17 News Special report: Sisters of the mountain

Nestled in the mountains just outside Tehachapi, is a brand new monastery. It's a new home for the Sisters of the Norbertine Order.
TEHACHAPI, CA - Nestled in the mountains just outside Tehachapi, there is a community of cloistered Catholic nuns, doing the Lord's work in seclusion, separated from the outside world.

In a few days, the Sisters of the Norbertine Order will move into their brand new monastery. It's a new home for these women of remarkable faith for the rest of their lives.

17 News takes you to the Norbertine Monastery for an exclusive peek inside the cloistered life of the Sisters of the mountain.

They represent the first community of Norbertine canninesses in the United States.

The Norbertine Order of the Catholic Church was founded in France in 1121, by Saint Norbert, an affluent priest who early on relished in the pleasures of the natural world, but eventually gave up all his wealth to live a life of penance and prayer.

St. Norbert's sacrifice parallels the price paid by the nuns who live, work and pray here.

"And so, they've made that decision to enter the cloister, convinced in their heart that this is the greatest thing I can do for people in the world, is to pray for them," said Sister Mary John Paul.

At first in 1997, they were just five sisters. Today they number 26, with more waiting to come.

Many of the sisters are young, 18 or 19 years old.

They come from four different continents and all across the U.S., bringing with them graduate degrees and professional experience from all walks of life... lawyers, engineers, linguists.

Their former lives are now abandoned for a hidden life of silence, solitude and prayer.

The Norbertine Sisters moved here in May 2000.

Accommodations were modest. A renovated house became their chapel, kitchen and dining room. Modular trailers served as dormitories.

Their goal toward self-sufficiency had meager beginnings. A couple of milk cows, a few goats and some chickens.

From the start, the Sisters relied on support from individuals of Catholic and other faiths, who believe in their mission.

"Being in the cloister offers us the opportunity to give everything to God. So giving ourselves totally, giving that gift totally to God allows us to give ourselves totally to the world," said Sister Mary Emily.

After ten years of hard work and navigating through a maze of government regulations, the sisters of the mountain received the green light to build their new monastery.

"It is the providence of God," said Mother Superior Mary Augustine.

Construction started in early 2012 and is now complete. It's an impressive building.

Mother Superior Mary Augustine granted our request for a tour.

But first, we were advised to respect the sisters' vow of silence and not engage them in conversation at any time.

The monastery is a village unto itself... 24,000 square feet, 29 bedrooms, rooms for formal meetings, prayer, eating, reading and recreation.

There's a professional kitchen where they make biscotti and jellies for sale. And, a kitchen where milk produced from the Convent's tiny dairy can be processed into cheese. Plans to go commercial with their cheese are moving forward.

In the old building, a cozy gift shop displays lotions, jellies, gift cards and Rosary beads made by the Sisters. And, there's a sewing barn out back where the Sisters make vestments for members of the clergy.

There is everything here to make this monastery a home for life.

"Until now, it was very difficult to become self sufficient because we didn't have the room," said Mother Superior.

As the construction reached the final stages, the Sisters of the mountain were put to work, laying tile and vinyl, making beds and cabinets, installing furniture, even a little plumbing.

All that on top of the daily demands of cooking, laundry, administration, gardening, and animal care. All of it is squeezed in between the the eight hours devoted to prayer each day, four hours of classwork and study, and six to seven hours of sleep at night, and even that broken by midnight prayers.

Construction superintendent Jim Wiener says his time with the Sisters, intimidating at first, has left an indelible mark. "The Sisters are phenomenal. They're hard-working and dedicated. They show up on time. They're quiet. They work real hard and they complete their task," said Wiener.

But, it's the Lord's work that comes first, last and always for the Sisters of the mountain.

Here they will spend the rest of their lives, secluded from the rest of the world, yet still intimately aware of global developments that may warrant their prayerful intercessions.

From the outside looking in, it's difficult to grasp the depth of devotion in the hearts of these women who call themselves contemplatives, women committed to utter self-surrender, sacrificing everything to the highest form of divine worship for the salvation of souls.

"I believe that God really approves of what we are doing and he is pleased with our efforts because he has come through for us many different times, when we had deadlines for funds and things. It's been a strong proof for me that God approves of our vocation," said Sister Mary Agnes.

Tom Rigney also approves of the Sisters being here. In fact, he moved from San Francisco to Tehachapi, just so he could worship at the convent's public chapel and draw from the unique energy of a monastic mass.

"I was lost, in the dark. Typical, you know, about 65 years of darkness. It was kinda like being in the fast lane here, trying to catch up for all those lost years," said Rigney.

The Norbertine Sisters believe their monastery is a gift from God.

"It's certainly not our work or my work. That property has been for sale for 20 years and nobody bought it. I think it's the providence of God. He wanted us to be established on this mountain. I don't know why, but obviously he wanted us here," said Mother Superior.

Why was Tehachapi chosen for the location of the monastery? Seclusion for one, and the price. A 176 acre parcel, bought for one-tenth the price of a much smaller piece of property the Sisters were looking at in the southland.

While the Norbertine Sisters live in seclusion, there is a public chapel and a guest house at the monastery you can visit.

If you would like more information you can log on to their website at www.norbertinesisters.org
 
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