Nuns On The Ranch: Something’s very different about this Colorado Foothills cattle operation
By Marty Metzger
Fort Collins, Colo. Photos courtesy of the Abbey of St. Walburga
Like many small farms and ranches, the usual suspects — beef cattle — roam the pastures of this agriculture operation near Virginia Dale, Colo.
This outfit’s head wrangler, however, doesn’t answer to a cowboy name, like “Tex,” “Montana” or “Charlie.”
Rather, meet Sister Maria-Walburga, who, yes, is a Roman Catholic nun.
Exactly how did she and the rest of her group of nuns become farmers and ranchers?
Mother Maria Michael, Abbess, explained why agriculture lies deep within the Benedictine order’s roots.
Founder St. Benedict (480-543) had fled Rome’s decadence to live an austere life. Others soon joined him in his walk of “ora et labora” — “prayer and work.”
Their enduring values include reverence for land, animals and equipment, and hospitality — treating all guests as though they were Christ.
Farming was a matter of survival for the original self-sufficient group and remains likewise today.
The Abbey of St. Walburga in Colorado dates back to 1935, when the contemplative, monastic Benedictine order sought safety from Hitler’s growing threat. Three sisters were sent from Eichstatt, Germany, to a then-remote farm in Boulder, Colo.
Inspired by their unshakeable faith, they overcame grinding poverty through hard work. The abbey so-flourished that, by 1992, the sisters needed more living and work space to accommodate expanding numbers. They had outgrown the rural Boulder facility and Boulder had grown-up into a maze of subdivisions and highways.
After five years of planning, the present Virginia Dale site welcomed the community in 1997 to land donated by a Denver businessman and his wife. Its 250 acres — near the Colorado-Wyoming border, north of Fort Collins, Colo. — includes 80 acres of hay meadows for grazing and baling. The cattle also have been allowed access to neighboring dryland meadow pasture.
Currently, 18 sisters reside and work at the abbey. Because each takes a vow of stability, they’ll remain part of that group for life.
Each devotes herself first to God, and second to diligent and cooperative work, because, although the acreage was a gift, the sisters must financially support themselves.
They do so through several agricultural endeavors.
In charge of the grass-fed beef cattle is Sister Maria-Walburga, a knowledgeable, energetic and enthusiastic woman, who greatly enjoys both her vocation and occupation.
She laughed at the assumption that she was ranch-born and raised, admitting that she entered the abbey at age 21 with an English Lit degree. Though lacking any ag background, she soon became interested in learning a “little something” about cattle.
Now, 24 years later, she heads up the entire bovine operation.
But she prioritizes, saying, “We’re nuns first, ranchers second.”
Frequent clothing quick-changes confirm that.
A rancher who even once must hurriedly switch into city duds from farm garb might complain about the hassle. Sister Walburga cheerfully explained her ongoing wardrobe swaps — a schedule that could make a runway model’s head spin.
The sisters at the Abbey of St. Walburga are one of the few remaining orders of nuns who still wear traditional habits. Because they participate in seven prayer sessions every day, those working with livestock must (seven times daily) alternate jeans and associated apparel with full habits.
Sister Walburga said she therefore limits farm duties to only one project at a time. For example, she plans calving for January and February, before irrigating season begins.
But, she said even if it’s time for a prayer service, she’d never leave a calving cow.
Two cattle ranching nuns work at it full-time, one works part-time, and a young apprentice is in training. Additionally, a mechanically-gifted, retired gentleman assists with machinery maintenance and a welcome troop of volunteers occasionally help out.
Sister Walburga said European Benedictines often worked reclaimed land, which they used, not abused. Besides raising their cattle naturally, the sisters likewise strive to farm as pesticide-free as possible.
The grass-fed herd of 35-40 cow/calf pairs is comprised of Galloways and Black Baldies, sometimes crossed with Black Angus. Steers and heifers are slaughtered after two years but some of the best heifers are retained as breeding stock.
So sought after is the abbey’s beef that it’s virtually unavailable to new buyers. Of course, the sisters keep some for their own consumption. The rest is sold to long-time aficionados. In fact, the purchasing waiting list is so lengthy that folks sometimes leave their spot on it to heirs. Limited amounts of ground beef are occasionally available in the abbey’s gift shop.
More barnyard critters earn their keep at the abbey. Llamas protect the herd from predators. Mother Maria Michael personally saw one chase a mountain lion out of the field — “Awesome!” she said.
Dogs, cats, pigs and chickens complete the passenger list on this Noah’s ark in the Colorado foothills.
Oh, and bees.
The buzz is that Sister Maria Gertrude, a 28-year-old beekeeper, busily works hives that produce “Abbey Honey.” Some of that amber nectar is given away, the rest sold in the gift shop.
During her nine years at the abbey, Sister Maria Gertrude has also learned the art of cheese making. Main ingredients are milk from the abbey herd and nearby goats’ milk.
Other sisters find creative ways of generating communal income. Sister Lioba, for example, is a skilled weaver who crafts blankets, scarves, sweaters and baby christening gifts. Sister Maria Josepha, who entered the monastery in 2004, serves as community infirmarian but also has a small carpentry practice where she crafts about a dozen coffins per year. Most orders come in from people who, while attending funerals, noticed her coffins’ beautiful workmanship.
The sisters love to share the blessings they’ve received.
Mother Maria Michael summed it up, “I feel it’s quite a gift to be able to live in this lovely area. People here have a real spirit of helping one another. I hope that, in time, those who come to visit us would recognize God’s beauty and share in our beautiful surroundings and life of prayer.”
Those who do choose to experience the abbey for themselves will be glad this isn’t just another working guest ranch. Set high above the Front Range, this foothills spread also has a higher purpose. The sisters at the Abbey of St. Walburga happily extend hospitality in a tranquil environment. ❖