Heart & Soul: Gateway Seminar for First-Year Students Teaches Norbertine History and Values

As seen in the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of Abbey Magazine (page 7)

By Gina Sanders Larsen and Judy Turba

Frater Anh Tran, O. Praem. (left), and Frater Johnathan Turba, O. Praem., visit with students who learn about the history and mission of St. Norbert of Xanten and St. Norbert College through the Gateway Seminar.

Frater Anh Tran, O. Praem. (left), and Frater Johnathan Turba, O. Praem., visit with students who learn about the history and mission of St. Norbert of Xanten and St. Norbert College through the Gateway Seminar.

The inaugural Gateway Seminar for all incoming first-year St. Norbert College (SNC) students is in full swing. The seminar is a recently established graduation requirement; the new students gather once or twice a week during the fall semester in 22 small groups, each led by a three-person teaching team, typically comprised of two staff members and an upperclass student. The diverse teaching teams are charged with introducing the young adults to the history and mission of St. Norbert of Xanten and St. Norbert College. They also help new SNC students acclimate to college life and become familiar with one another and with faculty, staff, and Norbertines on campus who can assist them with their questions or concerns.

“St. Norbert College has had a first-year experience program for a long time, but it’s only this year when it became mandatory, which allows us to increase the number of sessions, deepen the content, and specifically educate our students on our history and mission,” said Fr. Jay Fostner, O. Praem., Ph.D., vice president for mission and student affairs at SNC. “Research demonstrates that first-year experience courses increase retention, help students bond with the institution, and create positive and deeper relationships between students, faculty, and staff.”

Fr. Michael Brennan, O. Praem., Frater Johnathan Turba, O. Praem., Frater Anh Tran, O. Praem., and Norbertine Associate Ellen Mommaerts, director of the Norbertine Volunteer Community, are each members of Gateway teaching teams. As young men in formation for the priesthood, Frater Turba and Frater Tran are often on campus. Fr. Brennan, SNC vocation coordinator, is also active in the College of Chaplains at SNC (see “Heart & Soul: College of Chaplains Returns to Campus, St. Norbert College Parish”).

“It’s become my new normal to have people approach me and ask questions about the priesthood,” Frater Turba said, especially considering that he is always wearing his white Norbertine habit. “If that’s the one thing that comes of our participation in Gateway— students engaging us in conversation—I think it’s wonderful. We are proof that St. Norbert is not just a man who lived 900 years ago, but through his ‘sons’ is still a living, breathing presence on our campus today.”

Frater Tran first came to the United States from Vietnam as a high school foreign exchange student. His American grandfather is an SNC graduate, and that connection led Frater Tran to attend and graduate from SNC with a business degree before joining the order. “It really does take a village to live and grow,” he said. “I rely on many others to help guide me, and now I help new students make connections that will help them discover new
people and ideas.”

The 2017-2018 SNC first-year class is comprised of 542 students from 13 states and eight countries. “We have abbeys around the world, and Norbertines are an international order. Here we strive to create a campus community that is diverse and welcoming,” said Fr. Fostner. “The Gateway Seminar helps us nurture a community where learning happens within the context of our rich Catholic, Norbertine, and liberal arts traditions.”

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Wrong Number. Right Project!

By Ellen S. Mommaerts

Director, Norbertine Volunteer Community

Ellen Mommaerts (left) and Bryce Watzka

Ellen Mommaerts (left) and Bryce Watzka

I entered my office one morning and saw the voicemail light blinking. The message went like this from the caller: “Hi Carol, I am calling because I was given your number and was told you could help my son find an Eagle Scout project. Please call me back when you have time.”

My reaction was one of confusion because I am not Carol and I did not know the person who had referred the caller to Carol. I took a chance and called the inquirer back, and left a voicemail that clarified that I am Ellen—director of the Norbertine Volunteer Community (NVC) and coordinator of the Three Corners Neighborhood Community Garden.

I told him that I had a specific idea for a project to build a garden storage shed at the garden location. Thus was born another Eagle Scout project and a partnership with Bryce Watzka—Eagle Scout candidate for Troop 1236 of St. Bernard Parish and 2017 graduate of Notre Dame de la Baie Academy in Green Bay.

The Watzka family has had a Norbertine connection through Prémontré High School, Notre Dame de la Baie Academy, and St. Norbert College (SNC) for generations. This accidental project added another Norbertine connection. To my surprise, one of the volunteers that day was Evan Watzka, now entering his sophomore year at SNC, who had come to the NVC residence as a volunteer his first year at SNC during the college’s annual “Into the Streets” community service event, proving the world is a small place.

I worked with Bryce, his dad Kelly, and uncle Scott on the planning, and with Bryce’s extended family, fellow troop members, and friends. We volunteered by fundraising and executing the construction of the storage shed just days shy of Bryce’s 18th birthday and leaving home to begin his college career.

I pray in gratitude … I know [this project] will benefit our community garden efforts well into the future.

—Ellen Mommaerts

NVC Garden ShedThe final result of the $1,032 project is a great storage building on the garden site, allowing us to remove all of the garden tools, hoses, tomato cages, watering cans, and other necessary items from the NVC house garage.

Thank you to the City of Green Bay Neighborhood and Inspection Divisions for their support of the project and for issuing the building permit that made the construction possible. I pray in gratitude to Bryce and his dad Kelly, in getting this project accomplished efficiently. I know it will benefit our community garden efforts well into the future.

Join Us

For more information about the Norbertine Volunteer Community, contact

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Finding Friends in Faith and Service

As seen in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Abbey Magazine (page 16)

By Stephanie Birmingham and Kyle Cothern

The Norbertine Volunteer Community (NVC) is a full-time service and outreach program of the Norbertine Community of St. Norbert Abbey. Since its establishment in 2008, the NVC has seen nine groups of young adults enter the community, typically as complete strangers, only to become friends during their time living and working together. Steph and Kyle are two such friends and were members of the NVC between January and June 2011.

Steph and Kyle join forces in a memorable karaoke performance.

Steph and Kyle join forces in a memorable karaoke performance.

We came from different states—Steph from Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, and Kyle from Kokomo, Indiana—and backgrounds (even cheering for different NFL football teams!) to find a common experience in the NVC. That January we both joined during times of transition: Steph had just moved back home from working in the Washington, D.C., area, and Kyle was in the process of discerning religious life. Whether our meeting was circumstantial or through grace, we remain grateful to the Norbertines for their support of the NVC as an opportunity for young adults like us to come together and experience living in an intentional community grounded in faith (through shared meals and daily prayer at home) and service (by reaching out to the poor and marginalized in the local community).

As co-workers we volunteered at both Golden House, a domestic abuse shelter, and the Brown County Jail and Juvenile Detention Facility. Kyle was always drawing dinosaurs to entertain the little ones at Golden House and earned a reputation as “master dinosaur-draw-er”! We worked in the chaplain’s office at the jail to assist with the spiritual and emotional needs of incarcerated men, women, and juveniles.

2011 members of the NVC (left to right): Lindsay (Koeppel) Konrad, Steph, Kyle, now-Deacon Michael Brennan, O. Praem., Angie Knutson

2011 members of the NVC (left to right): Lindsay (Koeppel) Konrad, Steph, Kyle, now-Deacon Michael Brennan, O. Praem., Angie Knutson

Although we were only together at the NVC for six short months, this distinctive opportunity to volunteer at two of the same sites gave us ample time to bond through our successes and setbacks. It took a lot of energy to be present to the people we served—especially working with those who had committed unimaginable crimes, challenging our hearts and sense of mercy. Relying on each other, especially between shifts, helped us process our collective experiences. We became more confident in our own paths of personal growth—learning not only from each other, but also from our fellow community members.

Much of our work together was serious, but there were plenty of ways to have fun, too. Whether it was walks around the neighborhood, evening sing-alongs, or movie and popcorn nights, as a community we found ways to balance work and play.

Stephanie Birmingham and Kyle Cothern

Stephanie Birmingham and Kyle Cothern

Our time in the NVC has long since passed, yet our friendship continues to grow. Steph lives in Green Bay and Kyle lives in Chicago, but we stay in touch through the occasional FaceTime call, text, greeting card, or visit. We love to laugh over Steph’s hilarious journey as a first-time cat owner, and Kyle’s adventures as a big-city dweller from a small town. We recently connected over a story shared by a former inmate, who vividly remembers the wordplay games from our days volunteering at the jail and still appreciates those joyful moments so many years ago.

Physical distance might keep us apart, but our memories of the NVC keep us close, and we look forward to being lifelong friends.

Reflections on Norbertine Volunteer Community

To learn more about the NVC, a full-time service opportunity and outreach program of the Norbertine community, contact

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