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“Where God Happens”

June 16: Anniversary of the Dedication of the Church of St. Norbert AbbeySt. Norbert Abbey

On June 16, 1959, the long-awaited dedication and consecration of the “new” St. Norbert Abbey began. Two more days of festive celebrations were to follow. Finally the Norbertines of De Pere had a home where the full canonical life could be lived out.

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By Fr. John Bostwick, O. Praem.

Fr. John Bostwick, O. Praem.

Fr. John Bostwick, O. Praem.

In 2017 it’s been 58 years since the dedication of the church of St. Norbert Abbey. I find myself sitting in my choir stall pondering what makes this place holy. It isn’t necessarily the austere beauty of the building with its shining marble and brilliant stained glass. It isn’t necessarily even the fact that this place was solemnly consecrated with walls and altar anointed with Sacred Chrism.

This place is holy because it is a place where God happens. “Where God happens.” The phrase is not my own; it comes from a work by Rowan Williams where he sees God manifest in the interaction of persons—God made present in encounter. I like the image because of its dynamism and its rootedness in experience.

Recall the story of Jacob in the 28th chapter of Genesis: Jacob lays down to sleep, using a rock for a pillow. That night in a dream he has an experience of God’s presence and God’s promise. When he wakes, he’s overwhelmed by the awareness that “Truly, the LORD is in this place and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16). Jacob took that stone pillow, set it up, and poured oil on it. He called it Bethel, House of God, as the memorial of that encounter with the Divine.

The church of St. Norbert Abbey

The church of St. Norbert Abbey

A place is holy because it is there that we encounter God. This is certainly not limited to officially-designated places of worship, for the Spirit of God is “everywhere present and filling all things.”

Yet the abbey church is a holy place precisely because it has been for many people a place of encountering God. It is manifest in the continuous worship throughout these 58 years: the daily celebration of the Eucharist, the Psalms recited or chanted by the community in a continuous river of praise and intercession. Most Norbertines received the habit and professed their vows in this place. Many were ordained here.

… we give hearty thanks for the gift of this place

—Fr. John Bostwick, O. Praem.
The church of St. Norbert Abbey

The church of St. Norbert Abbey

And there’s more to this history of encounter than the public rituals celebrated here. There are the countless acts of prayer and praise of individuals: community members and visitors, retreatants and guests. There is an ongoing flood of petition, confession, tears of repentance and of mourning, as well as tears and smiles of joy and expressions of love.

The abbey church is a safe place where one is free to encounter God without hiding and in doing so, to discover one’s true self. So we give hearty thanks for the gift of this place and the spiritual resonance of roof, walls, and windows steeped in the beauty of human faith and longing in the awareness of Divine Love made manifest in the abiding presence of Christ in the reserved Sacrament.

Colleague + Friend

Lessons on Virtuous Friendship from Dr. Paul Wadell

As seen in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Abbey Magazine (page 10)

By Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.

Dr. Paul Wadell (left) and Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.

Dr. Paul Wadell (left) and Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.

Maybe it was his smooth Kentucky accent or the fact that he greeted, by name, every student who walked into class. I immediately knew my time spent with Dr. Paul Wadell as a grad student at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago was going to be as enjoyable as it was instructive.

In a course referencing his own book, Friendship and the Moral Life, Paul’s class was more like an invigorating retreat with a group of friends than a series of lectures in a room of strangers. Exalting the virtues as essential components of true friendship, Paul revealed a glorious truth: Being in right relationship with others, cultivating and maintaining a circle of good friends, is nothing less than the very dream of God for each and every one of us.

He modeled for us in our teacher-student relationship the virtues to espouse in our own friendships:

Friendship and the Moral LifeGenerosity

Paul clearly spent a great deal of time in preparing his classroom lectures. They were always rich in facts, personal insights applicable to everyday life, and wonderfully articulated in the most conversational tone. Our lectures were conversations with and among friends.


Paul received us in an atmosphere that valued spiritual understanding and wisdom. We learned that cultivating genuine and deep friendships facilitates the growth and development of the spirit.


Paul invited us to consider a variety of ideas and insights by way of many voices. His recommended reading list was an introduction to new friends; that is, authors we might never know personally, but would know via their writings. Sharing books, authors, works of art, and artists with new and old friends, with colleagues and students, is a lesson in friendship I practice to this day.

I find a wealth of virtuous friendships at my home, St. Norbert Abbey. As confreres, we share intellectual pursuits, mutual respect, collaboration in liturgical celebrations, and warm and inviting conversations at table. Together we believe God’s triune nature is an experience of mutuality. Therefore, as those created in the image and likeness of God, we enjoy a natural orientation toward being in mutual relationship with others. In our friendships we strive to mirror on earth what we believe is the very reflection of God’s own and true self. Today my professor is my colleague at St. Norbert College. I count him as one of the single most influential educators in my life. And I treasure him as a friend.

Paul Wadell, Ph.D., is a professor of theology and religious studies at St. Norbert College. Read his America magazine article, “Not Settling for Less,” which started as a presentation for The Conrad J. Kratz, O. Praem. Abbey Lecture Series at the Norbertine Center for Spirituality in 2014. He also has contributed to Abbey Magazinesee page 12 of the Spring/Summer 2016 issue for his thoughts on “A Ministry of Mercy.”

Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem., is a priest, artist, and teacher. He is an assistant professor of art at St. Norbert College. Read more about his varied ministries.

Spring/Summer 2017 Issue of “Abbey Magazine” Now Available

Abbey Magazine Spring/Summer 2017

Spring/Summer 2017

Abbey Magazine is a biannual publication of the Norbertine Community of St. Norbert Abbey that illumines life at the abbey and welcomes readers into our life, mind, and spirit.

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