DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The nuns who live in the Abbey of St. Walburga in northern Colorado find their connection to God through prayer and cattle ranching. The small Benedictine community helps support itself through agricultural work, which also helps the nuns stay connected to the world in other ways. Luke Runyon from member station KUNC has the story.
LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: About five miles south of the Colorado-Wyoming border, a large stone sign points visitors down a gravel driveway into a rocky valley. Idyllic red farm buildings are just down the road from the main abbey, where 22 sisters live, pray and work.
Three nuns step out of a retro Ford truck, dressed in simple white veils - oh, and in jeans, plaid shirts and Carhartt jackets.
SISTER MARIA-WALBURGA SCHORTEMEYER: Hi, I'm Sister Walburga.
RUNYON: Oh, hi.
SCHORTEMEYER: Sister Maria-Walburga.
RUNYON: Nice to meet you - Luke.
Sister Walburga runs the abbey's ranch, and the list of agricultural activities here is long. They raise llamas, chickens, water buffalo and bees, but the biggest moneymaker on the farm comes from the beef cattle. The money from ground beef sales goes to the abbey's coffers. And Walburga is very aware of her marketing edge. There's always a waiting list for new customers.
SCHORTEMEYER: We have a bit of a corner in the market - you know, nuns selling natural beef. People kind of believe in it, you know?
RUNYON: To keep the baby cows safe from the numerous predators, like bears, coyotes, mountain lions, the nuns employ an unorthodox set of security guards.
SCHORTEMEYER: The llamas do have a purpose besides, well, baby calf protection. We have actually seen them chase a mountain lion off the property.
SCHORTEMEYER: Yeah, yeah. That's why we have them. Llamas have various weaponry. (Laughter) One of them is their breath. They also - they kill with their front feet. They try to disembowel you.
RUNYON: That's right - a disemboweling guard llama raised by nuns.
(SOUNDBITE OF RATTLING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Come on.
SCHORTEMEYER: All the cows are going to come, sister.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Here's Daisy taking the lead.
RUNYON: In the Middle Ages, when many religious orders were founded, agriculture was more than a way of life. It was a way of survival. Monks and nuns raised the food they ate. Since then, we've become a lot more urban. Still, Walburga says the abbey's farm is more than just a quaint business. While some of the other nuns have questioned the ranch's value, she says it keeps the sisters connected to the outside world.
SCHORTEMEYER: When our neighbors are suffering from drought or suffering from flooding, we can totally relate to them. We're not above and beyond. And it's good to be at the mercy of the environment, and so other people know, you know, that we don't live some kind of ethereal life.
RUNYON: Most Benedictine monasteries use the motto ora et labora, meaning pray and work. But Walburga says there's no division between those two ideas. Prayer and work are intertwined.
(SOUNDBITE OF HYMN)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing) (Unintelligible).
RUNYON: With farm work done for the morning, it's time for prayer. Back down at the main abbey, Walburga is in her traditional black and white habit.
SCHORTEMEYER: Praying with the scriptures is like chewing your cud. All through the day, we're ruminating on it. So we chew, chew, chew, swallow, regurgitate, chew, chew, chew.
RUNYON: After prayers and a quick lunch, the sisters will be back to work in their Carhartt jackets.
SCHORTEMEYER: So it's not just the Lord is my shepherd. It's the Lord is my cowboy.
RUNYON: And this afternoon's chore is to round up some rogue llamas. For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Fort Collins, Colorado.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR MUSIC)
GREENE: Luke's story came to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration focusing on agriculture and food production.
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