Cistercian nuns plan new monastery after vocations rise

By Carl Bunderson

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A rendering of the planned Valley of Our Lady Monastery in Brigham, Wis. (view from the West). Courtesy of Cram and Ferguson Architects.

Following a vocations boom at Valley of Our Lady Monastery near Madison, Wis., an architecture firm is designing a new monastery complex for the community of Cistercian nuns, the only one in the English-speaking world.

“It's very exciting to see this happening, very providential, the fact that this comes out of so many young women seeking this monastery out for this life,” Matthew Alderman of Cram and Ferguson Architects told EWTN News on Oct. 16.

The planned monastery is being designed to house 35 nuns. There are presently around 20 in the community, a number which has doubled in the last decade, an “explosion in vocations.”

Valley of Our Lady was founded in 1957, and the present facility on a very small plot of land in the Diocese of Madison is “from the mid '60s,” Alderman reported. The contemplative community is the only foundation of Cistercian nuns of the Common Observance in the English-speaking world.

“They're getting interest from young Catholics and young vocations, it really is very inspiring,” Alderman said.

The Cistercian order was founded at the end of the 11th century to return to a literal observance of the Rule of St. Benedict by cloistered monks and nuns. St. Bernard of Clairvaux was an early abbot of the order and promoted its expansion across Europe.

Alderman described Cistercian architecture as characterized foremost by simplicity.

“Everything's done with great care and deliberation; nothing is superfluous, everything has significance, everything has a practical significance, both from a liturgical perspective and from the perspective of making the building work.”

The geometry of Cistercian architecture, he said, is “very simple, very pure” and is an early form of Gothic architecture, which can best be described as an example of “the transition from Romanesque to Gothic.”

“This project shows it is possible to do good Gothic without having to skimp on it … great care has to be taken in simplifying the design to make it cost-effective, but it can be done,” he emphasized.

The monastery's central feature is its chapel, which has both screened choir seating for the nuns and a section for lay visitors. The church is oriented east, and is meant to be a “wonderful light-filled space.”

“In a Cistercian church, the primary concern is the Liturgy of the Hours, and obviously the Mass, but they spend so much time at the Liturgy of the Hours … a great concern was making sure the lights entered the building in an aesthetic and pleasing way,” Alderman noted.

“At various points of the day, light falls from the windows on various spots around the Church,” which  is “part of the iconography, part of the art” of the Cistercian tradition.

Alderman pointed to Cistercian architecture as a prime example of the “noble simplicity” called for by the Second Vatican Council, though “obviously the beauty of a monastery is very different from the beauty of a parish church.”

Pope Benedict has said that the beauty the Church has nurtured within her is one of the two great proofs of the faith in the face of the modern world, Alderman recalled.

“And that is an evangelical function that is now more important than ever, because we're living in an age that is very much devoid of beauty.”

“Beauty in itself refreshes us and reminds us of the goodness of God. Christ is beauty, and truth and goodness as well. Obviously the building has to reflect that,” he said.

The beauty of Cistercian architecture, Alderman continued, is its “simplicity full of meaning.”

The monastery is arranged around three courtyards. The principal courtyard, the cloister, reflects the order's devotion to the Rule of St. Benedict because it is designed as a St. Benedict medal, with a fountain in the center. The idea of designing it as a St. Benedict medal originated with Mother Bernarda, the community's prioress.

The other courtyards are formed in part by a guest-house for families and aspirants, and the monastery's bakery. The nuns support themselves by baking altar breads with a unique raised mold as well as making craft products.

The planned monastery's design also features a library, refectory and infirmary, plus an octagonal chapter-house.

Cram and Ferguson's president, Ethan Anthony has visited three early Cistercian monasteries in France to help ensure that the plans for Valley of Our Lady are faithful to the tradition of the order.

“We wanted to make sure it's true to the Cistercian spirit,” said Alderman. “Some things had to be shifted around to the particularities of the site … we worked within the tradition, were true to the spirit and the tradition, and followed the letter where it was possible, certainly.”

The nuns have been very clear about how they want each part of the building to relate to the other ones, Alderman said. The present designs are very close to how the final version will look; “now it’s a matter of refinement and development rather than change.”

Alderman emphasized that the nuns' need for a new monastery shows that “the cloistered life is still relevant today. These are 21st century women who made this choice.”

“Living in a very loud and busy world” they found an “opportunity to serve the Church … in anonymity and humility and to pray, to be an engine of prayer.”

The nuns maintain a website about their community at, while is devoted to the new monastery.

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