MIDDLETOWN — Just south of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, east of Route 13, sit two buildings, one on either side of Bayside Road. That property has been the home of the Norbertine Fathers of the Immaculate Conception Priory since 1999. The priests and one brother who live there are doing some outreach as they fulfill their charism of assisting the local church.
The priests who founded the priory moved to Middletown after separating from the Daylesford (Pa.) Abbey. The residence sits on 23 acres and includes a renovated home with large communal living space and a wing that was added to provide bedrooms for the priests. There is also a chapel, small workout facility and offices. The chapel used to be a three-car garage.
The Norbertine priests are best known in the Diocese of Wilmington for founding Archmere Academy in Claymont and staffing the school for decades. But this group of Norbertines is willing to help out where necessary.
“I go out several times a week to help at various parishes,” said Norbertine Father Bill Trader, formerly a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He is the sub-prior at Immaculate Conception and also the guestmaster and formation director.
“A priest will call and say, ‘We need a priest to come in to say Mass.’ I like that because it allows me to get out. I had been a parish priest the majority of my priesthood. Not having a regular Mass to preach at every day was a great change in my life,” Father Trader said.
Norbertine Father James Herring is the prior of the community. He does a lot of traveling, Father Trader said. For example, in November, he spent time in Chicago, returned to Middletown for two days, then hopped on a plane for a visit to Rome.
The priests used to open the priory for Mass with area residents, but that largely disappeared during the pandemic. More recently, they now have visitors one day a week. They also have programming during Holy Week and Christmas.
Across the street, the order owns another 27 acres, much of it farmland. Near the street, they renovated the house of the person who sold them the land with the idea that it could be used as a novitiate if the demand was there. Currently, the house is offered to area priests and religious as a retreat. Father Trader said he’s been traveling the Diocese of Wilmington spreading the word at deanery meetings about the availability of the house.
When they established the retreat house, the order presented it to Bishop Koenig as their way of helping the local church, “to be a spiritual haven for the priests and religious of the diocese,” Father Trader said. Having been a diocesan priest for so long, he knows how hard it can be to get away.
Priests or religious can go for an afternoon, overnight or a weekend. The Norbertines also offer spiritual direction.
The Norbertines had a day of reflection for priests during Advent, and they participate in Reconciliation Monday during Holy Week in the diocese. Father Trader said all of that is part of the Norbertines’ charism.
“In the direction of the order, it says we’re supposed to assist the local church. In the past, that assist meant Archmere, St. Norbert College in dePere (Wisc.), there were parishes that we’d run, that sort of stuff,” he said.
The order has assumed the pastorate at a local church for the first time in memory. Father David Driesch, a longtime parish priest in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, joined the Norbertines in 2013 and is now the pastor at St. Paul’s in Delaware City, a few miles north of Immaculate Conception Priory.
The former farm property includes a barn that the order rents out, and a farmer leases the fields, providing some income for the priests.
At night, Father Trader said, the lights on the columns along Bayside Road make “you think you’re on a runway.” People have come to know that the Norbertines are there.