Colorado’s St. Walburga Abbey Offers Contemplative Retreats

Set in a valley in northern Colorado, St. Walburga Abbey welcomes visitors for spiritual or personal retreats. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Set in a valley in northern Colorado, St. Walburga Abbey welcomes visitors for spiritual or personal retreats. ©Laurel Kallenbach

A lifesize bronze statue of St. Walburga in a nun’s habit and long robes gazes serenely over the rocky hills and low pines near Virginia Dale, Colorado. Above the saint, a red hawk dips and dives in the air currents. In this serene Western landscape live 20-plus Benedictine sisters of the Abbey of St. Walburga,  a community devoted to God and the contemplative life.

The nuns observe choral worship seven times a day; maintain a small farm with llamas, bees, and grassfed beef cows; and make handmade cheeses. (And they do all this in full-length skirts and habits!)

The abbey's sanctuary ©Laurel Kallenbach

The abbey’s sanctuary ©Laurel Kallenbach

They also welcome not-particularly-religious people like me who are seeking a quiet place to retreat from the hubbub of life.

Located 35 miles north of Ft. Collins, Colorado, and 30 miles south of Laramie, Wyoming, St. Walburga Abbey is a tranquil spot for people to slip away from the cares of everyday life and retreat into solitude, contemplation, or prayer.

The beautiful, modern chapel and abbey building—created from eco-friendly, climate-efficient building materials—is a breath of fresh air. Here you can spend one to five days getting away from it all in a restorative environment.

And you don’t have to be Catholic. (In fact, I’m told the majority of retreatants are from other belief systems or simply want time to catch their breath in a beautiful setting.)

I’ve come several times to St. Walburga Abbey for writing retreats at the suggestion of writer friends. All of them have gotten their books published, so there must be divine inspiration at work!

Carrying a bottle of healing oil, St. Walburga welcomes visitors to the Abbey. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Carrying a bottle of healing oil, St. Walburga welcomes visitors. ©Laurel Kallenbach

At Home with a Saint

The statue of a serene-faced saint greets me as I drive up, and she sets a welcoming tone. In St. Walburga’s hand is an emblematic bottle of oil. At her burial crypt in Germany, it’s said that drops of oil flow from the saint’s relics, and this oil is used to heal the sick. I’m inclined to believe in this miracle; I know I start to feel better as soon as I arrive in this gorgeous landscape.

Having a set schedule—the same every day—is relaxing for me too. The nuns’ day is centered around the Divine Office—the seven periods of prayer and psalm-singing spaced throughout the day and night. I try to attend one daily, though I’ve never made it to the 4:50 a.m. Matins. There’s a pamphlet with the words that the sisters chant—and visitors can join in. (Just follow the sisters in standing and sitting down at various times. Don’t worry, the liturgy is mostly sung in English.)

I always give the singing/chanting my best shot, even though the pitch is a bit high for me and I’m not always sure when the notes change. But when at the Abbey, it’s nice to join in the culture. And it’s a perfect way for me to break up writing sessions. The words of a psalm sung at morning Lauds (held at a more doable 7:15 a.m.) inspired a scene in my novel.

There are beautiful tapestries to admire in the Abbey, both in and outside the sanctuary. If you are Catholic, you can enjoy a scenic walk around the Stations of the Cross—or you can simply meander the property or sit in the gardens and enjoy the view. In summer when the windows are open you can enjoy the chanting from the garden—or even from your cozy room.

A pastoral setting.  ©Laurel Kallenbach

The pastoral setting is perfect for contemplative walks in nature.  ©Laurel Kallenbach

The history is as fascinating as the place is beautiful. During the early years of the Nazi regime, the nuns of the original St. Walburga Abbey in Eichstätt, Germany (Bavaria), realized they were in danger of persecution, so the Abbess bought farm land on the outskirts of Boulder, Colorado, and quietly sent a few nuns to America to establish a new home for them in the event the rest of the order was forced to flee Germany. In the 1990s, the Abbey left Boulder for rural northern Colorado because the area around their farmland was developed and became surrounded by a busy commuter roads and a noisy highway. There, like me, they found peace.

Abbey Habits

On my visits to the Abbey—I usually go for two or three nights at a time—I feel myself exhale and slow down until I’m in step with this tranquil setting. I’m glad there’s no Internet; and I don’t even check my cell phone to see if there’s coverage. Instead, I chant, I write, I visit with other retreatants or a nun—if she’s got the time. (The sisters have much work to do every day, including cooking, cleaning, working in the gift shop, tending the livestock…and praying of course.)

The garden at the Abbey ©Laurel Kallenbach

The garden at the Abbey ©Laurel Kallenbach

On my most recent visit, the entire retreat center was full with a group of 18 doing a three-day silent retreat. So meals were completely nonverbal, which I enjoyed. On my first visit, the guests consisted of me and just one other woman who was a little too chatty. No worries, I simply pinned a badge on my sweater that stated I was keeping silence. That kept me in my own space instead of making small talk that distracted me from my writing or that crowded out my characters’ fictional voices in my head.

I’ll pass along a tip one of my friends shared with me the first time I went to the Abbey of St. Walburga: take snacks. The cafeteria-style meals are lovingly prepared, but basic and modest. There’s a refrigerator for retreatants, so you can easily store a few treats for between-meal munching. That said, the sisters make a huge effort to accommodate special dietary needs, and there are often homemade cookies for dessert!

Another thing: attire at the Abbey is casual, even though the sisters are wearing their Sunday best every day—except when they change into work clothes and aprons for chores. Because it’s outdoorsy, you need sturdy walking shoes. And you can wear jeans and a T-shirt into the church (but not shorts or sleeveless shirts).

The bell tower, St. Walburga Abbey ©Laurel Kallenbach

The bell tower, St. Walburga Abbey ©Laurel Kallenbach

Last but not least, there are bells. Every day, a sister walks to the bell tower wearing noise-reducing headphones for ear protection, and she begins to ring the bells. First, they peal just one at a time. Then the sister gets both going at once. The jubilant bells beckon to all who seek harmony as if saying: “Come to the life-affirming, serenity-inspired sanctuary that is the Abbey of St. Walburga.”

Who the retreats are for: People desiring peace and quiet and open air. The day begins and ends early. (You’re welcome to keep your own hours, of course, but you should respect the privacy and quiet of others both day and night.) There is no WiFi, and cell phone coverage is spotty, which is perfect if you’re serious about unplugging. Three meals a day are provided; the food tends to be simple. Rooms are comfy and modest with a twin-sized bed and private bathrooms. (There is also a handicapped-accessible room, and one with two beds to accommodate a married couple.) A minimum donation/offering of $65 per night is requested. Here’s more information on retreats (either organized through the Abbey or just personal retreats).

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Watch the “Rancher Nuns” video about the St. Walburga nuns.

The sign on Highway 287. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The sign just off Highway 287 between Laramie and Ft. Collins. ©Laurel Kallenbach


St. Julien Hotel: A Green Sanctuary in the Heart of Boulder

In downtown Boulder, the St. Julien Hotel has many eco-friendly features. (all photos courtesy St. Julien)

In downtown Boulder, the St. Julien Hotel has many eco-friendly features. (all photos courtesy St. Julien Hotel)

It’s hip, it’s luxurious, and it’s green. The St. Julien Hotel & Spa, one of Boulder, Colorado’s downtown hubs has awesome ambiance, live music in the lobby or outdoors almost every night, and a fantastic bar and restaurant (Jill’s).

Since the hotel was built five years ago on a long-vacant lot at the corner of Ninth Street and Canyon, I’ve been going there for happy hour and music, but recently my husband and I visited overnight. (Staying in a hotel in your own town feels like a decadent treat!)

Mountain Ambiance, Indoors and Out

Our luxurious King-size Flatiron-view room was decorated in sleek urban lines with décor that picks up on the mountains’ color palate: browns, golds, slate, rusty red, and tan.

The St. Julien's rooms are sleek but earthy, and many of them feature glorious views of the Flatirons.

The St. Julien’s rooms are sleek but earthy, and many of them feature glorious views of Boulder’s Flatirons.

In case you didn’t know, the Flatirons (diagonally oriented stone outcroppings) are to Boulder what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, the Pyramids to Cairo, and the Statue of Liberty to New York City.

Our room’s french doors opened up to a completely unobstructed view of those glorious Flatirons. If you happen to check in after dark, you’ll still feel the Flatirons’ presence, thanks to the large photograph of them in the room. The photo is almost exactly to scale as what you’ll see the next morning when your throw open the curtains in the morning. (After a night snuggled between layers of down on the extremely comfy four-poster bed.)

Stone surfaces in the bathroom recall the Flatirons outdoors.

Stone surfaces in the bathroom recall the Flatirons outdoors.

The stone walls and floor in the bathrooms also echo the Boulder landscape. Organic coffee and fair-trade tea were just luxurious finishing touches.

St. Julien’s Green Stuff (some of it anyway):

  • The elegant, onsite Jill’s Restaurant sources local organic food and beverages when appropriate.
  • Housekeeping uses green cleaning products
  • No-VOC paint
  • Hotel gardens and lawns are pesticide free
  • The St. Julien provides cruiser bicycles to guests free of charge. (Totally cool! There are so many fun places to cycle near the hotel, including the Boulder Creek Path.)
  • Employees get an Eco-Pass for free public transportation.
  • The spa utilizes cruelty-free products not tested on animals.
  • The hotel uses integrated pest management instead of poisons on weeds, insects, birds, pigeons or rodents.
  • Business cards, marketing materials, etc. are printed on recycled paper with soy-based inks
  • The hotel donates linens, towels and its opened shampoo and conditioner bottles to the local homeless shelter.
  • The hotel contributes a percentage of sales to the Prairie Dog Coalition. (Prairie dogs are a huge bone of contention in this neck of the woods. Some people want them eradicated from the face of the earth.)
  • Rooms are lit with energy-efficient CFL bulbs.

    A waterfall in a hot tub in the spa.

    A waterfall in a hot tub in the spa.

  • Motion sensors control lighting in low-activity areas.
  • The laundry utilizes cold-water wash cycles to save natural gas and extra spin cycles to reduce drying times.
  • The hotel recycles paper, newspaper, cardboard, commingled plastic, glass, metal containers. It also composts food products and waste.
  • Single-steam recycling bins are available in every guest room.
  • Compostable food and beverage products (to-go containers, straws, etc.)
  • Reusable hand towels in public restrooms to cut paper usage.
  • Paper keycards to reduce the amount of PVC plastic reaching landfill.
  • Low-flow toilets are installed in both the public areas and guest rooms.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Jill's Restaurant serves local, seasonal fare with flair.

Jill’s Restaurant serves local, seasonal fare with flair.


Living Local at the Fresh & Wyld Farmhouse Inn in Paonia, Colorado

For July Fourth weekend, Ken’s Brazilian Jazz band played for the Cherry Days festival in Paonia, Colorado. A friend who used to live in Paonia recommended an agritourism B&B—the Fresh and Wyld Farmhouse Inn on the outskirts of this tiny town on the Western slope.

Just-picked cherries, almond-anise biscotti and iced tea are the afternoon snack for July 4th at Fresh & Wyld Farmhouse Inn in Paonia, Colo.

This inn is dedicated to organic, healthy living: the soaps, shampoos, etc. are all-natural and “local” is the buzzword here. We had farm-fresh eggs, pancakes with homemade jam, and local ham for breakfast this morning. And there are other treats lovingly prepared by chef/owner Dava Parr. In the afternoon, she sets out fresh-brewed ice tea, just-picked cherries and crunchy anise biscotti.

Morning Freshness on the Farm

From the farmhouse’s outdoor settee at 7:30 a.m., I sip mint tea and slowly come to consciousness. The air is cool, the birds are twittering wildly in homage to the morning sun, and the world is in suspended motion. Or rather, I’m in suspended motion as farm life bustles around me—in its timeless, laid-back way. Activity that has gone on every morning since the beginning of farms.

Paco, the old-soul farm dog with bad arthritis in his hips, wastes only a moment to touch his damp nose to the back of my hand and absorb my scent before he limps off to count other guests as they emerge from their rooms. I hear the ducks “wack-wack-wacking” like cartoon characters in a pond I can’t see from here.

A farmer goes about his hoeing and watering in the hothouse. Shocks of marigolds stand guard at the ends of each garden row, warding off insects from tender tomatoes, fronds of kale, sweet peas. Mourning doves perch on the telephone pole, casting watchful eyes over the land, here in the foothills of the Roaring Fork valley. A slight breeze rustles the heart-shaped cottonwood leaves, coaxing them into daytime.

Fresh & Wyld Inn is a beautifully restored 1908 farmhouse with colorful gardens, cozy rooms, and fantastic breakfasts.

The smell of strong coffee wafted into our room this morning, and my nose decided it was time to greet July Fourth. Yesterday was hot; today is too. Though the farmhouse doesn’t have air conditioning, there’s a lovely patio with pots of flowers and benches scattered in the shade around the farm.

Ken and I are staying in the Sunflower Honeycomb room upstairs—it shares a bath with the other upstairs guests. (The main-floor rooms have private baths.) All the rooms are very cute with old-fashioned furniture; colorful, handmade bedspreads; and local artwork for sale on the walls. There’s also a boutique filled with beautiful crafts, local honey, handmade cards, quilt art, and soaps.

We’re loving this piece of farmland paradise and are spending most of the day here reading, napping, relaxing (I’m still recuperating from bronchitis, so a do-nothing vacation is just what the doctor ordered.) If you’re ever in Paonia, this is the place to stay for terrific food, friendly people, and a getaway in the country.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

We’re celebrating Independence Day by being independent of toxic pesticides at this organic, sustainable B&B. How are you celebrating?  Just click below on “Comments” to share…

Time Traveling to Ireland’s Temple House

No photograph could prepare me for the my first glimpse of Temple House, a Georgian mansion set on an estate of 1,000 acres a few miles south of Sligo. After I drove past the gates and through the green pastures filled with sheep, the sight of the stately home took my breath away. It’s huge and imposing—like something out of a wonderful costume-drama film.


I stepped back into history during my visit to Temple House, an Irish country manor in the rural area south of Sligo, named for ruined medieval Knights Templar Castle on the grounds. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

Despite the grandeur—and everything from Temple House’s exterior to its antique-furnished rooms is grand—it’s a homey place run by the down-to-earth Perceval family, who have lived here since 1665. Deb and Sandy used to manage the guesthouse until their retirement; they’ve since turned it over to their son, Roderick, and daughter-in-law, Helena.

In My Lady’s Chamber

I stayed in the smallest room: the pink room, which is anything but small. I slept cozily in a half-canopied bed and tucked my luggage into a huge wardrobe, as if I were Irish gentry. I had a small writing desk, and I absolutely adored throwing open my ceiling-high shuttered windows each morning to behold the soft, green fields dotted with sheep. (The only thing not historic—and happily so—is the bathrooms. They’re modern.)


Bedroom in Temple House, Sligo, Ireland

There are six guest rooms much like this one, all lavishly furnished with a mixture of family heirlooms and other antiques. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Although the mansion has 100 rooms, only a handful of them are restored and habitable. (Imagine trying to heat 100 rooms! In fact, I doubt there’s electrical wiring to all parts of the house.)

I especially loved the elegant dining room, the site of fabulous breakfasts and dinners. (The innkeepers emphasize locally grown foods, many from their own organic garden.) Guests gather at the immense, lavishly-set table while a crackling fire warms the room and paintings of the Perceval ancestors peer down from the walls. Roderick regaled us with colorful tales of his family through the centuries. I’d look from his face to his Victorian forebears—and noticed the same features: a similar nose, the shape of the eyes, a chin!

I can’t imagine growing up amidst so much history and finery, but then I remember that it takes huge sums just to keep up the place. The Percevals have to work hard preparing meals, cleaning bathrooms, changing linens and entertaining guests, so it’s a modest living—just in a grand setting.

Tea is served every afternoon in this cozy parlor. (The homemade chocolate biscuits, shortbread and fudge are divine!) ©Laurel Kallenbach

Tea is served every afternoon in this cozy parlor. (The homemade chocolate biscuits, shortbread and fudge are divine!) ©Laurel Kallenbach

The best part of Temple House? Countless things: It’s so comfortable, wondrously welcoming, and the fellow travelers I met were excellent company. There’s a lake that you can boat or fish on and ruins of a 13th-century Knights Templar Castle on the property to explore. (The Templar Castle gives the Temple House estate its name.)

Yet, what I loved most was feeling like I had stepped back into history. (If you really like old stuff, and want to travel back to pre-history, make a day trip to the nearby ancient Carrowmore Megalithic complex.) But even if there were nothing else in the vicinity to do, I can think of no more charming place to relax, read a book, eat fabulous food and dream of eras past than at Temple House.

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Ireland:

P.S. For more tips on places to visit in Ireland, visit Discover Ireland.