Fall 2008 | The Next Chapter
Ruins of the church at Prémontré, the original abbey founded in northern France by Norbert of Xanten in the early part of the 12th century.
110 Years/900 Years
Building on a deep heritage
By Lisa Strandberg
As the new president shapes a fresh vision for the college, he stands in a venerable succession
Some 900 years of heritage and 110 years of institutional history will light the way for the seventh president of St. Norbert as he leads the college into the future.
As he takes the helm,
President Thomas Kunkel would do well to emulate the man at the root of it all – Norbert of Xanten himself. “This is a person that had a vision and just followed that vision and didn’t give up,” says
Kelly Collum (Theatre, Emeritus).
That vision, based on principles like service, community, hospitality and contemplation, has informed the Norbertine life for hundreds of years – a life that today’s students imitate. “We try to live out these principles every day,” says
Erica Behm ’11. “Regardless of whether it’s meeting a new or prospective student, or simply meeting a friend for lunch, the college encourages students to be hospitable and to develop a strong community.”
Who was St. Norbert?
Behm wasn’t always so steeped in Norbertine philosophy. In fact, she says, when she arrived on campus to pursue a degree in religious studies, she didn’t know who St. Norbert was.
Her initial lack of awareness is hardly surprising. After all, it was nearly a millennium ago that the crusading Norbert established the Canons Regular of Prémontré on Christmas Day 1120, laying the foundation on which the world’s only Norbertine institution of higher education would eventually be built.
Even during the 60-plus years when the Norbertines constituted the majority of the faculty, a grasp of the order’s heritage often eluded students. Longtime college archivist
Don Pieters studied English as a St. Norbert undergraduate in the 1940s, when all faculty members were priests in distinctive white habits. He says, “I knew the Norbertines as teachers because I had many of them for my classes, but I didn’t know much about the history of the order.”
According to Collum, Norbert lived “in a time when life was pretty rough. And he was going against not only a lot of behaviors that were common among the regular folk but also behaviors common among the priests at the time.”
Responding to need
As Norbert reacted to the needs he observed, so the Norbertines continue to respond to the needs of the world around them.
Rev. Brendan McKeough, O.Praem., ’47, a former economics professor currently residing at St. Joseph Priory, explains: “We’re a visible sign of what community can be by the way we live together, and a sign to the world around us, especially the world that needs us. The key word is ‘need’.”
In fact, it was need in 1893 that brought the Norbertines to northeastern Wisconsin in the first place. “[The diocese] needed somebody who could speak a couple different languages” to serve Belgian parishes in Green Bay and Door County, says
Joy Pahl (Business Administration), who participated in a Norbertine heritage tour of northern European abbeys this summer.
The further need for higher learning, especially for prospective priests, prompted one of those Norbertines serving in De Pere –
Abbot Bernard Pennings – to teach his first Latin class on Oct. 10, 1898. “They started educating these guys in the kitchen of the priory,” Pahl says.
Thus began St. Norbert College – and so it continues. “I think that the biggest link between the Norbertine heritage and the current view of St. Norbert College’s students is the emphasis on community and service,” Behm says. “The campus [itself] has a strong sense of community but also makes an effort to reach out to the De Pere and Green Bay area through service projects throughout the year.”
Living in community
Through a freshman liberal arts seminar devoted to the topic, Behm developed an understanding of
communio, an ideal central to Norbertine communal life and pivotal to the college’s mission. McKeough describes the principle as “union with God, union with one another and union with my neighbor in need. If you don’t have all three of them, you don’t have communio.”
Unlike members of enclosed religious orders, Norbertines believe the holy resides in the world around them. “One of their principles is a very strong local rootedness,” says
Wolfgang Grassl (Business Administration), who is at work on a book on the Catholic intellectual tradition. “When someone joins the Norbertine order, one of the vows they make is that of stability. They dedicate themselves to one particular church in one particular place.”
The careers of many faculty and staff members suggest that such commitment and community lives on at the college. Take
Karen Mand (Library), who has served as a librarian for 37 years. “My job is more than a job. It’s a calling and a way of life for me,” she says. “It’s a way of being with people who are like-minded, who feel strongly about their vocation as well.”
Many of her colleagues express similar sentiments, whatever their religious affiliation – a testament to the radical hospitality embraced by the Norbertines. Collum, who was raised Presbyterian, says, “There was a warmth and a camaraderie and a sense of service when I came. That was part of who we all were. … It was a congenial atmosphere.”
It remains so today, with services of Common Prayer each Wednesday intended to bring the entire college community together, regardless of their faith tradition.
“There are quite a few students who attend on a regular basis,” Mand says. “[Services have] run the gamut from black gospel music to Norbertine chanting to – you name it.”
Embracing the past and moving forward
While the number of Norbertines on campus has decreased in step with the dwindling ranks of American men entering the priesthood, the presence of the order remains strong. That’s due in no small part to the work of the division of mission and heritage, and particularly the Center for Norbertine Studies, established in 2006 with dual aims.
“One aspect is very much focused on programs … to provide information about the Norbertine tradition, but also to make that a living thing,” says director
William Hyland. “The other aspect to it is that we hope this will become a center and repository for international research on the order.”
This begs the question: Has increased emphasis on the college’s Norbertine background come at the cost of any negative effect on its intellectual life? Pahl says, “Some people, I have to be honest, get a little nervous: ‘What about my academic freedom? Am I going to get this stuff crammed down my throat?’ I feel more freedom in the classroom at St. Norbert than I did at a state university, because I can talk about faith and I can talk about spirituality.”
At the college, as in Catholic scholarship in general, faith and reason interact. “In the Catholic tradition, we’ve always had to balance two things. Catholics are strongly convinced that ultimately, there is a truth to every question,” Grassl says. “If we read more books and listen to more opinions, we have a greater chance ultimately of finding out what is really correct.”
Finding the truest, best way forward for a college with a history much longer than its own 110 years now falls to a new leader. The excitement of carrying the past into the future is palpable. “At the moment, people I talk to are just sky high with hope for this new guy,” Collum says. “They have great expectations that good things are going to happen.”
>> Watch a new video that celebrates the college’s long heritage.