A community of Norbertine priests from California is putting down roots in the Midwest by opening a new priory and educational institute in Springfield, Illinois, this summer.
Nobertine Father Augustine Puchner, the community’s new prior, told CNA that the new priory and institute represent the fruition of an almost-20-year vision for the growing Norbertine community. Father Augustine lives at the new priory in Springfield with six other Norbertine priests from St. Michael’s Abbey in Orange County, California.
Located in the former Corpus Christi Priory on Springfield’s northeast side, which has been standing nearly a century, the new priory is technically still “dependent” on the main abbey in California, but the goal is for the priory to grow and gain its independence in the coming years, Father Augustine said.
The new priory had its official opening July 1. The Norbertines plan to offer daily Mass and thrice-weekly confessions in the new space, located at 4867 Laverna Road, as well as host diocesan events and retreats for groups and individuals. The buildings and grounds of Corpus Christi Priory are the former site of the Chiara Center, operated by the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis, who will continue to live in a convent on the property. The Norbertine fathers will serve as chaplains for the sisters, Father Augustine said.
The Norbertine, or Premonstratensian, order was founded in 1121 in France by St. Norbert. The priests of St. Michael’s Abbey are “canons regular,” which means they are priests who live in community and do not have any one particular ministry but rather adapt their ministry to the needs of the community.
“The motto that St. Norbert himself chose 900 years ago was ‘Prepared for every good work.’ Of course, it’s from St. Paul, but that’s the motto,” Father Augustine explained.
“So we were not founded as an order for any particular ministry. We’re not a teaching order; we’re not a health care order; we’re not a missionary order. We serve the local Church in whatever way the bishop asks of us or whatever way the Church needs.”
The community at St. Michael’s Abbey dates to 1950, when seven priests fled communist Hungary. In 1957, Cardinal James McIntyre of Los Angeles invited them to California, and the community started in 1961. Their lives there are organized around the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours.
The Norbertine priests work in parishes, teach in schools, and serve as chaplains to colleges and communities of women religious. They also minister and teach religious education in prisons, youth facilities, hospitals and nursing homes, as well as hosting retreats, Bible studies and a summer camp run by seminarians.
In 2021, St. Michael’s Abbey finished construction on a new abbey in eastern Orange County, after a $120-million fundraising campaign. Father Augustine said the abbey has been blessed with steady growth since about the mid-1980s and has outgrown even their new space. Offers from bishops across the country began to pour in, inviting the Norbertines to start new priories in their dioceses. Father Augustine said that the local bishop, Bishop Kevin Vann of Orange, is a priest originally of the Diocese of Springfield, and his insights about the Illinois diocese helped to tip the scales in favor of locating the new priory there.
It was in the spring of 2022 when Father Augustine says the St. Michael’s abbott approached him and asked him to serve as prior of the new community. Father Augustine says he was content where he was, having ministered in a local Orange County parish for more than a decade but was nevertheless excited to take on a new challenge, especially since the move represented a homecoming of sorts for the former Midwesterner.
The opening of the priory includes another major facet in the form of a center for a new educational initiative run by the Norbertines, which was set to launch Aug. 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary.
The new initiative, The Evermode Institute, seeks to serve Catholic teachers, administrators and formators by offering a complete curriculum in the fundamentals of the Catholic faith that is “confident in its Catholicism and clear in its approach,” its website proclaims. It’s named for the 12th-century St. Evermode, a close collaborator of St. Norbert. Evermode is known for his “great and effective works of evangelization and formation in the Catholic faith,” the Springfield Diocese said.
Father Augustine said the institute will constitute a program that combines in-person events and instruction at the priory in Springfield, as well as educational video programming that will be made available far and wide. The videos will feature the priests of the abbey as teachers.
“The first stage of the Evermode Institute’s development is just sort of basic Catholic doctrine formation for not only the educators but also for administrators. Bishop [Thomas] Paprocki is requiring all of his school principals and directors of religious education to participate in the Evermode Institute program. So we’ll start with just sort of a basic course on Catholic doctrine, but with the view of expanding the ministry, especially the video portion,” Father Augustine explained.
The advocacy of Bishop Paprocki was instrumental in bringing the new priory to fruition, Father Augustine noted.
“I really see God’s hand in all of this, the work of the Holy Spirit, and I am very grateful to Almighty God for all these blessings,” Bishop Paprocki said, as reported by the diocese.
“[A]s the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis were trying to discern what to do with their community and with this property, and as the Norbertine Fathers of St. Michael’s Abbey in Orange were growing and wondering where they could go, where could they expand, and through conversations I had with both of these communities, eventually this came together.”
Father Augustine said visitors are welcome at the new priory: “We’d like to establish our independence and permanency here in the community in just a few years. And I think that certainly can be accomplished with the resources and the personnel that we already have.”