Rocky Mountain nuns rise above COVID-19
Ora et labora
The original version of this article was published in The Fence Post on March 3, 2014.
Both that story and this update profile an agriculturally based property in the Northern Colorado foothills. Surprisingly, the large acreage is owned and run by Roman Catholic nuns who double as wranglers to work with big breeding bulls and calving cows.
Six years later, in the COVID-19 pandemic era, how are these women of faith and their 80-head of cattle fairing up at the Abbey of St. Walburga?
Exactly how did a group of nuns become ranchers? Mother Maria Michael, Abbess, explained why agriculture lies deep within the Benedictine order’s roots.
Founder St. Benedict (480-543 A.D.) 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 toward people, treating all guests as though they are Christ. Farming meant survival for the original self-sufficient group and remains so today.
The Abbey of St. Walburga in Colorado dates to 1935 when the contemplative, monastic Benedorder sought safety from Hitler’s growing threat. Three sisters from Eichstatt, Germany, were sent to a then-remote farm in Boulder, Colo.
Inspired by unshakeable faith in God’s providence, the trio overcame grinding poverty through hard labor.
The Abbey so-flourished that by 1992 the sisters needed more living and work space to accommodate the expanding numbers. They’d outgrown their rural Boulder facility and Boulder had grown into a maze of subdivisions and highways.
In 1997, after five years of planning, the current Virginia Dale site welcomed the community of nuns to land donated by a Denver businessman and his wife.
Its 250 acres now includes 80 planted in hay meadows for grazing and baling. The cattle have also been granted access to neighboring dryland pasture.
Each Sister who resides at the Abbey takes a Vow of Stability, thereby promising to remain part of the group for life. Each devotes herself first to God and second to diligent, cooperative work (although the acreage was a gift, the Sisters are financially self-supporting). Each shares a specific talent toward that goal.
In charge of the grass-fed beef cattle is 33-year-old Sister Maria-Gertrude, usually assisted by six other sisters. Mother Maria-Michael noted that, as needed, all Abbey members help out with the burly bovines.
You could say these nuns are adept quick-change artists — clothing quick-changes, that is. An ordinary rancher who even once had to hurriedly switch from farm garb into city duds and back again might grumble about the hassle. Mother Maria-Michael confirmed her group’s multitudinous wardrobe swaps — a schedule that would make a runway model’s head spin.
The Sisters of St. Walburga are one of the few remaining orders that still wear traditional habits. Because they participate in seven daily prayer sessions, those working with livestock must — seven times every day — alternate jeans, shirts, boots and associated seasonal barnyard apparel with full habits. The only exception is when a cow is calving. Then, unscheduled incoming new life takes precedence over scheduled prayer. As did European Benedictines, the Sisters of St. Walburga use, not abuse, their acreage. Besides raising their cattle naturally, the Sisters likewise strive to farm as pesticide-free as possible. Their grass-fed herd 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.
Of course, the Sisters keep some of the beef for their own table, with the rest going to longtime buyers. The waiting list to purchase is so lengthy that folks sometimes bequeath their spot on it to their heirs.
Llamas ferociously protect the herd from predators. Mother Maria-Michael personally witnessed one gallantly chase a mountain lion out of the field “Awesome!” she said. Sadly, however, one guardian llama succumbed to a 2019 big cat attack.
Mother Maria-Michael lamented, “It was just terrible. She was the best of the bunch. And we found it necessary to have someone destroy the lion.”
Dogs, cats, pigs and chickens complete the passenger list of this Noah’s Ark landlocked in northern Colorado’s foothills.
Head wrangler Sister Maria-Gertrude also produces artisan cheeses. Ingredients feature milk from the Abbey’s herd and nearby goats. These dairy delicacies will again be available to visitors; post-pandemic travel-restrictions, of course.
Some sisters find uniquely creative ways to generate communal income. For example, Sister Maria-Josepha. A nurse who entered the monastery in 2004, she compassionately serves as Community Infirmarian yet also skillfully maintains a small carpentry shop where she’s crafted about a dozen coffins each year. Most orders for the wooden masterpieces have traditionally come from people who noticed their beautiful workmanship at a funeral they attended.
The Abbey’s gift shop, normally stocked with religious books and articles, cards, and craft items made by the nuns, is among visitors’ favorite stops. Just not now. Come browse post-pandemic, please.
A comprehensive, weekend retreat facility was added to the Abbey in 2014 to welcome men and women of all denominations. Its 18-unit guest house offers private rooms with bathrooms and showers in each. This popular gathering center also quietly awaits visitors’ returns after COVID-19 is vanquished.
The sisters delight in sharing the many blessings they enjoy. 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.”
Currently though, all public access is unavailable to Abbey property and activities including chapel services; nature walks; and the popular “Way of the Cross” hike, which climbs a hill overlooking the entire valley. Right now folks can only drop off necessities for the sisters.
Mother Maria-Michael noted, “Several of our sisters are elderly so we don’t want to risk bringing in the (COVID-19) virus.”
That’s why friends and neighbors eagerly step up. Virginia Dale resident Cathy Moen made the long trip down to Fort Collins to buy supplies for the sisters. One very gracious gentleman, John Avalos, traveled all the way from Denver to bring them a load of groceries; others, including priests, have likewise generously donated food.
The Abbey of St. Walburga dates back to 1935 in Colorado when the order sought refuge from advancing Nazi conquest. Today’s sisters sincerely extend an invitation for all to share their tranquil environment sometime in our corporately longed-for, safer and healthier future because, eventually, everyone will be again allowed to come and go at will.
Those visitors who choose to experience the Abbey will be glad it’s not just another working guest ranch. Set up high in the Front Range, this foothills cattle spread also serves a much higher purpose.
For further information about the gorgeous and peaceful Abbey of St. Walburga, please visit http://www.walburga.org or call (970) 472-0612. ❖
— Metzger is a freelance writer from Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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A new book describing the events leading up to the Beef Checkoff’s implementation and outlining a vast number of happenings since then has caused quite a stir.