The Lord blessed us with ideal weather for a morning riverboat ride. With wind-blown hair, we floated down the Danube from Vienna, Austria to Bratislava, Slovakia. Christoph and the bus met us in Slovakia’s capital city. We trespassed at local hotels for a quick bathroom break before heading to Vrbová.
Spending our day with Norbertine sisters in two convents, the third country on our tour did not disappoint. They were kind, gentle, thoughtful, funny, serene, and such gracious hosts – greeting us with smiles, hugs, waves and so much gratitude for our visit. It was charming and humbling, and just being with them was inspiring.
In an effort to renew the Norbertines way of life in this region, Norbertines from Strahov established a convent in Vrbová, Slovakia in 1902. The first sisters came in 1924. By 1939, the bishop started a primary school that the sisters managed. In 1941, they opened an orphanage. These busy ladies also ran a boarding house for students, taught religion classes and worked in hospitals.
By 1950, Communists took over school buildings, forcing the sisters to work elsewhere — many took hard labor jobs in factories. 30 novices (sisters who hadn’t yet taken solemn vows) had to move back to their homes. That didn’t stop these faithful women, though. They continued to move novices through formation and practice their faith underground.
When the Iron Curtain was lifted in 1989, the houses were given back to the sisters. The school building in Vrbová had been badly damaged. Renovations continue today, though we realized that construction in Europe often takes much longer than in the U.S.
The convent in Vrbová is made up of several different buildings. One of which is a chapel with paintings depicting St. Norbert’s life. They’re in the process of cleaning them and updating the church. Soon, the sisters will use this as their main location for daily prayer with each other and with people of the town.
Sister Siarda and Sister Aquina toured us through their beautiful flower and produce gardens before showing us the “family house”. Built as a spirituality center, the building has welcomed approximately 5,000 people over 5 years who stayed there for physical rest and spiritual retreat.
We moved into the dining room where we were welcomed with handmade bracelets and incense satchels — not to mention a delicious 3-course lunch complete with wine made from the grapevines on their property. With the help of a translator, we heard stories about life in the convent. The eldest sister (who is 90, but you’d never guess!) came to the convent in 1947. A handful of others were also sisters during the Communist regime, sent away for hard labor, and came back together in 1989.
Altogether, there are 74 sisters in the Vrbová convent. The average age is 59, and about 40 live on the convent’s property. A few reside at Schlägl to assist with their parishes (see post from Days 3-4) Interestingly, they have one daughter convent in Orange County, CA. Three sisters from Vrbová studied English as a second language at St. Norbert College before moving to California in 2011.
A short, 20-minute drive got us to Trnava, Slovakia. The highlight of this visit was St. Nicholas Basilica. Three hundred years ago a cholera epidemic threatened the town. They prayed to Mary to protect them, and witnesses saw bloody tears appear on the painting of her. It’s said she protected them from the disease. In her honor, they built the Baroque chapel on the north side. Thousands of believers come to Trnava every November to worship during the Novena of Trnava, lasting for nine days.
The sisters continued to feed us with ice cream and more desserts. We learned more about their services—bible studies, personal guidance, even hosting regional college students. Their funds are low (they rely on the generosity of other European abbeys, U.S. abbeys, and donations) but their spirits are high. It was an emotional goodbye to our new friends as we boarded the bus back to Vienna.
We had the evening free, so several of us dodged raindrops to enjoy Vienna’s cultural festival in the nearby park. It featured authentic cuisine from around the world. My clear favorites were empanadas from Peru and a fruity mango smoothie drink from Tibet.
Quote of the Day: “It was a little difficult using the bathroom on the boat. For the first time, I kind of wish I would’ve sat down … maybe that’s TMI.” – Father Jay