Making one's way up Water Canyon Road provides a peaceful journey in and of itself. The sense of serene quiet encourages one to take a deep breath and leave life's trials and tribulations behind. The Sisters of the Canonry of the Bethlehem Priory of St. Joseph in Tehachapi have discovered the same sense of peace and serenity. They live at their 470 acre monastery in the Tehachapi Mountains, following the Norbertine dedication to the liturgical life of choir, office and Mass.
The Sisters live a cloistered life at the monastery, led by the Prioress, Mother Mary Augustine, who has been the Superior of the community since their founding by St. Michael's Abbey in 1997. They perform the full daily cycle of the divine office, sung seven times a day in community in both Latin and English. Mother Mary Augustine, a native of French New Caledonia, and four other women made the first steps towards full autonomy as an independent canonry of Norbertine Canonesses on Oct. 7, 1997. They were founded on that date as a Public Association of the Faithful by the Rt. Rev. Eugene Joseph Hayes, O. Praem., Abbot of St. Michael's Abbey, their mother abbey, a community of about 70 priests and seminarians in the City of Orange.
A groundbreaking ceremony was held March 30, marking the expansion of a convent complex to meet the needs of the growing population of the Norbertine nuns. The population of the Priory, which is nestled at 5,400 feet, has grown from the first five founding sisters to 25 nuns in various stages of religious formation; of which the first ten have made their Solemn Profession or final and perpetual vows.
The groundbreaking ceremony at the Priory was attended by approximately 150 guests, including Fresno's new Roman Catholic Bishop, His Excellency Armando Xavier Ochoa; Father Alphonsus Mary Hermes, O. Praem., Provost of the Priory and several other priest-confreres from St. Michael's Abbey including Father Claude, Father Thomas, Father Vincent and Father Theodore.
Members of the sister's families and close friends and benefactors of the Priory who have been instrumental in assisting the community since its inception also were present, showing their continued support.
A general contractor is to be selected in the near future, with construction beginning immediately thereafter. The sisters are being assisted by an advisory team, led by executives of Hathaway-Dinwiddie's Los Angeles office, who have offered their services on a pro bono basis.
"The new building, with 24,000 square feet will include two stories with a half-basement (principally for the aging of our artisan cheese), and will provide much needed living and working space for our young and growing community for up to 48 women, replacing the leaking and damaged modular trailers that currently serve as our dormitories and novitiate and which cannot last another winter as they are a health hazard," said Mother Mary Augustine, Prioress of Bethlehem Priory.
"The new building will also house two carefully equipped professional kitchens at a level required to license the production and selling of our artisan cheeses, as well as our biscotti and jams at venues outside the convent," she said.
"We pray" Mother Mary Augustine added, "that it is a sign of God's grace and blessing that the building permit for our expansion project was issued Feb. 10 of this year-the feast of the first abbot of the Norbertine Order, Blessed Hugh of Fosses, one of St. Norbert's first companions back in the 12th century, when holy Norbert was founding the order." The Norbertine Order was founded on Christmas Day in France in the year 1121.
The Sisters continually strive to be self-sustaining and self-sufficient, a requirement of all Norbertine communities. There is a small working dairy farm with cows, goats and chickens, along with a large year-round greenhouse for organic produce and outdoor vegetable, berry and vine gardens. The Sisters have a variety of income-producing works and activities consistent with their cloistered life of prayer, including sewing priest vestments, operating their Bethany Guest House and producing beautiful Christmas wreaths, with last year being their best season, having shipped more than 1,000 wreaths across the country.
On Saturday, Jan. 29, 2011, nine Sisters of the Bethlehem Priory of St. Joseph of Tehachapi, made their Solemn Profession at St. John the Baptists Cathedral in Fresno. The event marked the community's 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, the first in the United State of America.
The Norbertine community in Tehachapi is the only community of cloistered nuns in the Fresno Diocese, having been welcomed to the Diocese in May, 2000 by the late Bishop John T. Steinbock.