"Our history is very much bound up with the mystery of the holy Eucharist," explained Abbot Hayes. "The initial representations of St. Norbert usually showed him with a book of Scriptures in his hand. But as time went on, he began to be looked to as an apostle of the holy Eucharist."
The median age of St. Michael's Abbey residents – Norbertines who serve the community and parishes throughout the California dioceses of Orange, San Diego, San Bernardino and Fresno as well as the Los Angeles Archdiocese – is a fresh-faced 38.
"That's not the usual situation today, in religious communities," observed Abbot Hayes.
Nor is the witness of growing vocations.
The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University reports that in 1965, there were 22,762 religious order priests. By 2022, their numbers were halved to 10,234.
There are some 1,600 Norbertines worldwide, with abbeys, priories and convents in 23 countries.
As the new St. Michael's Abbey in California neared completion, Abbot Hayes said invitations to start foundations in other dioceses began to arrive. Meetings and group community discernment followed.
"The judgment of every one of those groups was that we should accept the invitation from Bishop (Thomas J.) Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois," said Abbot Hayes. "And so on July 1 of this year, we began the common life with seven of our priests being the founders of this new community."
Norbertine Father Augustine Puchner, prior of Corpus Christi Priory in Springfield, joked that, as a Milwaukee native, he was prepared for relocation from balmy California to the more frigid winters of Illinois.
In all of it, he sees God's fingerprints.
"Around 20 years ago or so, the community – recognizing that we were growing – identified two long-term goals: One was to build a new abbey. And the second goal was to make a new foundation; to expand to a new location," Father Puchner told OSV News. "It's really interesting how in God's providence, those two goals were actually accomplished so quickly. We just opened the new abbey in 2021. And it was only a year later that we were making the decision to come to Springfield. It's a very exciting new beginning."
As a name for the foundation was pondered, a flash of revelation provided the perfect answer.
"The inspiration came that since we're really a Eucharistic order – St. Norbert is a Eucharistic saint – and then that we're in the midst of this Eucharist revival," the name therefore should be "something related to the Eucharist," Father Puchner said.
"So that certainly was intentional. We wished to contribute to this renewal within the Church by means of a Eucharistic revival," he added.
Their diocesan host also was in agreement.
"When I first proposed the new name to Bishop Paprocki," said Father Puchner, "he was like, 'That's it; perfect. 'Corpus Christi' – of course. It's about the Eucharist.'"
Corpus Christi Priory is the former site of the Chiara Center, operated by the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis. The new, yet old, priory in Illinois is a reflection of its California sister, also with Romanesque towers, an earth-hued exterior and ruddy-tiled roof.
"The kind of bittersweet portion of the story is that the sisters' community has been declining," said Father Puchner. "But they had the foresight and the wisdom to provide for a future on this beautiful piece of property by actively searching for another religious community."
The sisters remain on campus and the Norbertine fathers now serve as their chaplains.
Concentrating on the apostolate of forming Catholics in the teachings of the faith, or catechesis, the Norbertine transplants from California have opened the Evermode Institute, christened after St. Evermode of Ratzeburg, Germany, the closest confrere of St. Norbert. Founded to serve Catholic teachers, catechists and administrators, Father Puchner said, "the program will focus first on teaching the teachers – and forming the formators."
Bishop Paprocki "came up with the idea of the institute," explained Father Puchner. "He said, 'I need a ministry that will better equip those who are already teaching in our schools and parishes. I want them to have formation. I want them to have a program.'"
An Aug. 15 inaugural Evermode event was met with enthusiasm for both its online courses and future in-person retreats and days of instruction at Corpus Christi, which Father Puchner portrays as a transcendent space.
"It's an oasis. It's a place of refuge; a place to sort of leave the world behind for a little bit," Father Puchner said, describing the attraction their new home has to visitors. "When you cross that threshold – through the doors, into the Church – there's a peace and a calm and even a silence that really separates you from the world while you're here. We want to bring everyone closer to God, closer to heaven, through our liturgy and through our presence here in Springfield."
With no signs of slowing growth yet evident, the Norbertines are daily defying the narrative of decline surrounding contemporary religious vocations.
"It's good news for the Church," said Father Puchner. "It really is a good news story for the whole Church."