Breathing life into sacred stones

By Carol Schuck Scheiber A community of Trappist monks in California have a unique relationship with a monastery that is an ocean of water—and time—away.

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Image: The monks celebrate the completion of the ceiling of their restored monastery building.

THE TRAPPIST MONKS of the Abbey of Our Lady of New Clairvaux in Vina, California have a story that parallels the Christian story of death and resurrection: They helped resurrect, in a way, a shuttered Trappist monastery founded in northeastern Spain in 1181. That monastery maintained for 654 years the simple life of prayer and work that Trappist monks around the world have adhered to for nearly a millennium.

In 1835 the Spanish government dissolved the Ovila, Spain monastery, giving the land and church buildings to private owners. Fast forward to 1931: The rich and prominent publisher William Randolph Hearst became enchanted with Gothic architecture while touring Europe. He spent part of his fortune purchasing the stones of the monastery of Ovila and moving them to California to use in a castle he hoped to build.

The Great Depression, however, caught up with Hearst, and the project was abandoned. The stones sat for decades among weeds in a San Francisco park. Then, many years after the Spanish monastery had been dismantled, the leader of the Trappists in Vina, California began a lengthy process of lobbying, fundraising, and painstaking reconstruction to put the pieces of structure back together. His vision was to bring the stones back to Cistercian soil and rebuild the “chapter” house of the Spanish monks.

The Vina monks envisioned bringing back to life a destroyed monastery built centuries ago by their own Trappist forebears. In so doing they would pay homage to the timeless value of the Cistercian life of prayer.

With much outside support, the monks have succeeded in step one of their plan. In 2012, in a joyful celebration, the Vina community of monks began once again to worship within the building that had belonged to their brothers across the centuries and the sea. The chapter house is only partially rebuilt and is not yet used as their main church, but the California monks look forward to the time when seven days a week they will chant, sing, and give praise to God within the walls of what they have come to call their place of “sacred stones.”

“We got into possession of the stones,” Abbot Father Paul Mark Schwan, O.C.S.O. told the New York Times, “and they’ve come home—a long ways from Spain, but back on Cistercian land with Cistercian monks returning it to sacred space.” 

Thank you to Brother Christopher Cheney, O.C.S.O. and Susie Zimmer for contributing to this story.

Thousands of guests visit the abbey each year to see the reconstructed building.
Thousands of guests visit the abbey each year to see the reconstructed building.


Father Thomas Davis, O.C.S.O., a former abbot, discusses the progress of the building with master stonemason Frank Helmholz.
Father Thomas Davis, O.C.S.O., a former abbot, discusses the progress of the building with master stonemason Frank Helmholz.

 

The reconstructed medieval section of the new church.
The reconstructed medieval section of the new church.

 

Abbot Paul Mark Schwan, O.C.S.O. (from left), Brother Luis Cortez, O.C.S.O., and Father Placid Morris, O.C.S.O. celebrate the completion of the medieval section of the rebuilt church.
Abbot Paul Mark Schwan, O.C.S.O. (from left), Brother Luis Cortez, O.C.S.O., and Father Placid Morris, O.C.S.O. celebrate the completion of the medieval section of the rebuilt church.

 

The exterior of the new church, built with the stones brought from Spain. Still to be constructed are the lobby, sacristy, and the connecting cloister.
The exterior of the new church, built with the stones brought from Spain. Still to be constructed are the lobby, sacristy, and the connecting cloister.



Father Bernard Johnson, O.C.S.O. and Father Thomas Davis, O.C.S.O. (at left and center), both previous abbots.
Father Bernard Johnson, O.C.S.O. and Father Thomas Davis, O.C.S.O. (at left and center), both previous abbots.

 

The monks gather inside the new church during the rebuilding process.
The monks gather inside the new church during the rebuilding process.
Carol Schuck Scheiber is content editor of the VISION Vocation Guide.

2015 © TrueQuest Communications

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