Why Fr. Peter Ambting, O. Praem., Chose Norbertine Life

By Fr. Peter Ambting, O. Praem.

When I first started thinking about priesthood as a young man, I contacted the Norbertines, because their way of life, balancing action and contemplation—all while serving the local community, attracted me.

However, I eventually joined the seminary for the Archdiocese of Utrecht, Netherlands, my home country. Looking back, I think this was primarily a school choice, not looking beyond my education. While I am glad of the seminary I chose, after I earned my degree and was ordained and assigned, I started to miss the community life that I had in the seminary. To me the life as a diocesan priest was somewhat lonely and I started thinking about Norbertine life again. After a time of discernment, I left the diocese in 2017 and became a member of St. Norbert Abbey.

Community is what I was looking for and community is what I found.

—Fr. Peter Ambting, O. Praem.
Fr. Peter Ambting, O. Praem. (right), Fr. James Baraniak, O. Praem. (center), Fr. Michael Brennan, O. Praem. (left)
Fr. Peter Ambting, O. Praem. (right), Fr. James Baraniak, O. Praem. (center), Fr. Michael Brennan, O. Praem. (left)

I also appreciate the fact that within Norbertine life there is a variety of ministerial possibilities; while for a diocesan priest, parish life is the only ministry one can experience.

For me the main reason to join St. Norbert Abbey was community. Community is what I was looking for and community is what I found. During the abbey’s daytime schedule, there are several built-in community moments: Morning, Noon, and Evening Prayer, and also meals and recreation. I really appreciate these moments.

I was emotionally moved a couple of years ago when I was visiting the Abbey. It was during Vespers that the elderly and ill Norbertines received the anointing of the sick. An older Norbertine became emotional after community members laid their hands on his head as part of the ritual. Another Norbertine noticed the tears in his eyes, came out of his choir stall, laid a hand on his shoulders, and consoled him. To me, this is community: to be there for one another, in particular when you need one another.

Read More

Upcoming Events

Podcast Episode 011: Norbertine Encounter—Drawn by Community

Deacon (now Fr.) Bradley Vanden Branden, O. Praem., on the day of his priestly ordination.

Deacon (now Fr.) Bradley Vanden Branden, O. Praem., on the day of his priestly ordination. Read “Reflections on a Restless Heart” »

Vocational seeds are often planted in the most unexpected or unusual ways. Join our two co-hosts as they reminisce about their journey toward priesthood and how God and the Norbertine community drew them in.

Listen Now

Read More

Come and See: Learn About Priesthood and Norbertine Life

John was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” The two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following him and said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi [which translated means Teacher], where are you staying?”

He said to them, “Come, and you will see.”

—John 1:35-39

By Fr. Michael Brennan, O. Praem.

Fr. Michael Brennan, O. Praem. (right) at St. Norbert College
Fr. Michael Brennan, O. Praem. (right) at St. Norbert College

It was a cool, crisp October day when I first visited St. Norbert College (SNC) as a prospective student in the fall of 1994. One of the highlights of that visit was sitting down with Fr. James Baraniak, O. Praem., and listening to his vocation story and enthusiasm for priesthood and Norbertine life.

This past fall, serving as assistant director of Norbertine vocations, I found myself on the other side of that conversation when I had the opportunity to welcome another prospective SNC student to discuss his interest in SNC and Norbertine priesthood.

Given this encouraging visit, as well as the growing interest of several young men from Notre Dame de la Baie Academy (NDA) who are also discerning the priesthood, Fr. Baraniak, Fr. Bradley Vanden Branden, O. Praem., and I decided to host a Come and See evening for high school students at St. Norbert Abbey in early January. After joining us for Mass, Vespers, dinner with the community, and abbey tours, an NDA freshmen told me, “I’m really glad that I came tonight!”

This high school Come and See evening is one of four vocation experiences that our abbey community has hosted throughout the last several months. These well-received evenings have included men from Silver Lake College and SNC, as well as individual visits from college-aged men across the United States.

We hope to continue our journey with these young men as they discern God’s call to serve God and neighbor as members of our Norbertine community.

Contact Us

If you or someone you know might make be interested in joining the Norbertine community, we encourage you to contact our vocation office to schedule a similar Come and See experience!

Norbertine Vocations Team »

Heart & Soul: Norbertines and St. Norbert College Share Charisms, Values

As seen in the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of Abbey Magazine (pages 4-5)

By Gina Sanders Larsen and Judy Turba

(L-R) Frater Anh Tran, O. Praem. (front), Frater Jordan Neeck, O. Praem., President Brian Bruess, Abbot Gary Neville, O. Praem., Fr. James Herring, O. Praem. (standing), Fr. Tim Shillcox, O. Praem.
(L-R) Frater Anh Tran, O. Praem. (front), Frater Jordan Neeck, O. Praem., President Brian Bruess, Abbot Gary Neville, O. Praem., Fr. James Herring, O. Praem. (standing), Fr. Tim Shillcox, O. Praem.

They exist on opposite sides of the Fox River in De Pere, Wisconsin, but the unwavering bond between the Norbertines of St. Norbert Abbey and St. Norbert College is strong and unambiguous. A new college president, a re-energized campus parish, and an innovative first-year student experience illustrate the institutions’ steadfast connection, “to be of one mind and one heart on the way to God” (The Rule of St. Augustine).

With a warm and gracious greeting, Fr. James Baraniak, O. Praem., and Judy Turba met with Brian Bruess, recently named president of St. Norbert College (SNC), after his first month in office. During their time together, this most impressive 1990 SNC graduate shared thoughts about his journey, his vision for the college, and its connection to the Norbertine community, as well as what it means to come home.

Being an alum, I believe the stakes are higher for me as I serve in this role as president because St. Norbert College is not only a place I love but also a place that formed me.

—Brian Bruess

Brian Bruess, Ph.D., 50, eighth president of St. Norbert College, is only the second alumnus ever to serve in this role; Fr. Dennis Burke, O. Praem., was the first, and the similarities are striking. “Fr. Burke also followed an exceptional leader, Abbot (Bernard) Pennings, the founder of St. Norbert College,” said Bruess. “I, too, am following an outstanding and tremendously successful leader, Tom (Thomas) Kunkel. Needless to say, their extraordinary leadership is both intimidating and inspiring.” In fact, the year Bruess was born, Fr. Burke was retiring. Bruess remembers vividly from his years at the college a painting of Fr. Burke walking across the campus with then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. “The image has stayed with me all of these years.”

Bruess’ excitement is palpable and contagious. He realizes he is inheriting the helm of one of the top-ranked Catholic liberal arts colleges in the country. “Being an alum, I believe the stakes are higher for me because St. Norbert College is not only a place I love but also a place that formed me. Here I began to contemplate a career in higher education through the encouragement of faculty and administrators. I have had opportunities to serve elsewhere, but I honestly feel called here. It’s my vocation.”

Bruess shared his deep commitment to the college’s mission: “St. Norbert College, a Catholic liberal arts college embracing the Norbertine ideal of communio, provides an educational environment that fosters intellectual, spiritual, and personal development.” The mission statement emphatically stresses the tripartite—Catholic, Norbertine, liberal arts—all of which are inseparable and equally important. “This is the only Norbertine college in the world, and society has never needed St. Norbert College graduates more than now. The charism here is rich and powerful, distinctive and transformational.” Through regular meetings with the abbot and members of the abbot’s council, he will envision with the Norbertine community how best to sustain this mission. “I feel significantly responsible to represent Norbertine values and ensure that these values are woven within all aspects of our education.”

Given Bruess’ experience in higher education, his highly regarded expertise, commitment to Norbertine values, and passion for his alma mater—the sky is the limit. He is ready to serve.

Meet Brian Bruess, SNC College President and Alumnus

President Brian Bruess
President Brian Bruess

President Brian Bruess received bachelor of arts degrees in sociology and psychology from St. Norbert College with master’s and doctoral degrees from Ohio University, Athens, Ohio. He most recently served at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, as executive vice president and chief operating officer. During his 21-year tenure there, he also was involved with enrollment management, finance, student affairs, and information technology. Bruess and his wife, Carol, also a 1990 graduate of St. Norbert College and most recently professor of communication and journalism at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, have two children: Gracie, a high school senior, and Tony, a Stanford University senior.

Read More

Fr. Matthew Dougherty, O. Praem.

As seen in the Spring 2017 issue of St. Norbert College Magazine

Unto the Next Generation

By Breanna Mekuly ’12

St. Norbert College

Fr. Matthew Dougherty, O. Praem., teaching at St. Norbert College | Photo courtesy of St. Norbert College (used with permission)
Fr. Matthew Dougherty, O. Praem., teaching at St. Norbert College | Photo courtesy of St. Norbert College (used with permission)

The Rev. Matt Dougherty, O.Praem., ’09 is ministering alongside some of his own former mentors in a year of teaching on campus before he moves on to doctoral studies.

Dougherty is serving at St. Norbert in the theology and religious studies discipline, and also as vocation director and chaplain at the parish. “This is my first time teaching, and so far it’s been a blast!” he says. “I’ve always loved theology, and to talk to people about something (and some body – Christ!) you love for a ministry is such a blessing!”

Of other Norbertines who have recently taken vows, Dougherty is the only one currently teaching at St. Norbert.

“It’s great to have a lot of other young Norbertines in the community,” he says. At the same time, he’s enjoying the company and wisdom of elder priests in the order. “I am privileged to be able to live with guys who really formed and shaped St. Norbert Abbey and the college for the past 50 plus years. After all, the average age of the Norbertines at St. Norbert Abbey is around 74 years old! These men have so much wisdom to pass on to us young guys, and it’s great to hear their stories, and how things have changed over the years.”

Matthew Dougherty, O. Praem., on his vestition day in 2009, assisted by Fr. John Tourangeau, O. Praem. Read more about vestition and the Norbertine religious habit in the Fall/Winter 2009 issue of Abbey Magazine (page 3) article, “De·con·struct·ing the Habit.”
Matthew Dougherty, O. Praem., on his vestition day in 2009, assisted by Fr. John Tourangeau, O. Praem. Read more about vestition and the Norbertine religious habit in the Fall/Winter 2009 issue of Abbey Magazine (page 3) article, “De·con·struct·ing the Habit.”

Many of these men are the mentors who guided Dougherty through his own vocational discernment. He remembers the Rev. Jim Baraniak, O.Praem., ’88, the Rev. Tim Shillcox, O.Praem., the Rev. John Bostwick, O.Praem., ’68, and the Rev. Alfred McBride, O.Praem., ’50 – all present on campus while Dougherty was a student. They not only taught him theology, but also provided spiritual direction, confession, and even lessons on the history of the Norbertine order.

Though Dougherty’s current positions focus on religion and theology, he is academically as interested in learning more about freshwater ecosystems, or aquatic ecology. His undergraduate degree was in organismal biology and he has hopes to continue studying aquatic ecology at the doctoral level in the fall of 2017. He anticipates that this doctoral degree will allow him to teach courses at St. Norbert College in the science department, or possibly on the intersection of religion and science.

I love helping students be challenged and affirmed in their faith.

—Fr. Matthew Dougherty, O. Praem.

As a young priest working at the college, Dougherty says, “I’ve been afforded the opportunity to try to bring the Catholic faith and Norbertine charism to the next generation.” And this is important to him; he believes the Norbertine presence on campus is necessary to continue the Norbertine and Catholic identity of the college.

“I look forward to introducing the students to these values,” Dougherty says. “It’s a big task, but a rewarding one!”

He is most interested in sharing the Norbertine value of communio. The word, as he understands it, means “trying to live in unity with God and others within a locality.” Communio, he believes, should then “combat individualism and divisiveness by claiming that before God we are one family, no matter our differences, and therefore we have responsibilities toward each other.”

With this, he hopes that St. Norbert College students, faculty and staff will continue to foster Norbertine values by maintaining peaceful community – regardless of division – and then proceeding to build more such communities wherever they may go next.

Fisher of Men

“I grew up in Waukesha, Wis., and I come from a proud Irish-Catholic family. Fishing and hunting are my passions. I’ve been fishing since I was a little kid, and have loved it ever since. It’s hard for me to look at a body of water without getting a strong urge to grab a rod and reel. My interest in hunting came a little later in college, but still remains a passion of mine. Aside from the outdoors, I really like good literature, good cigars, and good discussions!

“I love helping students be challenged and affirmed in their faith. I found my faith as a freshman at St. Norbert. In it I found a new way of looking at the world, and it changed my life. I’d love to help other students have a similar experience.”

– The Rev. Matt Dougherty, O.Praem., ’09

As seen in the Fall/Winter 2015 issue of Abbey Magazine (pages 14-15)

A Priest for the People

By Katrina Marshall

On June 6, 2015, Fr. Matthew Dougherty, O. Praem., was ordained to the priesthood.

Through ritual actions that contribute uniquely to the Rite of Ordination, he was given insight into his new identity. Of the major elements in this rite, first to occur was the Rite of Election, connecting the soon-to-be ordained with the faithful by asking their assent of his worthiness to fulfill priestly office. Bishop Robert Morneau (Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Green Bay) asked Abbot Gary Neville, O. Praem. (representing the Norbertine community of St. Norbert Abbey and the entire People of God),

Do you know him to be worthy?

Fr. Matthew Dougherty, O. Praem.
Fr. Matthew Dougherty, O. Praem.

“You can’t help but feel humbled and a little bit nervous by that question, honestly,” shared Fr. Dougherty, reflecting on his ordination day. “Humbling is the best word. Because how can anyone be worthy—to perform the Sacraments, to follow Christ in that way? There’s a fear: am I really up for it? In a way, I’m not worthy. I don’t think anyone is worthy of such a gift.”

Following dialogue between Bishop Morneau and Abbot Neville affirming his worthiness, Fr. Dougherty received a lengthy round of approving applause—recognition of Christ working in him and an implicit invitation to enter into the lives of everyone.

“Amid feelings of unworthiness, to feel affirmation for my vocation through the applause was amazing,” said Fr. Dougherty. “Perhaps one of the most demanding pieces of priestly formation is coming to terms with one’s self: ‘Who am I to be a priest?’ Priesthood is an awesome gift and an awesome responsibility. These people are lifting you up to be their servant. By showing their assent, you are for them … to share in their most intimate moments, the ups and downs. Today, as a priest, I remain grateful. Never have I felt closer to God. Never have I experienced a stronger sense of identity or purpose. I am not a priest for myself, but a priest for Christ, his Church, and the world—I am a priest for the people.”

Lenten Lessons and Chants 2017 at St. Norbert Abbey

The Church of St. Norbert Abbey

Lenten Lessons and Chants 2017 in the Church of St. Norbert Abbey

Sunday, April 2, 2017 | 7 p.m.

Join us for this time of Word, silence, and song.

LentIn this season of Lent, the Church invites us all to prepare for the Easter Feast through a deepening life of prayer, fasting, and works of mercy.

On the Fifth Sunday of Lent, the Norbertine Community of St. Norbert Abbey is offering Lenten Lessons and Chants.

The abbey church will be filled with praise of God’s Mercy through Word (Scripture and other Christian writings), rich silence, and sacred music sung by Norbertine cantors and the Abbey Singers of St. Norbert College.

View event details »

April 2, 2017 — Lenten Lessons and Chants 2017

from St. Norbert Abbey on Vimeo

Read More

More opportunities to celebrate the sacred season of Lent at St. Norbert Abbey »

Prayer and Contemplation

As seen in the Fall/Winter 2016 issue of Abbey Magazine (pages 18-19)

The Norbertine Center for Spirituality and St. Norbert Abbey offer various ways that people can reflect upon God in their lives—through intentional prayer services and contemplative practices.

Candlelight Vigils

Taizé Prayer CandlesAnother senseless tragedy. More sorrow and anguish in the world and in our hearts.

For months the staff of the Norbertine Center for Spirituality (NCS) had grappled with the challenging question, “What in the world can we offer people in times of great tragedy and inconsolable grief?”

On June 15, the St. Norbert Abbey Church was opened to those struggling with and wanting to pray for the victims (and their families and friends) of the Orlando shooting—one of the largest massacres in the history of the United States. Abbot Gary Neville, O. Praem., welcomed the participants to an hour-long service filled with prayer, rich silence, candles, and music (performed by flutist Keith McGillivray and the Abbey Singers of St. Norbert College). Soft rain and gentle thunder heard throughout the service seemed to be nature’s way of entering into prayer. Whatever was taking place in the souls of the participants, the abbey provided a means for them to encounter God amid tragedy—together, in prayer.

“When a tragedy occurs, the abbey should be one of the first places where people come,” shared Fr. James Baraniak, O. Praem. “This is what an abbey is called to do—provide a place of refuge in times of great pain.”

St. Norbert Abbey and the NCS continue to find ways to open the doors of the abbey church after tragedies occur: the monthly Taizé service held on July 17 honored the slain Dallas police officers as well as all who have been touched by violence.

Note: Special prayer services will be posted online, sent to those subscribing to e-publicity through the NCS, and are often acknowledged in the media.

Contemplative Practices

Given the noise and excessive activity within this world of ours, silence—real silence—can be difficult to find. We are usually plugged into something, be it our computers, smart phones, tablets, or TVs. However, it is often the silence and serenity for which people express their gratitude upon entering the NCS and St. Norbert Abbey, which host numerous prayer spaces and offer these contemplative practices.

Prayerful Environments

Prayer spaces abound within the Norbertine Center for Spirituality and St. Norbert Abbey. Men and women of all ages stop in, sometimes only for a few minutes, to spend time in prayer. Click here for more information. Please stop in the NCS main office and you will be directed to a prayer space that meets your needs.

Centering Prayer

Centering Prayer is a method of silent prayer which helps us open our minds and hearts to God beyond thoughts, words, and emotions. It is a way of consenting to God’s presence and action within. While Centering Prayer does not replace other kinds of prayer, it can cast a new light and depth of meaning on them. Weekly Centering Prayer, facilitated by Kathie Tilot, is held every Tuesday morning in the Killeen Room at 7:10 a.m. All are welcome.


On the north side of the NCS is a lawn labyrinth, based on the design within the floor of Chartres Cathedral (AD 1220). The labyrinth is an ancient symbol of life’s journey—a path of prayer. As a tool of integration between mind and body, it can be experienced as a personal pilgrimage, helping one find new insights and inner peace. Open during daylight hours, directions can be found inside the entryway of the NCS.

Read More