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Message from the President: With the Norbertines in Albuquerque

Oct. 19, 2011

Dear alumni friends,

On a recent Saturday not long ago, Deb and I found ourselves on the outskirts of Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was just before sunup, and ironically the temperature was a good 15 or 20 degrees colder than it was at that moment back in Green Bay, which was then still enjoying a little bit of summer in October. We took turns clutching a steaming cup of coffee to ward off the chill.

Soon enough our patience was rewarded. Just as the sun began to emerge from behind the Sandia Mountains east of the city, the hot-air balloons spread before us began to rise — one or two at first, then five, then ten. Finally there were hundreds, and the blue sky seemed to fill up with them.

This was the 40th anniversary of the city’s world-famous International Balloon Fiesta. The reason we were in Albuquerque in the first place was because I had been invited to give the keynote address the night before at a large scholarship fundraiser for New Mexico’s Catholic schools. But it was thoughtful of them to schedule it in conjunction with one of the most breathtaking spectacles you can see this side of an Imax theater.

The De Pere-Albuquerque connection may not seem an obvious one, but it’s real — thanks to our good friends, the Norbertines.

Back in the mid-'80s, the Norbertines of the De Pere abbey, desiring to extend their work into the Hispanic community of the American Southwest, established a small outpost in Albuquerque. There, among other work, they took on the spiritual and administrative direction of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary, a large and vibrant parish community. We were most fortunate in that the weekend of our visit also coincided with the parish’s anniversary, and so its annual fiesta celebration was in full swing. It was a joyful mix of great food, entertainment and community. Call it communio served up with a dash of salsa.

It was inspiring to see my good friend Fr. Joel Garner, O.Praem, '62, Holy Rosary’s pastor, conduct Mass in the spacious, theater-like sanctuary and later commune among the parishioners he has come to know so well. The same with Fr. Gene Gries, O.Praem, '62, St. Norbert College’s longtime dean of students, who played the gentle giant to all the small children flocking to him.

The Norbertines work with several other area parishes, as well as sponsoring ministries in prisons, hospitals and elsewhere. About 15 years ago they had the opportunity to establish a formal priory south of Albuquerque. It’s called Santa Maria de la Vid - Our Lady of the Vine. Fr. Joel, the prior, presides over this lovely center for contemplation and retreat. The Norbertine community has grown to about 17 men now, with several more in formation. The compound contains a simple but astonishingly beautiful chapel, cloister walks and gardens, retreat houses, and (as of 2008) a light-filled new library. On that Saturday afternoon, when Deb and I toured it, the library was being used by the men and women who are taking SNC’s master’s program in theological studies, an extension of the one based on our campus. They were in the middle of presentations for their class in Christology. Using my presidential prerogative, I said they all got A’s (though I fear I’m an easier grader than their actual instructors!).

I began hearing about the Norbertine presence in Albuquerque as soon as I arrived at St. Norbert more than three years ago, but it was a privilege and a joy to finally discover for myself how Abbot Pennings’ familiar wish — let us love one another - has transplanted so well, and flowered so beautifully, in the high desert of New Mexico.