In My Words/An Abbot, a Crypt, and a Third Space

One of my favorite things to do is give tours of St. Norbert Abbey. The abbey, which lies about three miles from the college, was dedicated in 1959 after the Norbertines outgrew their original home on campus. If you haven’t been there, it’s beautiful – quiet, warm, spiritual and inviting. You are most welcome!

The abbey is critically important to almost everything that happens on campus. For that reason, every new student, every new parent, every new faculty and staff member starts their time at St. Norbert College with a tour of the abbey. We hope it helps everyone associated with the college understand the connection between the abbey community and the college community, and how the abbey both supports and gives direction to the college.

During the tour, after looking at the massive and beautiful church and talking a bit about the liturgical prayer life of the Norbertines, I tell visitors it’s time to walk down some stairs and tour the crypt. Nearly every time, someone in the group says, “The what?”

We descend the stairs to a sacred place. In the crypt, well-designed display cases hold the vestments that were used during the time of Abbot Bernard Pennings (early- to mid-1900s) and of Abbot Sylvester Killeen (mid-1900s, when the abbey was first dedicated). There is a case displaying vestments still in use today. Also to be found in the crypt are memorial stones set in the floor, marking the sites of three tombs. The center tomb is the final resting place of Pennings – the founder of the Norbertine order in the United States and the founder of St. Norbert College. The tomb to his right holds the remains of Killeen, second abbot. Killeen advanced the order’s mission extensively. Among his achievements were the advancement of St. Norbert College to a new level of academic excellence. The third grave is not yet occupied, but is reserved for the next larger-than-life member of the community – maybe even for someone who will one day be deemed a saint.

It is that empty space that often draws the eyes of our visitors. A question is sometimes asked, “Who will go there?” My answer is always the same, “Likely the next Norbertine who does great things to advance the mission of the Norbertine order in De Pere and the United States.” “You?” someone almost always asks with a smirk. “No,” I answer. “There is no doubt that I’ll be planted in the front-yard cemetery with the rest of my Norbertine brothers.”

After the guests leave, I sometimes go back to the crypt and privately ask myself the same question: Who will be the next great figure in our little order? And then I ask another question: Who is already among us doing great things?

President Tom Kunkel often told the story of how, shortly after becoming St. Norbert College’s seventh president, he went to the crypt to keep company with Abbot Pennings. Reflecting on the life of this young Dutch priest – a man who came to the United States in the late 1800s, started a school and grew the order with practically no resources at hand, and who laid a foundation that is extremely strong and will only get stronger – this is certainly a great way to gather inspiration. It worked for Tom: He had an extremely successful nine-year run in the president’s role.

Now it’s the turn of President Brian Bruess to take the helm at St. Norbert College. Brian and I have been friends for many years. We’ve served on association boards together and we’ve spent a good amount of time sharing dreams and career goals. There is no doubt that the community at the college and beyond will quickly learn how blessed we are to have Brian as our eighth president. But there is also no doubt that Brian, in his turn, will stand by the vision of our founder, Abbot Pennings, and will look to his legacy for guidance and support.

But maybe what’s most important is that Brian, like all of us who are deeply associated with the abbey and the college (and that includes those of you reading this note), will strive to live and minister as someone who might be worthy of that third space. Like St. Norbert himself, like Abbots Pennings and Killeen, like the 30-plus Norbertines worldwide who have already been named blessed or saint, like so many others who hold a special place in our hearts, we are all called by God to live a life of love and compassion. I have no doubt that, as Brian leads the way, the entire St. Norbert community will join him in his journey with grace and certitude, borne on the shoulders of our founder.


Nov 10, 2017