by Marty Metzger
North Forty News
Beef cattle roam the pastures of a seemingly typical ranch near Virginia Dale, Colorado. This outfit’s head wrangler, however, doesn’t answer to a cowboy name like “Tex” or “Montana.” No siree. Rather, meet Sister Maria-Walburga, a Roman Catholic nun.
Exactly how did she and the rest of her group of nuns become farmers and ranchers? Mother Maria Michael, Abbess, explained the Benedictine order’s roots.
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Founder St. Benedict (480-543 A.D.) had fled Rome’s decadence to live an austere life. Others soon joined him in his walk of ora et labora—”prayer and work.” Their enduring values include reverence for land, animals and equipment, and hospitality. Farming was a matter of survival for the original self-sufficient group and remains likewise today.
The Abbey of St. Walburga in Colorado dates back to 1935, when the contemplative, monastic order sought safety from Hitler’s growing threat. Three sisters were sent from Eichstatt, Germany, to a then-remote farm in Boulder.
Inspired by unshakable faith, they overcame grinding poverty through hard work. The abbey so flourished that, by 1992, the sisters needed more living and work space to accommodate expanding numbers.
After five years of planning, the present Virginia Dale site welcomed the community in 1997 to land donated by a Denver businessman and his wife. Its 250 acres—near the Colorado-Wyoming border, north of Fort Collins—includes 80 acres of hay meadows for grazing and baling. The cattle have also been allowed access to neighboring dryland meadow pasture.
Each sister takes a vow of stability to remain part of that group for life. Each devotes herself first to God and second to diligent and cooperative work because, although the acreage was a gift, the sisters must financially support themselves…and they do.
In charge of the grass-fed beef cattle is Sister Maria-Walburga, a knowledgeable, energetic and enthusiastic woman, who greatly enjoys both her vocation and occupation. She laughed at the assumption that she was ranch-born and raised, admitting that she entered the abbey at age 21 with an English Lit degree. Though lacking any ag background, she soon became interested in learning a “little something” about cattle. Now, 27 years later, she heads up the entire bovine operation.
But she prioritizes, saying, “We’re nuns first, ranchers second.”
Frequent clothing quick-changes confirm that. Sister Maria-Walburga cheerfully explained her ongoing wardrobe swaps—a schedule that could make a runway model’s head spin.
The sisters at the Abbey of St. Walburga are one of the few remaining orders of nuns who still wear traditional habits. Because they participate in seven prayer sessions every day, those working with livestock must, seven times daily, alternate jeans and associated apparel with full habits. Sister Maria-Walburga noted, however, that even if time for a prayer service, she’d never leave a calving cow.
The grass-fed herd of 35-40 cow/calf pairs is comprised of Galloways and Black Baldies, sometimes crossed with Black Angus. Steers and heifers are slaughtered after two years, with some of the best heifers being retained as breeding stock.
So sought after is the abbey’s beef that it’s virtually unavailable to new buyers. The purchasing waiting list is so lengthy that folks sometimes leave their spot on it to heirs!
More barnyard critters, like herd-guarding llamas, earn their keep at the abbey. Mother Maria Michael personally saw one chase a mountain lion out of the field.
“Awesome!” she said.
Dogs, cats, pigs and chickens complete the passenger list on this Colorado foothills ark. Oh, and bees.
The buzz is that Sister Maria Gertrude, a 32-year-old beekeeper, busily works hives that produce “Abbey Honey.” Some of that amber nectar is given away; the rest sold in the gift shop.
During her 13 years at the abbey, Sister Maria Gertrude has also learned the art of cheese making from milk from the abbey herd and nearby goats’ milk.
Other sisters help generate income. Sister Lioba skillfully weaves blankets, scarves, sweaters and baby christening gifts. Sister Maria Josepha, who entered the monastery in 2004, serves as community infirmarian but also has a small carpentry practice where she crafts about a dozen coffins per year. Most orders come in from people who, while attending funerals, noticed her coffins’ beautiful workmanship.
Mother Maria Michael summed it up, “I feel it’s quite a gift to be able to live in this lovely area. People here have a real spirit of helping one another. I hope that, in time, those who come to visit us would recognize God’s beauty and share in our beautiful surroundings and life of prayer.”
Information about the Abbey of St. Walburga
• The abbey is located at 1029 Benedictine Way in Virginia Dale, Colorado. Its gift shop sells food, religious books, articles, cards, craft items made by the nuns, and more. Hours are Monday through Friday, 9:30-11:30 a.m. and 2:30-4:30 p.m.; Saturday, 9:30 a.m.-11:30 a.m. and 1-4 p.m.
• Seven daily prayer services are open to the public.
• A retreat center, completed two years ago, is up and running.
• For more information, go to http://www.walburga.org or call (970) 472-0612.