Monastic life allows drawing our will into God’s

| Jessica Weinberger | November 5, 2019 | 0 Comments

Sister Mary Bede Berg, left, and Sister Mary Joanna Casanova pose Aug. 10 on the grounds of the Valley of Our Lady Monastery near Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin. COURTESY CISTERCIAN SISTERS

Less than 10 miles north of Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin, 22 contemplative Catholic nuns of the Cistercian Order live quietly on 112 acres of farmland. A set of renovated buildings and additions off an 1859 stone cottage make up Valley of Our Lady Monastery, where prayer, study and manual labor set the cadence for this cloistered, contemplative order.

Rising each day at 3:30 a.m., the members, ages 23 to 89, pray communally seven times daily and quietly produce 13 million altar breads annually for customers as far away as Australia.

Two members have roots in the Twin Cities, where they first heard the call to religious life and followed the prompting of the Holy Spirit to the remote monastery in southern Wisconsin in the Diocese of Madison.

Sister Mary Bede Berg, 33, whose birth name is Abigail, serves as the formation mistress at Valley of Our Lady. Growing up in Maple Grove and Osseo, she had a sense early on that she would become a nun. Daily Mass and eucharistic adoration at St. Vincent de Paul in Brooklyn Park planted a seed that she nurtured while attending Trinity School at River Ridge.

She applied to six different colleges in hopes of double majoring in a subject matter she had not yet decided on, plus violin performance, a passion she held since first picking up a bow at age 3. She had a feeling that God was calling her to the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., but she didn’t know why.

“Catholic U really wasn’t the place to go if I wanted to do music, but since I had a sense in prayer that God wanted me to go there, I went,” Sister Mary Bede explained.

WHO ARE THE CISTERCIANS?The Cistercian Order dates to 1098 when Sts. Robert, Alberic and Stephen broke away from Molesme, a Benedictine community in France. They aspired to form an order that fully honored the Rule of St. Benedict, which is characterized by moderation, balance, obedience and humility. The nuns of the order came to the U.S. in 1957, when six sisters from Switzerland founded Valley of Our Lady in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin, at the request of Bishop William O’Connor of the Diocese of Madison.

Cistercians emphasize communal liturgy, support themselves through manual labor, and focus on a personal search for God through contemplative prayer. Currently, there are more than 1,600 monks and more than 750 nuns in the Cistercian Order globally. Valley of Our Lady is the only monastery of nuns of their order in the U.S.

During her first week on campus, she felt unhappy and unsettled, so she turned to God in the lower Crypt Church at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception next to campus. The thought of discerning religious life resurfaced, and she felt great clarity and peace. Sister Mary Bede quickly changed half of her classes to theology and classics to begin her discernment process.

That Holy Week, she took a bus to New Jersey to a Benedictine monastery for dedicated prayer time, where she first discovered Valley of Our Lady and the Cistercian Order in the VISION Vocation Guide published by the National Religious Vocation Conference. She saw the small, corner, black and white advertisement on Easter Sunday.

“I just knew that was it,” Sister Mary Bede said. “God was easy on me.”

A visit to the monastery during spring break of her sophomore year gave her a glimpse into the Cistercians’ simple way of life, and she felt drawn to the traditional Latin liturgy and prayer. She admired how the sisters were committed to living life well and expressing a real relationship with God. Sister Mary Bede returned to school, finished the semester and entered the order days after her 21st birthday.

Now as the monastery’s formation mistress, she oversees the five-year formation period leading to solemn (final) profession. She meets weekly with each of the sisters, helping provide for their material and spiritual needs as they discern their vocation.

Sister Mary Bede also assists with caring for elderly and ill sisters, as needed, and works in the altar bread operation on bake days.

Sister Mary Bede’s most pressing role, beyond her call to prayer and formation, is leading the fundraising efforts for a new monastery (see sidebar). Living the contemplative life amid a large-scale fundraising effort requires balance and grace. Emails, phone calls and meetings can easily overtake each day, so she always takes time for personal prayer and reading. It’s a daily challenge that she recognizes impacts non-religious, especially with the pervasiveness of technology and social media.

“If we don’t step away from virtual reality and recognize true reality and relate with others around us, I think we’ll have a hard time relating with God and living in community, whatever form that takes,” she said.

Sister Mary Joanna Casanova, 32, whose birth name is Katherine, wanted to be a nun since age 4, even before she met religious sisters for the first time as a middle school student at St. Hubert Catholic School in Chanhassen. The Eden Prairie native attended Convent of the Visitation School, forging deep connections with the Visitation sisters that helped turn her focus to teaching. She enrolled at St. Catherine University in St. Paul to pursue her education degree, thinking that all religious sisters were teachers, nurses or worked for the church. Like Sister Mary Bede, she experienced a defining moment in class.

“I remember one day in college sitting in psychology class wondering, ‘what am I doing here? Is this my idea or God’s?” Sister Mary Joanna recalled. “Then I was like, ‘OK God, if I’m not called to be a teacher, where do you want me?’”

She volunteered at nearby Nativity of Our Lord for one summer to try parish work. It was a great experience, she said, but not the right fit. With the calling to religious life still on her heart, Sister Mary Joanna navigated to a website with a list of traditional religious orders. That’s where she discovered Valley of Our Lady.

PAVING THE WAY HOMEWhen the foundresses of the Valley of Our Lady Monastery arrived in Wisconsin more than 60 years ago, they moved into the current conglomeration of buildings near Prairie du Sac with plans to build soon after. That “soon” is finally coming to fruition with a master plan in place for a new monastery on property near Brigham, Wisnconsin, 45 miles southwest of their current location.

The need for funding to proceed with further design work and moving is more pressing than ever. When new postulants join, the nuns rearrange cells and office space, shuffling furniture to accommodate a new sister. With failing electrical and mechanical systems, they pray to escape each winter without heat or boiler issues.

By design, the cloistered, contemplative nuns have lived a hidden life, and now they’re turning to outside donors, with the help of a small group of volunteers and a development consultant, to help fund their larger, updated space that will most likely take at least three to five years to complete.

“There’s a real hunger in the world to know about the thriving monastic communities who are dedicated to prayer,” Sister Mary Bede said about their outreach. “It’s a sign of hope in a world that’s a little crazy and dark at the moment. People want to know that God is working in our midst.”

More information about the Cistercian nuns and their monastery can be found at valleyofourlady.org

“They wear the habit, they chant and praise God in Latin,” Sister Mary Joanna listed off. “It was so traditional, and I had never seen anything like that before, so I was just going to go there to see.”

She attended a weekend vocational retreat and knew immediately that she found what she was looking for. But Sister Mary Joanna already had a one-way ticket to Rome to study abroad for her junior year. Overwhelmed with the prospect of this new way of life, she went to Rome before returning to finish her degree.

“In hindsight, I think I was running,” she explained. “I was just trying to process, knowing if God wants me there, I need to prepare myself for this.”

In the two years that followed her initial visit to Valley of Our Lady, she felt multiple “very strong God experiences” that urged her to accept her calling. And she did. Sister Mary Joanna entered the order just one week after graduation.

Her time at the monastery is defined by prayer, like all Cistercian sisters, along with working in the community’s altar bread production. As she cuts, sorts, bakes and packages what will become the Body of Christ, she prays in silence among her sisters and the hum of machines. The community continues to grow, with several millennials, so Sister Mary Joanna takes her post at the sewing machine as the resident seamstress to craft new sets of veils, habits and scapulars.

Reflecting on her vocational journey, Sister Mary Joanna encourages others to be open to the Holy Spirit and to foster a personal relationship with God through regular Mass and eucharistic adoration.

Sister Mary Bede echoes that same recommendation. Even if it’s just 10 minutes per day, she said, putting God first and taking time for prayer will foster obedience and trust.

“It’s allowing God to make us truly free by drawing our will into his,” she said.

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Category: Featured, Vocations