The Mission Goes On: Norbertines Break Ground on New Abbey
Construction on St. Michael’s Abbey, amid 327 acres in California, began March 18.
SILVERADO, Calif. — Groundbreakings are nothing unusual in Southern California. From the near constant reinvention of Los Angeles to coastal neighborhoods where newcomers buy a home only to tear it down and start from scratch, new buildings go up in a never-ending cycle.
But the March 18 groundbreaking on 327 acres in central Orange County was a little different.
For one thing, attendees were shrouded in near silence, bound on three sides by the Cleveland National Forest and on the fourth side by distant Silverado Canyon Road.
For another, the lead member of the construction team did not mill among the guests making small talk — though there was little doubt among those gathered that St. Joseph was present for the occasion.
And when speakers addressed the magnitude of the construction project that lies ahead — gesturing to a balloon soaring 100 feet high, as tall as the bell tower will eventually rise — they did not speak of how the structure would impress passersby or dwarf other structures. Instead, they described it as “pointing us to heaven.”
This was the groundbreaking of the new St. Michael’s Abbey, a Norbertine campus that will grow up and out to house a growing community of priests and up to 100 students at St. Michael’s Preparatory School. Designed by Hyndman and Hyndman from Encinitas, California, it is expected to be complete in a few years.
And though St. Joseph was the lead member of the construction team and the patron for the entire project, it was men and women across the nation who sacrificed to realize the $120-million fundraising campaign that will allow the new abbey to rise.
“For centuries to come, this abbey will serve as a reminder to the people of Southern California,” said Norbertine Father Justin Ramos at the groundbreaking, “how men and women came together to do something great for God.”
A New Era
In 1950, seven priests from the Order of Canons Regular of Prémontré, founded in 1120, fled communist Hungary and eventually arrived in the United States.
After Cardinal James McIntyre of Los Angeles invited them to California in 1957, the small cadre ended up in Orange County, teaching at Santa Ana’s Mater Dei High School and assisting in parishes.
Just a few years later, the priests opened St. Michael’s Junior Seminary and Novitiate in Silverado Canyon — and a remarkable community took root.
That original community of seven has multiplied more than tenfold; there are currently 51 priests and 36 seminarians. And their projects among them — running St. Michael’s Preparatory School, a boarding high school for boys, and providing pastoral care for the cloistered, contemplative Norbertine sisters of the Tehachapi community they established in 1997 — necessarily require much thought and time.
Under the leadership of Abbot Eugene Hayes, the Norbertine Fathers teach in grade schools and high schools, serve as chaplains in colleges, hospitals and prisons, and preach retreats to priests of different dioceses. At the request of the bishop of Orange, they staff one of the Diocese of Orange’s parishes — St. John the Baptist in Costa Mesa — in addition to assisting in as many as 30 other parishes across Southern California.
For all their activity, it is prayer that drives each day. The Canons Regular (as the Norbertine priests should more properly be termed) chant all seven canonical hours of the Divine Office each day; there is also a daily Holy Hour and a daily benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
“Our charism is our community and life of prayer together,” said Father Ramos. “We preach what we’ve contemplated here in the life of prayer.”
But there isn’t enough room for the entire community to actually live in community under the constraints of their current abbey location, just 8 miles away from the new site. The instability of the land and the problems already experienced — a landslide in 1998 caused the community to lose part of the high-school building — would have made building there risky as well as expensive.
Despite these challenges, the community has continued to grow in vocations and in engaging the surrounding community. Even the Lay Norbertines have grown in number (and a second chapter launched in Los Angeles). And worshippers at Sunday Mass come from all across Southern California.
“When you go to the abbey, it’s like going to the Holy Land,” said supporter Sherry Van Meter. “You know you’re in a really special spot with very, very holy men.”
Supporters anticipate even greater things for the future — “certainly for St. Michael’s, but also for the Diocese of Orange and for us all,” said Orange Bishop Kevin Vann at the groundbreaking.
Just one week earlier, the last of the seven Hungarian Fathers died. It had been Father Gerlac Horvath’s great wish to be present at the groundbreaking, said Norbertine Father Norbert Wood before the ceremony began.
“God had a different idea — and he’ll have a much better seat now,” the priest said.
“It’s the closing of one era and the start of another.”
But Bishop Vann put it differently in his remarks, referring to the abbey that will soon begin to rise as a testament to “the faith of the seven … and those who have come after.”
‘Rock Stars’ in Habits
Mention the Norbertine Fathers to anyone who has interacted with them, and you will get one type of reaction: effusive. One guest at the groundbreaking was overheard exclaiming, while watching eager guests greet and chat with the priests, “They’re like rock stars.”
“People get engaged with them, no matter where they are spiritually,” said Amy Zak, who with her husband, David, and friend John McMahon co-chaired the fundraising campaign.
“They’re very gracious toward everyone. They really live what they preach.”
And that’s what made it possible to achieve this remarkable fundraising goal, said Maria Grant, St. Michael’s Foundation board president.
“There is such a love for the Norbertines,” she explained. “People give to their mission.
“They wear a habit; they keep the Hours; they sing; they run … parishes, have a school, teach in other schools, do prison ministry. They really are embedded in the life of Orange County in a very special way.”
When the Norbertine Fathers first undertook the ambitious fundraising campaign — perhaps the largest single campaign in the U.S. Catholic Church — the outlook was not optimistic. “Experts told us we would not be able to raise more than $60 million,” said Father Ramos.
But with several priests working full time on the campaign, along with development director Shane Giblin, and campaign co-chairs McMahon and the Zaks, the pool of donations and pledges began to grow.
And sure enough, one of the greatest fundraising tools was a series of web videos that allowed people to get to know the priests and their charism. Released last year, City of Saints spotlights different facets of the Norbertine Fathers’ ministry and impact on the community, families and individuals.
It wasn’t easy to convince the priests to step into the spotlight, but the web videos were a public-relations triumph: They garnered more than 1 million views, the St. Michael’s email list grew to 550 times its size, and, ultimately, donors to the construction campaign came from more than 40 states as well as other countries.
For all the work they put into the campaign, the Norbertines regard their success not with pride, but with gratitude to the One who is really responsible for the achievement.
“God’s the one that’s building us,” said Father Ramos. “Here’s an abbey that’s hardly known — even people in Orange County have never heard of it — that managed to be able to raise $120 million.
“It’s the work of God. He’s the one that wants this to be done, and he’s the one making this happen.”
Elisabeth Deffner writes from Orange, California.
You can learn more about St. Michael’s Abbey at https://stmichaelsabbey.com/.
- elisabeth deffner