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Cistercians nuns building new monastery in American midwest

IOWA COUNTY IN WISCONSIN

Corey Coyle | CC BY 3.0

John Burger - published on 12/20/20

Community, which produces altar bread, is outgrowing the facilities it has had since 1957.

When Catholics receive Communion, they don’t often think about where the round wafers, called hosts, come from. In many cases, those Communion hosts are baked by members of religious communities, whose life of prayer is a fitting setting for producing what will be called “the Body of Christ.”

Baking communion breads is one of the primary means of support for the Cistercian nuns of the Valley of Our Lady Monastery in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin. They are the only Cistercian nuns in the United States, a foundation of the Swiss Abbey of Frauenthal, founded in the year 1231.

They have been in Wisconsin since 1957, but with recent growth and a need for a quieter, more secluded place for their contemplative life, they are planning to build a new monastery.

“Our Foundresses purchased the farmland on which our monastery presently stands — 112 acres in rural Wisconsin,” according to the nuns’ website. “The glacier-formed bluff, meadow, woods and creek reflect God’s beauty. Though situated in a lovely rural valley, nestled up against Wisconsin’s glacier bluffs, our monastery buildings were originally meant to be temporary. The space they provide has become inadequate as more young women enter. Noise from increasing traffic  disrupts the quiet necessary for a life of prayer.”

The 23 nuns — more than one-third of whom are millennials — have already received support from generous benefactors, but still need to raise a significant amount before they can realize their dreams.

“The current monastery is a cobbled-together complex that includes a former Wisconsin governor’s summer home dating back to the 1920s,” according to Religion News Service. “The women who founded the community never intended for their current space to be a permanent monastery.”

“The layout just isn’t conducive to the monastic life,” said one of the nuns, named Sister Bede. “We shouldn’t be living in a governor’s summer house for a monastery. They never intended it to be the final home.”

The plans are for a 54,000-square-foot monastery on 229 acres in rural Iowa County, including a chapel, cells for 30 nuns, and a guest house. Said RNS: 

The buildings will be grouped around a quadrilateral, a form meant to encourage contemplative dialogue with God. Being among nature also encourages that. “To stand still and wonder at a dragonfly, at a dandelion … the wonder and the contemplation very much go hand in hand,” said the Cistercians’ prioress, Sister Anne Marie.  

Kevin Clark, a Lincoln, Nebraska-based architect who began working with the sisters on the project in 2017, said that “less than a handful of monasteries have been designed and built in the last 40 to 50 years.”

“This is an entire town we’re building,” he told RNS, of the $18 million project. “We’re building their chapel, their office building, their dining room, the housing, and their industry being their factory. … It’s everything they will need or use for their lives,” Clark said. 

The project also has a “sustainability architect,” Lou Host-Jablonski, who is investigating how to build as ecologically responsibly as possible. Possible avenues for that include integrating geothermal energy to heat water, taking advantage of natural lighting and placing the buildings to both protect the nuns from the wind and making the best use of it for energy.

In medieval times, “you designed sustainably because you didn’t have computers and smartphones and UV panels; you didn’t have electricity; you didn’t have pumps,” said Host-Jablonski.

The nuns are especially keen to raise funds now, as an anonymous donor has pledged to match up to  $1 million collected by April 2021.

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