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Short Takes on a Long History

Notes, trivia, facts and ways to find out more: a sampling from a worldwide order with a storied history.

It begins with a saint
“I convinced many to give away many of their things and join me in the apostolic way of life. It is not impossible. Many gave up all of their fortune and joined me. … To the poor I gave everything, even my shoes. (My feet still hurt.)” – Norbert speaks in “He Walks Through Lightning,” a one-act play on the life of Norbert of Xanten commissioned by St. Norbert Abbey to mark the 900th Jubilee.

Sickness and strife
History hasn’t always been kind to the Norbertines. Although individual houses have perished, Norbert’s order has survived in the face of the Thirty Years War, the Black Death, the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, the French Revolution, Nazism and Communism.

Sanctity prevails
Through times of hardship, 15 saints and blesseds of the order have been recognized. They include St. Norbert’s first disciple, Blessed Hugh of Fosse; St. Evermode, another of the original Norbertines; St. Hermann Joseph, the mystic; St. Godfrey of Cappenberg, who, after meeting Norbert, was convinced his life was best spent serving God and gave his castle to the order; Blessed Gertrude, whose family dedicated her to God before her birth; Blessed Bronislava, whose devout prayer, meditation on the Passion of Christ and veneration of the Holy Cross left a deep impression on her contemporaries; and St. Adrian and St. James, who were hanged on account of their loyalty to the Catholic faith.

Norbertines minister to the world’s most remote parish ...
Some 1,500 miles off the coast of South Africa lies the island of Tristan de Cunha. Among its 246 residents are the 42 Catholics who comprise St. Joseph’s Church parish. Abbot Hugh Allan of Chelmsford in England serves as apostolic administrator and, as the voyage to Tristan by fishing trawler from the nearest port takes up to six days, he visits the island just once a year. Weekly communion is offered through advanced planning, and it’s distributed by three descendants of Agnes Smith, who helped establish the Catholic community in 1908.

... and to one of the oldest parishes in the United States
The picturesque Church of St. Augustine in the sunbaked Rio Grande Valley lies “at the crossroads of history, culture, and living faith.” Established in 1613, nearly destroyed in the pueblo revolt of 1680 and rebuilt in 1720, the white adobe walls hold more than four centuries of stories and traditions for the people of the Isleta Pueblo. And new stories continue to be written in this living, vibrant community of faith.

Notable Norbertines
Johann Zahn (1631-1707) was the first to envision a lens cover and a portable camera, roughly 150 years before the first photograph.

Prokop Diviš (1698-1765) studied electricity and invented a lightning rod around the same time as Benjamin Franklin.

Charles-Hyacinthe Hugo (1667-1739) wrote an important history of the French province of Lorraine.

Werenfried van Straaten (1913-2003) led efforts to help German refugees after World War II and to aid persecuted Catholics in Eastern Europe.

Robert Cornell (1919-2009), second of only two Roman Catholic priests to serve as a voting representative, served as Democratic U.S. Congressman from Wisconsin 1975-1979.

Did you know that:

  • On the Feast of St. Michael, the sun sets on the high altar at the new church of St. Michael’s Abbey in California.
  • Norbert of Xanten appears on postage stamps issued by two countries, Germany and Belgium.
  • One in every five homeless men in Philadelphia have been served by the Bethesda Project, a ministry of Daylesford Abbey in Pennsylvania.
  • Norbertines are more formally known as Premonstratensians, or Canons Regular of Prémontré. The abbey at Prémontré was Norbert’s first foundation.
  • President Joe Biden was educated at a Norbertine high school.
  • A holy relic of Norbert typically housed in the crypt of St. Norbert Abbey is venerated in the sanctuary of the abbey church during this anniversary year.
  • Geras Abbey, dedicated to St. Lawrence, has a fire-engine museum.
  • Immaculate Conception Priory (“Bayview”) in Middletown, Del., is the oldest daughter house of St. Norbert Abbey and was also founded by Abbot Bernard Pennings.
  • A special work to celebrate the 900th has been commissioned by the college from royal composer Paul Mealor and will be performed at SNC this November.

Entrepreneurial spirit
Norbertines around the world sustain their abbey life and serve their local communities with enterprises like brewing (Grimbergen, in Belgium), wine-making (Sint-Catharinadal, in The Netherlands), an environmental center (Roggenburg, in Germany), sacred art (St. Michael’s, in Silverado, Calif.) ... and puppies! The cloistered Norbertine canonesses of the Bethlehem Priory of St. Joseph (Tehachapi, Calif.) continue to grow their dog-breeding program by offering AKC English Labradors to selected individuals. The canonesses are busy, even outside their primary work of prayer: They also sew vestments, and they make jam, cheese, honey and biscotti from their gardens.


Find out more
There’s plenty more to discover about the Order of Canons Regular of Premontré. Looking for ways to continue your Norbertine education? We think you’ll enjoy these engaging resources:

  • A new series of articles commissioned to mark the 900th anniversary of the order portrays the Norbertines as they live, minister and pray together in communities across the United States in 2021.

  • Nine centuries of tradition stand behind the Norbertine mission of St. Norbert College. This storied march of time was given visible form in a pair of murals depicting the history of the Norbertine order and the history of one of its primary apostolates in the United States – the history of the only Norbertine college in the world. We told the story in A History Unfolds. (Spring 2018)

  • It’s Not Just About the Bones wrote our editor Susan Allen (Office of Communications) after her personal pilgrimage to an encounter with St. Norbert. (Summer 2014)

  • The Catholic Media Association named Man on Fire, by our own Tom Kunkel (President Emeritus), its 2020 Best Book by a Small Publisher. This very readable account has been endorsed by reviews ranging from Thomas L. McDonald of the National Catholic Register to the Rev. James Martin, S.J., priest, author of “Jesus: A Pilgrimage” and “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.”

  • A brief video narrated by Carol (Sessler) Bruess ’90 introduces Norbert and his work as reforming priest, peacemaker and champion of the Eucharist. (Fall/Winter 2019)

  • The Rev. Andrew Ciferni ’64, director emeritus of the Center for Norbertine Studies, joined President Emeritus Thomas Kunkel for five discussions, first broadcast in 2017, that explore the relevance of Norbert of Xanten’s legacy for the college that bears his name.

Nov. 5, 2021