In the years after Vatican II, under the leadership of Abbot Benjamin Mackin, a conviction grew among the men of St. Norbert Abbey in DePere, WI that the canonry should put forth a greater effort to serve the increasing number of Hispanic Catholics in the United States. Fr. Robert Brooks, a trained sociologist, was sent to the Southwest to visit dioceses that might provide an appropriate setting for a new Norbertine foundation. His research led to the recommendation that we mission some men to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in New Mexico, where many Hispanic families have lived for centuries. In 1984, Fr. Robert Brooks and Fr. Robert Olson moved to Albuquerque to seek an appropriate setting for our Norbertine Community. They ministered at the University of Albuquerque where Fr. Alfred McBride, a Norbertine, was president.
In 1985, Archbishop Robert Sanchez invited the Norbertine Community to take pastoral responsibility for Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish on Albuquerque’s West Mesa, a primarily Hispanic working-class parish. The parish included a former convent that could house a small community. Fr. Ed Sdano was named pastor of the parish and Fr. Joel Garner his associate.
On September 8, 1985, the Feast of the Nativity of Mary, St. Norbert Abbey created a permanent foundation in New Mexico, to be known as Santa María de la Vid Priory. The name, which means Our Lady of the Vine, was adopted in memory of the first Norbertine Abbey in Spain, which was founded just after the death of St. Norbert and lasted for more than 700 years until it was suppressed in 1835 by an anti-clerical government.
Fr. Joel Garner was named the prior of the new foundation. Fr. Richard Mulroy, a missionary in Lima, Peru, and Fr. Vincent DeLeers, a former academic dean at St. Norbert College, joined the fledgling community
From the very beginning, the Norbertines of New Mexico saw as their primary mission “the witnessing to the reality and power of a Christian faith community by living a simple, communal life according to the Rule of Augustine and the ancient traditions of the Order of Prémontré” (Mission Statement). Morning and evening prayer, common table, the Eucharist, and a monthly community day were initial vehicles for the deepening of communio.
The initial years of this new venture were marked with numerous challenges, and the rhythm of dying and rising that marks Christian life. Fr. Sdano died the day after leading an annual pilgrimage for vocations in which the peregrinos walk 100 miles from the four directions to the Santuario at Chimayo, NM. He had been pastor only nine months when he died of a heart attack in June of 1986. Fr. Brooks, who had founded the new parish of St. Joseph on the Rio Grande out of the campus ministry program at the University of Albuquerque, died of cancer two years later in 1988.
Fr. Robert Olson and Fr. John Tourangeau, who had joined the priory community in 1987, departed from Norbertine life in 1989. However, as the years passed, other Norbertines came to share in the life of this new mission. Among them were Jim Huth, Christian O’Brien, Norbert Manders, Francis Dorff, Dominic Rossi, Joe Serano, Stan Joppe, Gene Gries, Rod Fenzl, Nick Nirschl, Larry Mayer, Angelo Feldkamp, John Tourangeau (who returned), Brother Dennis Butler, who became the first member solemnly professed in New Mexico, and Robert Campbell, a newly-ordained priest. In addition, Anthony Maes, a former Archdiocese of Santa Fe priest, entered the community but later returned to the Archdiocese.
As the community grew, several other houses were purchased near the priory in our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish, but the living situation was not conducive to the community life that was envisioned. So in 1995 the Norbertines of Santa María de la Vid Priory moved to 70 acres of land in Albuquerque’s South Valley. Located on a southwest mesa, the priory overlooks the city of Albuquerque and the Sandia and Manzano Mountains. Memorable sunrises and sunsets are a regular experience.
The history of communal residence on this land is a fascinating one. There is strong evidence that the descendants of neighboring Native American peoples inhabited the land when St. Norbert was preaching in Europe in 1121. Subsequently sheep grazed here under the flags of three different countries –Spain, Mexico, and the United States. In the late 1940s, Bernard May, a former World War II fighter pilot, had purchased the 70 acres which form the boundaries of the property. He built a family home, an airstrip, and a small airplane hangar on his land. May sold the land to a community of Dominican Sisters from Philadelphia in the 1950s.
The Sisters, whose main apostolate was retreat ministry, built a dormitory for retreatants in 1960. In the mid-1980s, the sisters added a small convent, four hermitages, and a desert chapel. Subsequently, the Dominican Sisters sold the retreat house to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
The New Mexico Norbertines purchased 30 of those acres from the Archdiocese in 1988 and subsequently were invited to purchase the remaining 40 acres and its six buildings in 1994.Ten years after its founding, the Priory of Santa María de la Vid and its members had a new home in a new location. Here the community has created a center for spiritual life for its members and for anyone who wishes to deepen their own relationship with God.
In 1995, Phase I of the long-range development plan for the Abbey began. This included building the Church of Santa María de la Vid, renovating the original May home to serve as a communal dining and living room facility, converting the former airplane hangar into a temporary library, renovating the former retreat center dormitory into housing for the community, and the renovation of Bethany Guest House (the former Sisters’ convent) and the Hermitages of Premontré to make them more suitable for retreat guests.
In 2010, the twenty-fifth anniversary year of the Norbertine presence in New Mexico, Phase II of the three-phase building process is now completed. The second phase addressed the need for a new residence-living center and a library-spiritual learning center. The third phase will include a dining room-living room facility and another residence-living center.
The Norbertine Library is a theological resource for the entire state. The library, currently with over 14,000 volumes and growing, has an animating vision expressed in the dedicatory phrase, “That All May Be One.” The Norbertine Library is open to the public. A series of free lectures on spirituality on Saturday mornings has been held through the Library.
The planning for these two buildings began in 2004 and was realized in 2008. Abbot Gary Neville dedicated St. Norbert Cloister in September of 2007, and Archbishop Michael Sheehan dedicated the new library in August of 2008. These two additions are foundational for Santa María de la Vid’s future as an abbey. The church building assures a space for liturgy, the library a place for study, and the cloister a place for rest and renewal for active ministries. These are the three pillars of abbey life.
The high desert environment of Santa Maria de la Vid Abbey is a sacred space where Norbertines and those who spend time here are nourished for their ministries in the Southwest and beyond. The prayerful, inclusive atmosphere of the priory invites all who enter this holy ground to silence, solitude, study, and dialogue. It is the contemplative hospitality of this place that sustains the Norbertines and others in their active ministries.
The Parish Outreach of the Abbey touches a number of Catholic faith communities in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. The primary service is to the 2,700-family parish of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary where the renovation of the family center was initiated in 1988, and the building of a new church was completed in 1992. The liturgical design of the church has received national recognition. Recently the community has reassumed pastoral responsibility for St. Augustine Parish at Isleta Pueblo, founded in 1613. In addition, we minister to other parishes and convents of sisters in the local area.
The Educational Outreach of the Abbey is reflected in the collaboration with ecumenical friends. The priory has provided a New Mexico campus for the Master of Theological Studies program of St. Norbert College. It enables local residents to earn an advanced theological degree. The Norbertine Library is open to people of all faiths as a space in which a shared search for Wisdom can be pursued in peace. The community is also involved in other adult educational efforts. In addition, several Norbertines have worked at St. Pius X High School, the only Catholic High School in Albuquerque.
Our Pastoral Outreach is ecumenical, including retreat ministry, involvement in interfaith dialogue, advocacy and ministry in the realm of social justice and social concerns and ministry to the marginalized: the poor, the immigrants, the imprisoned, and the sick and dying in area hospitals.
Other fresh developments in the community’s life since the turn of the century
have been the beginning of the Norbertine associates program in 2001, and the formation of an oblate program in 2006. A small group of lay men and women now have the opportunity to identify more intimately with our life and ministry. A further positive development has been the welcoming of three Norbertine priest-brothers from India in 2006 who have been gradually integrated into the Norbertine life of New Mexico and its ministries. Their presence has touched many lives.
With their emphasis on the primacy of community and life together, the Norbertines of Santa María de la Vid Abbey attempt to bring a sense of community to their multiple ministries.
On December 12, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, 2011 Abbot Gary Neville of St. Norbert Abbey, joined by other abbots and Archbishop Sheehan of Santa Fe, the members of the community and the Norbertine laity, friends and family, decreed Santa Maria de la Vid as an canonry. This gave the community the status of self governance no longer part of St. Norbert Abbey.
On August 2, 2012, the General Chapter of the Order made up of the leaders and elected delegates of all Norbertine houses around the world voted to elevate Santa Maria de la Vid to the status of an abbey, the highest degree a house can reach in our Order. The General Chapter was held at St. Norbert Abbey. This was an historic occasion as it was only the second time a chapter had been held in the United States. It was at the mother Abbey of our small community that the international gathering raised us to an Abbey, the dream that had been set out so many years before. Now we must persevere in our vocation and continue to build the life and mission we believe we have been called to realize through God's grace.