Where nuns are ranch hands

This story originally appeared on High Country News

Sister Magdalena Berndlmaier’s veil wafts in the morning wind, as she swerves and jostles in the Kubota tractor and then pulls to a stop at a shed. She listens intently while Sister Gertrude Read suits up, puts on her bee bonnet and advises caution: Today, the old queen bee will be dethroned to make way for a younger, more vital monarch. This momentous reshuffling of the Apis Empire will require Read’s deft maneuvers within the busy hive.

“I’ve been looking forward to this all morning,” says Berndlmaier, whose admiration for Read’s bravery is palpable.

The shed is packed to the rafters with paint cans, pesticides, rakes, brooms and plastic storage tubs, with a silver crucifix hanging on one wall. Read stands beneath it as she carefully pulls on her gloves and advises Berndlmaier to do the same before leading her to the nearby beehives.

Across the dirt road, Sister Ann Lee sits on a hay bale, feeding snacks to Clarabelle, one of several cows milling about. Later in the day, Read will instruct a few novitiates in the venerable art of making ricotta cheese, leaning over a steaming cauldron of milk.

Here at the Abbey of St. Walburga, cradled in the craggy hills that straddle the Wyoming-Colorado border, life reflects the medieval Benedictine motto of ora et labora — pray and work. The 24 nuns who live here rise before dawn, gather in the chapel to sing at 4:50 a.m., celebrate Mass, and then breakfast in silence — a daily calendar of contemplative ritual that the monastic order has honored for more than 10 centuries.

Much of the rest of their day, however, defies popular notions of monastic life: Off come the black flowing gowns, and on come the sturdy boots and gloves, as the sisters go out to work on the surrounding ranch and farmland. Their faces remain enveloped in coifs, held in place by sun visors, but the fashion is otherwise jeans, bandannas and long-sleeved denim shirts.

“We sometimes say that Jesus is a cowboy,” says Sister Maria-Walburga Schortemeyer, as she moves lightly toward Yoda, one of the Abbey’s three resident water buffaloes. She recalls how once, while transporting cattle from the abbey to Cheyenne, she had a flat tire. Some friendly cattlemen stopped to help her — saviors, as it were, although she says, “Darn it, I would have liked to prove to them I could take care of it myself.”


High Country NewsHigh Country News is a nonprofit news organization that covers the important issues that define the American West. Subscribe, get the enewsletter, and follow HCN on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo credit: George Eastman House