there is an attractiveness in seeing the Rule of St. Benedict, written in the sixth century, lived out on a daily basis in the 21st.

“I think there’s a balance in our life,” she said. “We are committed to our prayer, and we’re committed to our work, and, in that, we also are committed to one another.”

The nuns pray the Divine Office and attend Mass daily in their chapel, starting with the vigil prayer at 4:50 a.m., Monday through Saturday. On Sundays and solemnities, they get to sleep in — beginning their days instead at 5:30 a.m.

In addition to the ranching, work includes various chores of running a large household, formation and education for the younger members, hospitality, accommodations for guests, operating a gift shop and distributing altar bread.

On the ranch

Sister Maria-Walburga, who has been with the abbey since 1990, is both the community’s novice mistress and ranch manager, helping care for the community’s 40 cows. The nuns raise the cattle to be sold and butchered — always at humane processing houses that have been well-researched. While Sister Maria-Walburga acknowledges that it can be difficult, she referred to the Acts of the Apostles verse [10:13] in which the Lord says to Peter, “slaughter and eat.”

“It is our food,” she said. God gave “us the land and creatures for the sustenance of humans and to treat them with reverence. And it’s a lot easier to slaughter them knowing they’ve had a really good existence for a couple of years.”

The cattle also get names from the nuns. In 2015, the theme was cartoons and comic strips. Characters from English literature and herbs and spices provided names for the animals in years past.

Attraction of the abbey

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Young women become interested in the abbey because of the balance of traditional liturgies and prayer with being outside in nature and working hard. “They like that we’re a community of nuns that hikes and that our work is very authentic,” said Sister Maria Gertrude Read, the abbey’s vocations director. “We work hard, and it’s [doing] things that we believe benefit the Church and the greater area where we live.”

Sister Maria Gertrude mentioned that when many young women first begin discerning a vocation, fear is an initial reaction, and the lifelong commitment is “very scary.” But trusting in the Lord, following him where he might be leading, in the end, will always bring one to a good place, she said. “He has a plan for everyone’s life, and his plan is the best. The best possible life is the one that he has in mind for you. So be not afraid.”

But it’s not just young women who are drawn to the abbey. Many are intrigued by or assist with the nuns’ lifestyle — which opens up doors for evangelization. Sister Maria-Walburga told of a veterinarian who brings students from Colorado State University to work with the community’s large animals. The animals’ calm demeanor helps the students with their hands-on learning. But Sister Maria-Walburga also sees the interaction as an opportunity “to also make [the students] not afraid of religious life, of the whole realm of spirituality,” which they may have lost on a secular college campus.

She also recalled a time that excavators traveled to the abbey to do some work.

“I could tell they were terrified of nuns,” she said. “One of them, I could just see him visibly relax when he saw me cleaning the corrals with a tractor in the rain. All of a sudden, they had a different view.” The nuns also gave other excavators a Bible when they mentioned they did not have one.

Just the presence of the women is reassuring, said Jill Svoboda, who along with her husband, Larry, is an oblate of the abbey. Both retired, the married couple enjoy helping out at the abbey and are also involved in their home parish in Arvada, Colorado. Jill related a conversation she had had with locals who have driven past the road leading to the abbey for years. Though they had never stopped in, when they saw the abbey’s sign and knew the nuns were praying for the needs of the world, she said, “that gave them great solace to know.”

No matter who is interested in their work or community, the nuns at the abbey are ready and willing to welcome them — living out a pillar of the Benedictine tradition: hospitality. The abbey is open to visitors who can take a retreat and join with the sisters’ prayer schedule, attend Mass, explore the vibrant gift shop or just stop in for some quiet prayer.

For women considering a vocation who are interested in the life of the nuns at the abbey, Sister Maria Gertrude offered some insight. “When we start a journey with God, you know that wherever it ends up, it’s going to be an amazing adventure,” she said.

Justin Bell writes from Massachusetts.