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Monastery for this world

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Rev. Fran Dorff doesn’t always tell people he is a hermit, because the term is misunderstood.

“People don’t know what a hermit is except a hermit,” said Dorff, a spry 79-year-old and one of 13 members of the Norbertine Community Santa Maria de la Vid Abbey. “A hermit is seeking what it means to be a hermit.”

The abbey occupies a 70-acre swath on the West Mesa, just a few hundred yards off bustling Coors SW in the South Valley.

Traffic sounds are all but absent here. All that breaks the silence are the natural sounds of wind and birds and the tolling of a bell that calls the members to evening prayer.

This year during Holy Week, the grounds were blanketed with wildflowers.

Most community members, who range in age from 28 to 86, live in a cloister up the hill from Dorff’s tiny hermitage, where he spends most of his time in solitary contemplation.

Dorff joins his colleagues twice a week for meals and prayers and leads hermitage retreats for the public. People typically need a day or more to slow down when they begin a retreat and take up simple lodging in the abbey’s four-unit guest hermitage, he said.

“People aren’t aware how fast their lives are moving and how exhausted they are,” Dorff said.

This Easter marks a coming-of-age for the community, which became an abbey in 2012, said Abbot Joel Garner, the community’s leader.

The Rev. Fran Dorff

The Rev. Fran Dorff walks a path leading to a guest hermitage at the Norbertine Community Santa Maria de la Vid Abbey. The abbey’s chapel rises behind him. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

For the first time, the Norbertine community here observed the Easter Triduum, or the three-day observance that includes Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter vigil on Saturday. In the past, community members were too preoccupied with commitments elsewhere to observe Triduum here, Garner said.

“To be able to celebrate (the Triduum) for the first time here as an abbey, as an independent monastery of our tradition, is a significant moment for us,” he said.

The rustic site just minutes from Albuquerque is ideal for the Norbertines, who live a monastic life while serving the wider world, said the Rev. Bob Campbell, a Norbertine priest and pastor of Most Holy Rosary Parish.

Members sleep in a cloister at night, but venture out each day to minister in parishes, hospitals or other sites, Campbell said. “Balance” is a word the Norbertines use often to describe their way of life.

“This location is perfect,” Campbell said. “We’re out here on the West Mesa just 15 minutes from Downtown, but we ain’t Downtown. I couldn’t live down there. I wouldn’t be able to maintain this kind of contemplative, monastic life.”

The Albuquerque skyline is visible from the abbey, which also has a commanding view of the Rio Grande Valley and the Sandia and Manzano Mountains.

The Wisconsin-based St. Norbert Abbey established a community in Albuquerque in 1985 and purchased the South Valley site 10 years later from a community of Dominican sisters. The Norbertines here became an abbey in 2012 after it attained some size and financial stability.

In 2008, the community opened a 17,000-volume Norbertine Library that is open to the public.

The Norbertines take a vow to remain at the abbey all their lives.

“When I die, I’ll be buried out there, maybe next to Brother Dennis, right out there in the front yard,” Campbell said. Dennis Butler, an early member of the community, died in 2012 and was buried in the abbey’s cemetery. “I like that kind of stability and rootedness.”

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