Display showcases items from abbey grounds

By Jeff Kurowski | The Compass | August 12, 2021

Anniversary project designed to pique viewers’ curiosity

Norbertine Fr. James Neilson, left, and Mike Counter collaborated on a project for the Norbertines’ 900th anniversary. The display case, featuring items from the St. Norbert Abbey grounds, is located in the abbey’s north entrance lobby. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

DE PERE — Visitors to St. Norbert Abbey may want to spend a few minutes in the north entrance lobby. A new display placed there features coins, medals, buttons, toys, rings, a horseshoe and more, all extracted from the abbey grounds.

In 2018, Mike Counter, director of media relations at St. Norbert College, asked Norbertine Abbot Dane Radecki if he could metal detect on the abbey property.

“(Abbot Radecki) took it a step further,” said Counter, an avid metal detectorist for nearly 35 years. “He said, ‘It’s a good idea, but let’s tie it into the 900th anniversary.’”

St. Norbert of Xanten founded the Norbertine order in France in 1121. The jubilee year celebration began on the first Sunday of Advent, Nov. 29, 2020, and will continue through the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, on Jan. 9, 2022.

Counter contacted Norbertine Fr. James Neilson, associate professor of art and special assistant to the president for mission at the college, to discuss how they could incorporate his findings into the anniversary.

“Originally, there was thought that this may be material for a sculpture, but I thought each one is so particular and interesting that I didn’t want to lose that little bit of identity,” said Fr. Neilson.

They decided it would be best to put the items on display under glass with no labels.

“Let them tell us what it is,” said Fr. Neilson. “People have specialized knowledge. That’s always a thrill for somebody to recognize something that they know so well and to share that with us. Keep a little bit of that mystery.

“They all have narratives,” he added. “How did it get lost in the first place? I’m very curious about that. Who had ownership and how long has it been down there?”

As Counter covered the abbey grounds over two summers, he placed items in a container, which he passed onto Fr. Neilson.

“It was a thrill. I dumped it all out and you start sorting, but you get preoccupied because you see something interesting,” said Fr. Neilson about the lot. “I have always checked change. I always check for wheat pennies. I do this instinctively when I get change. When I find one, it’s a little triumph and here there are so many.”

Counter said that he enjoys doing research to find information about items. The abbey land was once a polo ground, so that could explain the horseshoe. He found his first challenge coin, a small medallion bearing an emblem, during this project. 

“The (military) officer in charge designs their own military challenge coin,” he explained. “When someone does something good, instead of just saying, ‘atta-boy’ or ‘atta-girl,’ they hand these coins to them.”

Counter was able to trace a watch fob to 1904, identify one of the rings as a Russian wedding band and determine that three buttons predated World War I. St. Norbert Abbey was dedicated on June 18, 1959, so many of the items were from prior to the start of construction in 1954.

“I think the musket balls are really interesting,” said Fr. Neilson. “That would suggest perhaps a much older date than some of the other things.”

The key to finding items is to go “low and slow,” said Counter. His detector can locate items almost a foot below the surface, but most are four to five inches in the ground, he added. Counter recently extracted a 1976 class ring on the St. Norbert College campus, which was returned to the owner.

The story behind one found item at the abbey is complete (see bit.ly/2WJaR8u). Counter discovered a four-way scapular medal, which was lost by Deacon David Parker during a football game on the grounds. Fr. Tim Shillcox recalled that the medal was lost in the fall of 1981. It was returned to Deacon Parker in August of 2018. 

The display of artifacts was originally placed in the Mulva Library on the St. Norbert College, where it was well received. Fr. Neilson said that he placed the items under glass, much like museum displays. The design represents an atmosphere with the larger items in the middle.

“The sardine can (placed in the center) is made to last,” said Fr. Neilson with a laugh. “Why am I fascinated by this sardine can? Your eyes are drawn to it. I moved things around a lot. The items are placed by scale, so it dissolves (items decrease in size from the center). It was a pleasure to hold the objects and think about them. I think it appeals to people’s natural curiosity.”

“I originally thought about labeling, but I love the idea of people just coming up and looking, letting their imagination go. ‘What could that be?’” said Counter. “I didn’t adjust anything or bend anything.”

The display will remain in the lobby at the Norbertine Center for Spirituality entrance through the end of the jubilee year celebration. The items will then belong to the abbey, said Counter.

“One part of the hobby I like is this is the stuff I kept. I also found a lot of garbage,” he said. “You are taking a lot of items out of the earth a piece at a time. You are cleaning up the earth a little bit.”

Fr. Neilson said that descriptions of items in the display may be added over time, but, for now, viewers will have the challenge of identifying the pieces.

“When our guests and friends come over to visit, I think it’s a conversation starter,” he said. “It starts a conversation, the curiosity of what could it be. That’s what good art will do. It will incline you to ask questions and to share stories and narratives. So, this is a catalyst for that.” 

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