The Norbertine Sisters of the Bethlehem Priory of St. Joseph's hosted a long-awaited celebration Saturday, July 20, for the completion of their new facility.
Located off Water Canyon Road on the ascent to Tehachapi Mountain, the monastery sits on a hill overlooking forested peaks above and below. The Bethlehem Priory of St. Joseph's new extension measures roughly 24,000 square feet, with a half-basement and two stories -- enough space to accommodate up to 48 women.
"[It is] gratefully replacing the leaking and damaged modular trailers that served as our dormitories and novitiate which are literally falling apart," said Mother Mary Augustine, Prioress of the Bethlehem Priory.
Although the sisters currently number only 26, the expansion of space also allows for an expansion of members. Besides the possibility of adding to their numbers, the extra space includes two industrial kitchens and scores of shelf space to be used in the production of cheese, biscotti and jams. Mother Mary Augustine said the nuns plan to sell these products at venues outside the convent once they receive the proper licenses.
Sister Mary Norbert, the Sub-Prioress of the abbey, said they hope and pray to begin this work within a year. One obstacle they face, she said, is that their herd of about 30 cows and goats must meet the same standards as larger herds in the U.S.
The blessing was presided over by the sisters' "Pater Abbas," the Rev. Eugene Joseph Hayes of St. Michael's Abbey in Silverado/Trabuco Canyon, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange.
"Today we celebrate the blessing of this building," he said during his final remarks. "But we also celebrate the blessing of the house of God which is not made of stone or bricks, but... of these sisters."
Hayes said the tie binding the sisters together as part of the church is charity.
"Continue to grow day in and day out in charity," he said. "Also, you have built up charity within yourselves as you have worked side-by-side."
Although the major construction of the building was contracted to Tricorp Hearn Construction, Inc., out of the Sacramento area, the Norbertine Sisters were primarily responsible for the finishing work on the facility's interior.
Work is no stranger to the sisters. Attaining self-sustainment and self-sufficiency is a requirement of all Norbertine communities.
Besides keeping cows and goats and producing edible goods, the nuns maintain a large year-round greenhouse for organic produce, sew priest vestments, operate their Bethany Guest House, run the convent gift shop and bookstore and sell Christmas wreaths during the holiday season.
A groundbreaking ceremony for the project was held in April 2012, but the Kern County Building Department did not issue an occupancy permit until April 2013. Upon obtaining the government's consent, the sisters moved into the expansion in mid-May on Pentecost Sunday. According to the monastery's press release, Pentecost Sunday is traditionally a special feast day for all Norbertines who follow the rule of St. Augustine, which is modeled on the life of the first disciples of Christ as in the Acts of the Apostles.
This community of Norbertine Sisters was the first of its kind to be established in the United States. In early 2011, nine sisters of the Priory in Tehachapi made their Solemn Profession, marking their formal transition to full integration in the Norbertine Order, the Diocese of Fresno, and the Roman Catholic Church as an independent canonry of Norbertine Canonesses.
At Saturday's blessing, Mother Mary Augustine recapped the monastery's history, thanked the benefactors and guests and reminded the sisters of their purpose.
"With independence comes increased responsibility for self-sufficiency," she said.