Darien convent defined by openness, hospitality

Nuns at the Sisters of Birgitta convent in Tokeneke pray before an afternoon mass. (David DesRoches photo)

Nestled among ancient oaks, towering spruces and sprawling gum trees lies a hidden treasure that is renown to many and yet somehow has remained somewhat of a mystery, as its modest management does not advertise its presence, nor do they seek adulation or recognition for the selfless service they provide.

Like many other Darien houses of worship, the Convent of St. Birgitta in Tokeneke has history, as does the eponymous order of nuns. In 1957, Marguerite Tjader Harris donated the nine-acre property to the Catholic nuns after she experienced the order’s hospitality while visiting Sweden, the same country where the Brigittines were founded over 600 years ago.

At any given time, the convent, also known as the Vikingborg Guest House, is home to seven to 10 nuns, whose sole purpose is to express faith through hospitality. Mother Eunice, the Darien order’s mother superior, guides the sisters’ daily routine, which follows the same schedule as 60 other Brigittine guesthouses throughout the world.

Upon entering Vikingsborg, residents walk into a dimly lit foyer encased in dark mahogany and cherry trim, flanked by a modest chapel and a drawing room to the left, a meeting room to the right, and a porch overlooking the sound toward the back. Two Indian elephants guard a gong beside the reception desk, and various forms of art from different eras and cultures permeate the building, which is almost always quiet. There is only one television on the premises, and that’s something longtime guests, such as Karen Wright, cherish.

“It’s a place that never really had a television set because of the age of the place,” Wright said. “When you’re sitting there looking out at the water — it’s so peaceful, why would you want to look at the television?”

Wright, who lives in Greenwich and works as a chiropractor, started visiting the convent about 15 years ago, and after several trips she began attending the weekly Sunday mass.

“It’s not a, quote, ‘commercial’ place per se,” Wright said. “They really don’t advertise, they have a little website for directions, but that’s not their focus. It’s usually by word of mouth, and a lot of people from town go there.”

Mother Eunice said that most people who visit Vikingsborg end up returning for a second visit.

“We invite people from all faiths,” she said, adding that local organizations often use the guesthouse for meetings. “Some people come for vacations. Some people come to be spiritually recharged, or have some quiet time.”

What keeps people coming back? For Monsignor Robert McCormick, the convent’s chaplain, it’s the sisters graciousness combined with the property’s bucolic beauty.

“Perhaps the most importance influence for the place’s atmosphere is the sisters — their service and their hospitality,” Monsignor McCormick said. “The place itself is unique. The atmosphere is one of peace and quiet and welcome.”

Monsignor McCormick presides over the daily mass. On any given day, people from around the world can be found sitting in quiet contemplation, he said.

The nuns serve three meals daily for the guests in the elegant dining room. The cost for a stay is $110, and there are seven rooms available, each with a private bath, most with a water view.

Wright emphasized that the convent is a quiet place, and not the typical hotel or resort-style retreat.

“The people who come, come there because it is serene and quiet and peaceful,” she said. “Once you walk in there, you just kind of fit right it, you kind of melt right into the environment.”

The Catholic Church declared 2013 the year of faith, so Mother Eunice said it’s important for people to strengthen, renew or find their faith, and the guesthouse can be a place to spur that process.

“Faith is a hidden treasure in human life,” she said. “If you have faith, you will live your life more happily, hope-filled, and you will be fulfilled.”

Faith helped bring the Brigittine order out of near obscurity, after it suffered heavily during the Protestant Reformation, when many of its North Europe monasteries were destroyed. The order was resurrected in the early 20th Century by Mother Elizabeth Hasselblad, a Swede who converted to Catholicism after encountering the House of St. Birgitta in Rome, a place she had seen in recurring dreams, according to Marie Whitla O’Reilly, a writer.

When she became a nun, Mother Elizabeth was able to convince Pope Pius X to relocate the Carmelites, who had been managing the convent.

“Somehow too, she would find the resources to restore the house to the Brigittines and, despite her ever-precarious health, muster the enormous energy necessary to revive the order which had been in decline since the Reformation,” O’Reilly wrote in The Darien Times in 2006. “She would also open new foundations in Sweden, Switzerland, England and as far a field as India.”

Darien remains the order’s sole location in the United States. The convent has also survived a few bouts with Mother Nature. Hurricane Sandy flooded the cottage, a separate building that sits closer to the water, and lighting struck the building in 2006, causing significant damage, although the chapel remained open for services.

Sister Christina Graziosi was one of the original nuns at Vikingsborg, having served there for over half a century. She died only a few years ago. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of famed aviator and one-time Darien resident Charles Lindbergh, told the convent in a letter that she was happy to have them as neighbors.

“And when I hear the chapel bell I stand up and say a prayer,” Lindbergh wrote.

Summer and holidays are the busy season, Mother Eunice said, and reservations are often needed. Decorations abound during Christmas time — an impressive crèche sits in the foyer opposite a festive Christmas tree, and candy canes and lights festoon various nooks and crannies of the early 20th Century building.

For Monsignor McCormick, the St. Birgitta guesthouse is not an escape, “it’s an oasis of reality.”

“It’s not an escape from life,” he said. “It’s coming to grips more totally with life.”

More info: birgittines-us.com

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  • Kelly

    well written about my favorite nuns. thank you

  • Kelly Kujawa

    wonderful order of holy charming nuns in darien coinneticut.

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