Where nuns are ranch hands

Colorado’s Abbey of St. Walburga is a spiritual refuge — and a working ranch.

  • Sister Maria-Walburga Schortemeyer gives treats to the cows on the Abbey of St. Walburga ranch.

    Jim West

Sister Magdalena Berndlmaier’s veil wafts in the morning wind, as she swerves and jostles in the Kubota tractor and then pulls to a stop at a shed. She listens intently while Sister Gertrude Read suits up, puts on her bee bonnet and advises caution: Today, the old queen bee will be dethroned to make way for a younger, more vital monarch. This momentous reshuffling of the Apis Empire will require Read’s deft maneuvers within the busy hive.

“I’ve been looking forward to this all morning,” says Berndlmaier, whose admiration for Read’s bravery is palpable.

The shed is packed to the rafters with paint cans, pesticides, rakes, brooms and plastic storage tubs, with a silver crucifix hanging on one wall. Read stands beneath it as she carefully pulls on her gloves and advises Berndlmaier to do the same before leading her to the nearby beehives.

Across the dirt road, Sister Ann Lee sits on a hay bale, feeding snacks to Clarabelle, one of several cows milling about. Later in the day, Read will instruct a few novitiates in the venerable art of making ricotta cheese, leaning over a steaming cauldron of milk. 

Here at the Abbey of St. Walburga, cradled in the craggy hills that straddle the Wyoming-Colorado border, life reflects the medieval Benedictine motto of ora et labora — pray and work. The 24 nuns who live here rise before dawn, gather in the chapel to sing at 4:50 a.m., celebrate Mass, and then breakfast in silence — a daily calendar of contemplative ritual that the monastic order has honored for more than 10 centuries.

Much of the rest of their day, however, defies popular notions of monastic life: Off come the black flowing gowns, and on come the sturdy boots and gloves, as the sisters go out to work on the surrounding ranch and farmland. Their faces remain enveloped in coifs, held in place by sun visors, but the fashion is otherwise jeans, bandannas and long-sleeved denim shirts.

“We sometimes say that Jesus is a cowboy,” says Sister Maria-Walburga Schortemeyer, as she moves lightly toward Yoda, one of the Abbey’s three resident water buffaloes. She recalls how once, while transporting cattle from the abbey to Cheyenne, she had a flat tire. Some friendly cattlemen stopped to help her — saviors, as it were, although she says, “Darn it, I would have liked to prove to them I could take care of it myself.”

The Abbey at St. Walburga was designed to be a contemplative sanctuary from the secular world. Indeed, the Colorado monastery is the offshoot of a 900-year-old motherhouse in Bavaria, which established a community in Boulder in 1935, partly as a refuge for sisters threatened by persecution in Nazi Germany. The monastery relocated to Virginia Dale in 1997 after it outgrew its Boulder house. Today, the women, who live lives of poverty and obedience, also make a vow of stability — agreeing to spend their lives in one place — in essence, choosing a course that runs counter to nearly everything modern America encourages.

Yet the abbey is every bit a working farm and ranch. Two dairy cows, some 50 hens, the bees, cattle — which are all named, Schortemeyer says, to respect their “bovinity” — and water buffaloes, all contribute to financially support the sisters’ monastic lives. Catholic monasteries do not receive financial support from their archdiocese. A guesthouse provides most of the sisters’ income, but they also accept donations, host retreats, and sell meat, eggs, cheese and honey in a shop on the Abbey grounds. As Schortemeyer says: “Selling 15,000 pounds of beef does provide decent funds to help pay those biggest of bills: health care, building and lands maintenance, food.”

To some extent, the abbey mirrors the past three decades, during which, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says, the number of farms operated by women increased substantially in the West and across the nation. According to the agency, between 1978 and 2007, when the last agriculture census was conducted, the number of such farms grew from 306,200 to nearly a million. Today, women account for 30  percent of all farmers in the U.S.  Researchers cite the appeal of the farm-to-fork movement, as well as women inheriting farms and ranches. Downsizing to smaller parcels and increasing mechanization have also helped make the work more affordable and less physically demanding.

Twenty-five years ago, Abbess Maria-Michael Newe steered the abbey toward a greater focus on sustainable agriculture, although working the land has been a tenet of the order’s tradition since its founding. A Los Angeles native, Newe had no experience in rural labor when she arrived at the Boulder monastery. The nuns established the abbey on land, she says, that monks had originally owned and considered “unfarmable.”

“These nuns were German immigrants — peasantry, basically,” she says. “They watered with buckets, not hoses. Brooms were made out of willow branches. We shoveled a lot of ditches back then. You think, ‘I didn’t enter a monastery to farm,’ but then again, the smell of the dirt, the contours of the land. … You find that you’re in fact working in the Garden of Paradise.”

High Country News Classifieds