California monks build new chapel with medieval stones
By Carl Bunderson
Interior of the Chapter House. Credit: Abbey of New Clairvaux.
Interior of the Chapter House. Credit: Abbey of New Clairvaux.

.- A California abbey has been home to Cistercian monks since 1955, and now houses a new chapel built of stones taken from a medieval Cistercian monastery in Spain.

“These stones have come home...we had a donor event last year because the scaffolding finally came down, and you can see the glory of this vaulted stone chapter house,” abbot Father Paul Mark Schwan told CNA Jan. 7.

“We sang our Cistercian 'Salve' at the conclusion of this event. That was the first time since 1835 that these stones had heard the chanting of, as it were, 'their' Cistercian monks,” he added.

“It was a very touching moment not just for our monks but for the guests who were present for that.”

The new chapel for the Abbey of New Clairvaux – located in Vina, Calif. – is made from stones which had been a chapter house created in the late 12th century for Spain's Santa Maria de Ovila monastery.

The monastery was seized by the Spanish government in 1835, and from then on the buildings were long used as barns for local farmers. The property was later purchased by William Randolph Hearst, who had the monastery's chapter house disassembled and transported to the United States.

The stones ended up languishing San Francisco's Golden Gate Park for over 60 years, but when New Clairvaux was founded, they caught the eye of one of the new monks.

In 1955, Father Thomas Davis was taken to see the stones, and according to Fr. Paul Mark, he “thought to himself that these stones need to return to Cistercian property...they're our heritage.”

Fr. Davis became abbot of New Clairvaux and had “a vision in his own heart” about bringing the stones to the monastery. After the monastery's main building suffered a fire in 1970, he secured about 20 of the stones from Golden Gate Park for the monastery, but they were not enough to be of use.

The abbot again tried to obtain all of the stones in the early 90s, and in 1994 they were finally awarded to the monastery. The medieval chapter house has now been rebuilt, and will serve as the monastery's chapel when it is completed.

The medieval chapter house is a classic example of Cistercian architecture, showing the transition from Romanesque to Gothic styles, Fr. Paul Mark said.

It has taken around $7 million to complete the building process, and the monastery needs another $2 million to complete the church.

The monks are looking forward to a permanent chapel, as the monastery's current chapel was built in 1960 and was only expected to last some ten years. They also hope to raise an additional $5 million so as to build a much-needed infirmary, as well as an administration and formation center for their novices.

Their fund raising has been assisted by Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, located in nearby Chico, which in 2010 began brewing a series of Belgian-style ales called “Ovila Abbey” beers.

Sierra Nevada agreed to donate a portion of the proceeds from the series to the monastery's building projects. The monastery also produces its own wines, and its winery is known as New Clairvaux Vineyard.

The community numbers 23, and is “doing very well for vocations,” Fr. Mark said. New Clairvaux has one postulant and one novice, and received three solemn professions last year.

The community is part of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, also called Trappists. They observe the Rule of St. Benedict, and spend much of their time chanting the Liturgy of the Hours.

While the efforts to rebuild the medieval chapter house and transform it into a chapel have put the usually obscure monks “in the limelight,” Fr. Mark said that “it helps us to treasure all the more our vocation, and move more inward in our hearts and protect that inner silence and solitude which is so characteristic of our way of life.”

Fr. Mark noted that the community is very pleased that the stones which had been long-neglected in Golden Gate Park can again be home to the monks for whom they were first hewn.

“That's why we feel so strongly about these stones. They're not just stones, they're stones that held Cistercian life, held Christian monastic life for over 600 years...there's an element of justice in it.”

Tags: Monastic Life

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