Listening to the 25 Norbertine Sisters and Mother Prioress sing in Latin on a sunny Friday morning, it was almost possible to forget the current year.
The sisters have been living simply, high up in the mountains above Tehachapi, since 2000. They have a working farm, including goats, cows, a few roaming cats and dogs, plus more than 80 chickens. They garden, make cheeses and jams, and pray seven to eight hours a day.
Although time may not have seemed to pass for many aspects of their lives, it has been passing for their living and sleeping quarters. The sisters sleep in small rooms in two modular trailers, which they bought used in 2000 and which have aged and started to leak. During storms, water often drips into beds and buckets.
At the same time, their numbers have been growing, from the first five founding members to 25 sisters and Mother Prioress, Mother Mary Augustine. Four more women are considering joining. If they do, some might have to grab sleeping bags and sleep on the floor, Augustine joked.
So on Friday, the sisters and Augustine gathered about 150 friends, neighbors and family to break ground on a new building among the trailers, sheds, guest house and other small buildings on the property.
The new 2 1/2-story building will be able to house up to 48 nuns and have two professional kitchens and an aging cellar to allow the nuns to sell their cheeses and jams, which will help them achieve their long-held goal of total self-sufficiency.
The new building will have an expanded laundry, dining hall, recreation room, courtyard, meeting rooms and offices. It also will have an infirmary, with the foresight that since the nuns have devoted themselves to staying at the monastery for the rest of their lives, some will need additional care as they get older.
"Like me!" Augustine joked.
Augustine and four others moved to create the independent canonry of Norbertine Canonesses in 1997 in Orange County, when Augustine was already into her 50s. A native of New Caledonia (a French territory east of Australia) who speaks with a strong accent, she'd worked in a French bakery, city hall, clothing store and art gallery before being asked by a priest to form the Norbertine community.
The Norbertine Sisters in Tehachapi is the only female Norbertine order in the United States and is part of the Roman Catholic Church's Fresno Diocese.
Augustine said she was able to glean from her variety of experiences her true calling.
"When He spoke to me, I knew it's what God wanted," she said.
"Young people (who) are called in their life to God want something true and serious," she said of the community's growth. "When they are called into a convent, they are called to do something solid and real and in their heart."
The Norbertine Sisters range in age, background and countries of origin. They've come from such places as California, Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, the Philippines, Nigeria, Cambodia and South Korea. Some joined before they were 20 years old. Augustine celebrated her 73rd birthday a couple weeks ago.
They have a variety of skills, too: in business, nursing, engineering and teaching, said Sister Mary Norbert. Norbert was a driven lawyer and partner in her law firm before deciding to join the order at age 35.
Norbert said she hadn't considered a spiritual life as her vocation until growing unsatisfied in her life despite achieving success and being surrounded by friends and family.
"My faith became, over time, the number one thing in my life," she said. "I could've done a lot of different things. This is where I'm supposed to be."
Once she realized her role is as a part of God's plan for salvation, Norbert said, "all you want to do is give your life totally to God."
Sister Mary John Paul, from Nigeria, was majoring in comparative literature in college in Orange County when she heard about the Norbertine Sisters.
"I could see so much around me, so much spiritual darkness," she said. "I wanted to do something. I felt called to do something about that.
"And I understood that the most powerful way I could help people was by giving my life in prayer. I'm praying for them. I always wanted to love completely, and this was the way to love completely."
"It takes a lot of courage," she added. "You're leaving your culture and you're entering an entirely different type of world."
"Sisters, hit it!" said Bishop Armando Xavier Ochoa at the groundbreaking. Ochoa was recently appointed as Fresno's Roman Catholic bishop and came from Fresno for the event.
Augustine and Father Alphonsus Mary Hermes, the "spiritual caretaker" of the priory, grabbed gold-colored shovels, and Augustine struggled then laughed when hers wouldn't pierce the hard dirt.
The sisters are hoping the building will be finished by October or November and that they won't have to spend another winter in the trailers. They estimate it will cost $1.7 million to $2.3 million to complete; they plan to choose a contractor for the work in the next couple weeks.
That cost is mostly covered by donations and other funds the priory has been saving for years. But another $1.5 million to $2 million will be needed for furnishings, fixtures, retaining walls and other measures to meet fire codes, Norbert said.
Augustine conceded that it's a challenge for women to dedicate the rest of their lives to the monastery, which is why women who join visit and contemplate the decision for a time.
"Our days are truly spent in silence, solitude and prayer," Norbert said. "It's silence in a world that has lost that recognition. You're bombarded with noise and billboards"
"Unfortunately!" Augustine added.
"Our life is prayer and work," Augustine said. The sisters rise at 5:20 a.m. and have their first prayer at 6 a.m. They also rise three hours after going to bed for a midnight prayer each night. In effect, their role is to pray for others around the clock.
"There is someone who is praying constantly to make a balance for them," Augustine said.