To: (Multiple email addresses may be specified by separating them with a comma)
A Trappist monastery in California is reconstructing part of a 12th century Spanish monastery, promising to give the monks a Godly room in which to meet and the public an opportunity to access a piece of Christian history.
BY SUE ELLIN BROWDERREGISTER CORRESPONDENT
VINA, Calif. — Nothing happens quickly at the Abbey of New
Clairvaux, situated in the Sacramento River valley near the small town of Vina,
Here, where 26 Trappist monks live in community on a
586-acre farm and vineyard once owned by railroad tycoon Leland Stanford, time
moves at a gentle pace.
There is more than enough time for a sacred medieval building,
which has traveled from a 12th-century Cistercian monastery in Ovila, Spain, to
be restored to its holy beauty.
When complete, the pale golden-peach sandstone building
known as a chapter house will be used by the monks of New Clairvaux as it was
by their Cistercian brothers in Spain eight centuries ago. This was the heart
of the monastery, where monks gathered daily, to chant a chapter from the Rule
of St. Benedict, the sixth-century guidebook for monastic life. Thus the term
Once completed, it will be one of the nation’s oldest
buildings and the only Cistercian-Gothic piece of architecture in the United
“I like to refer to the chapter house in modern parlance as
a community room, where the family meets,” said Father Thomas Davis, New
Clairvaux’s abbot. He remembers the day — Sept. 15, 1955 — when he first came
to California at the age of 21 and saw the building’s sacred stones languishing
in crates under some eucalyptus trees in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
That day, brochures at the abbey read, he resolved “to bring
the stones home to Cistercian soil and ‘right the wrong’ committed against the
The monks say the amazing saga of the stones and how they
made their way across 800 years to New Clairvaux can be explained only as the
mysterious workings of God.
The chapter house originally belonged to the monastery of
Santa Maria de Ovila in Spain, built from 1190 to 1220. In 1835, due to a
government decree, the monastery was closed and sold to a wealthy family, who
used the buildings for storage.
In 1931, publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst heard
that the monastery was up for sale. Hearst had already built San Simeon, his
castle on California’s Central Coast. He and his architect thought parts of the
Ovila monastery would be just splendid for an indoor swimming pool and bowling
alley in a second vacation castle he was planning. He spent nearly $100,000 to
buy the chapter house, have it dismantled and number the stones for reassembly,
and another $1 million to ship them to California in 11 freighters.
Then the Depression hit, and Hearst scrapped his castle
plans. Unable to find a buyer for the stones, he gave them to the City of San
Francisco in 1941 in exchange for payment of his warehouse-storage debt and
with the promise they would be reassembled as a medieval museum in Golden Gate
Since Father Davis saw the stones there, the thought of
restoring the chapter house was always with him. Friends in San Francisco
regularly sent him newspaper clippings, telling him what was happening or not
happening to the stones, which lay abandoned for decades. Over the years, many
of the stones were stolen, damaged or used in park landscape designs.
Father Davis became abbot of New Clairvaux in 1970. A few
years later, he began pursuing his dream.
In 1980, the Hearst Foundation provided a grant that enabled
medieval art historian Margaret Burke to study the stones. She found that 50%
to 60% — including 80% of the stones needed to reassemble the archways and vaulting
— were still available, although many were seriously damaged, with their
identifying numbers erased.
Father Davis began writing the City of San Francisco,
requesting the stones for the monastery.
“The famous earthquake of 1989 kind of shifted everything
our direction, because it damaged the de Young Museum so much they proceeded to
build a new one,” Father Davis recalled. Since the city had no use for medieval
stones at the de Young, the stones were put up for auction. Nobody bid. At last
the city awarded them to the abbey on the condition the chapter house would be
reconstructed authentically and be open to the public. In 1994, the stones were
brought north to the monastery in some 20 truckloads.
“This is the only relic that I know of, at least in the
United States, that is actually going to be used for the original purpose it
was built for and at the same time be open free to the public,” said Father
But, as Father Davis explained, the chapter house is more
than a building. The Cistercian-Gothic architectural style on which the
structure is based also has deep spiritual significance. Ancient monks used
proportion, space, light and form to create a holy space that radiated a sense
of awe for the divine. With no bright color or decoration to stir people’s
curiosity and distract them from interior contemplation of God, this form of
architecture has been called the “architecture of silence,” “architecture of
solitude,” and even “architecture of truth.”
Even with the chapter house half-finished, as you stand
silently beneath what’s to become a soaring vaulted ceiling with the morning
light slanting through its narrow windows, you can feel the awesome grandeur of
this sacred place.
“Everything is linked to God through beauty,” Father Davis
said. “And God knows we need a restoration of beauty in the world.”
But it’s taken many years to study the stones and learn how
to wed the ancient architecture with modern earthquake-proofing standards.
Contractor Philip Sunseri has taken trips to France and Spain, building teams
of people who know how to put together this ancient building correctly.
“As a builder, you never get an opportunity like this,”
Sunseri said, his eyes intense with enthusiasm. “This is a lost art.” He
recalls one winter night when he saw the stones in the moonlight and “just got
shivers” down his spine.
Just as Jesus wasn’t honored in his hometown, the stones
have caused barely a ripple in the ordinary lives of some locals. Asked what
she thinks of the sacred stones lying just a few blocks from here, the woman
who makes sandwiches and sells cigarettes and beer in Vina’s little country
store merely shrugged. Does she know about them? No. Nor does she really care.
The initial $3 million phase of construction is complete.
The shell of the chapter house was finished in 2005. The fall of 2006 marked
the beginning of the second phase, which includes building an atrium to enclose
the rare Gothic portal, finishing the chapter house interior and adding an
entrance building, plaza, and parking area.
On July 2, in a ceremony that followed time-honored
Cistercian traditions, the first stone was placed in the portal. The abbey
needs $3.25 million more before the chapter house can be used by the monks and
be fully opened to the public.
Father Davis estimated it would take only two years to
complete the project if the abbey has the money.
He’s still waiting.
Father Davis said the chapter house will stand in honor of
donors as a sign of God’s truth for at least 800 to 1,000 years. While he
awaits benefactors capable of larger gifts, the monk’s dream of half a century
has been kept alive largely by many small donations.
“It just goes to show that God uses small instruments to
accomplish great things,” Father Davis said with a smile. Then he added, “But we
could use a nice push forward.”
Sue Ellin Browder writes from
Key dates in the saga of the stones
1190 - The 30-year construction of Santa Maria de Ovila in
Spain begins. Thanks to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, there are some 500 Cistercian
monasteries in Western Europe.
1835 - In war-ravaged Spain, the government forces monks to
sell their monasteries or convert them to other uses.
1931 - Publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst buys the
Ovila monastery intending to use the stones for a swimming pool and bowling
1941 - After the Great Depression and the end of the Gilded
Age, Hearst gives the stones to San Francisco, expecting the city to make a
medieval museum in Golden Gate Park.
1955 - Monks from the Kentucky Abbey of Gethsemani start the
austere Trappist abbey New Clairvaux in tiny Vina, Calif. They are unaware of
the stones piled in San Francisco.
1980 - Medieval-art-historian Margaret Burke discovers that
the monastery’s most important stones remain, though damaged.
1989 - The “World Series” earthquake is the impetus that
leads to the stones being put up for auction. No one bids on them.
1994 - San Francisco awards the stones to the Cistercians to
rebuild the abbey and open a portion of it to the public.
2007 - The abbey completed the first phase of its project on
the stones and awaits donations for the rest.