Sister Hanne-Marie Berentzen, OCSO
Monastery of Tautra (Norway)
The Monastery of Tautra,
from old ruins to a modern monastery
‘Welcome back’, said the townspeople when we arrived at the old monastic island of Tautra in February 1999 to found the first Cistercian Monastery in Norway since the Reformation in 1537.
‘We don’t know what a monastery is, but if it is to be, it must be here’, said the mayor of our town when in 1992 he heard of a Support Group for a future Cistercian Monastery in Norway, praying every day at 6 pm for its realization.
Sr Ina Andresen OCSO of Notre-Dame de la Coudre in Laval, France, had spent a year in Norway, feeling called to bring Cistercian life back to her country of origin. At a short retreat for the Solemnity of St Olav, Norway’s national saint, July 29 1991, she shared her vision when several people wondered how she was allowed to leave her cloistered life for this occasion. Everybody responded with a desire to pray every night at 6 pm for a Cistercian foundation sometime in the future, God willing.
The next year for the Solemnity of St Olav the new King and Queen came to our town Frosta to start their 2nd half of traveling the coast, greeting the people. (Frosta was the center for one of our oldest law-giving assemblies - from at least the 8th century). The mayor was to give the speech, and opening the newspaper that morning, saw the headlines: A New Monastery on Tautra.
No big news, just an architectural student’s choice of site for her diploma work. But in our region, that was a hit. A new monastery on Tautra? Really? The newspaper quoted the leader of the Support Group praying for a monastery: ‘We don’t know what a monastery is, we just pray that it will be one day’, she said.
That was enough for the Mayor. Some months later Sr Ina came to start living in an old farm house next to the ruins of the Cistercian Monastery at Tautra founded 1207 from Lyse, near Bergen. (Lyse was a foundation of Fountains from 1146) The next summer Sr Marjoe Backhus from Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey, Dubuque, Iowa, came to join her. Their little monastic experiment ended a year later when Sr Ina became ill. But a seed had been sown. The Support Group had now a few hundred members who continued to pray, and Sr Marjoe’s abbess, Mother Gail Fitzpatrick, had visited Tautra and believed that God wanted something in Norway. Before her community in 1998 made a unanimous vote for a foundation in Norway, the town council of Frosta made a unanimous vote to support the nuns if they would come back to their town.
With their help we bought the property with small farmhouses on this little island in the middle of the broad Trondheim fjord, 20 minutes’ walk from the medieval ruins, supported by both the Catholic and the Lutheran Bishop of Trondheim.
We were 7 foundresses, 5 from the mother house in Dubuque. Sr Ina from Laval and myself, also Norwegian by birth, from Mt St Mary’s Abbey, Wrentham, USA. Mother Gail asked us to wait a year before choosing an architect and starting the building process. This was important. Living in traditional Norwegian wooden houses made it clear to all of us that we did not want to build in brick or concrete, but in wood – and stone, if possible. The beautiful pink stones we saw in the walls of the ruins, were too expensive.
After working with 3 architects over several years, Jan Olav Jensen, who designed the monastery, chose to cover the façade with slate, which we could afford, a wooden monastery with a façade of slate.
Seven crowded years in the old houses were tough living, but made us one community. Crossing the yard between the houses for every office through the day, introduced us to the climate and the strong island winds. When our architect suggested 11 interior gardens in the monastery, we thought it a great idea. Economy reduced it to 7, giving extra light in the house, and keeping us connected. Working alone in the kitchen or wardrobe, you can look across the garden and see other sisters in their work-place.
We worked for a long time to agree on a suggestion for the design of the church. Again and again we said ‘No, not this one’ until the architect suggested a church with the shape similar to the barns of our neighbors, but with a glass roof over crossing beams, giving checkered shadows. Then we said ‘Yes.’ Our project manager warned us that it would be cold in the winter and hot in the summer. But we still said Yes. We wanted the church clearly to stand out, to be a beacon on this flat island. With the glass roof it reflects the many greenhouses in our town, being a spiritual greenhouse. Especially during the darkest winter months the play of the light through the beams reminds us of the medieval Cistercian architecture.
Queen Sonja of Norway had found interest in our foundation, and came to lay the corner stone in May 2003.
‘Do you know why I am here today?’ asked one of our friends in the Support Group.
‘We were six women meeting in August 1991, wondering what to do as a Support Group. Somebody said “ they sure will need money.” So we each laid 10 Norwegian crowns on the table and started a bank account.’
The Queen came back for the dedication of our church in 2007. Her support and the good will of neighbors and people from near and afar, together with our faithful friends in the Support Group, has been important for getting rooted in this town and this country.
When we became autonomous and six of us changed our stability to Tautra, Sr Ina found out her vocation was to return to Laval. One of the foundresses had returned to the motherhouse earlier, and over the years they sent two other sisters to join us. Three of those who have entered Tautra have made their solemn profession, and our present prioress, Sr Brigitte Pinot from France, changed her stability to Tautra in 2017, so we are now eleven solemnly professed sisters from six different countries. Seven other women from seven different countries have entered, but not persevered. Through their time with us they have greatly contributed to who we are, and hopefully have opened us more to a multi-cultural society. Counting our postulant, we come from seven different countries.
At a point when we were 12 in the community and had four women inquiring to discern their vocation, Sr Gilchrist Lavigne, who was the prioress at the time, found out that our monastery designed for 16-18 sisters was not big enough. When we built the monastery we received enthusiastic help both from our Order, from the fundraising
of our motherhouse sisters, and especially from several German Catholic Donors, Bonifatiuswerk being the most important of them, and we could finish the building without taking any loans. When the idea of an addition for an infirmary and some additional cells came up, our financial advisers said it is very difficult to raise money for an addition. We prayed as before, and trusted God would help us if this was what we should do. In January 2021 we took over the new building dug into the ground in the hill towards the fjord, with a grass top keeping our lawn and the beautiful view of the fjord and the hills across. Also this time fully financed. The architect Runa Bjerke carefully made this new wing adapted to the older part of the monastery, yet clearly new and different, with wooden ebony façade. While Jan Olav Jensen chose long, narrow corridors connecting the different rooms, Runa Bjerke made broad and short corridors with extra high ceiling and sky-lights. It made a sense of space in this rather small addition of 4 infirmary rooms (nursing-home standard), dispensary, chapel, 4 ordinary cells, a living room which we never had before, with a small kitchenette, a laundry, exercise room, and – what we never had enough of: Storage space!
It is interesting to see how this new wing has changed the life of the community. In a small community we do not have much common work, which normally is a good means of getting to know one another. From the very beginning we understood that we needed to reach out to our visitors, inviting them to church coffee after Sunday Mass, and that we as a community would have common church coffee on Solemnities and on a Sister’s Feast Day.
Our refectory is long and narrow, since we all want to sit facing the fjord, loving that extraordinary ever-changing view. When we had our coffee breaks standing there, it was difficult to gather in one conversation. For the new living room we inherited a 6-seater sofa and table. This is now where we gather for church coffee, everybody included in the circle, and everybody taking part in the conversation.
From the very first year of our foundation our soap production, later expanded with other skin products – has covered a main part of our costs. Internet sales helped us come through the covid time without dangerous losses, although the guest house in periods was closed. The last 18 years we have had volunteers from all over the world living in our guest house for some months, giving valuable help with our work. One of our sisters accompanies them through their stay, and they are deeply grateful for this time in a monastic environment. The volunteer program has also given us vocations.
Our chaplain, Fr. Anthony of Roscrea in Ireland, has made a beautiful vegetable garden providing us with fresh vegetables year round. We also treasure the orchard and the many berry bushes on the property.
The beauty of our monastery and the interplay with the beauty around us is a daily source of joy and encouragement, and we are happy to share this with our volunteers, guests and visitors. Few churches in the Lutheran-dominated Norway are open except for services, and many are grateful to find a church that is open from four at night till eight in the evening. So much so that our town council in 2011 voted the monastery to be the most important thing that had happened in our municipality since World War II. And their reason was mainly that the church is always open for visitors to come and pray. We are grateful to see how many people come to share our liturgy and use the church for silent prayer throughout the day.