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