Saga of Sacred Stones

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.

VINA, Calif. — Nothing happens quickly at the Abbey of New Clairvaux, situated in the Sacramento River valley near the small town of Vina, population 397.

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 “chapter house.”

Once completed, it will be one of the nation’s oldest buildings and the only Cistercian-Gothic piece of architecture in the United States.

“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 original buildings.”

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 Park.

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 Davis.

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

Willits, California.


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 alley.

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.