“Actually, what matters about the monastery is precisely that it is radically different from the world. The apparent pointlessness of the monastery in the eyes of the world is exactly what gives it a real reason for existing. In a world of noise, confusion and conflict, it is necessary that there be a place of silence, inner discipline and peace.” — Thomas Merton
In Vina, 20 miles north of Chico, a Cistercian monastery — much like the one at which Thomas Merton lived, contemplated, wrote and prayed for much of his life — is rebuilding a beautiful medieval building, stone by sacred stone.
The structure was originally the chapter house (meeting room) of a Cistercian monastery near Guadalajara, Spain, established in 1190 A.D. Until the 15th century, the monastery of Santa Maria de Ovila served as a regional, intellectual, scientific, commercial and spiritual center. Thereafter its power and prestige declined until 1835 when the then lightly populated monastery was suppressed by the Spanish government and the remaining monks evicted.
Soon after, the monastery’s treasures were passed to nearby churches, stolen or sold. In the following century, the once-sacred cloister of Santa Maria de Ovila became a barn and its gothic chapter house a manure pit. In 1928 Spain sold the monastery to a local landowner for between $600 and $700. He then sold elements of the abbey to an art agent for $85,000, who, in turn, sold them to an associate of American architect Julia Morgan, for $97,000. She had obtained them for her client, newspaperman William Randolph Hearst.
Hearst had planned to rebuild the chapter house as part of his family retreat at Wyntoon near Mt. Shasta. Once he acquired the stones, he moved quickly to dismantle and transport them to California and from March to July, 1931, categorized, packed and shipped 10,000 stones weighing 2,000 tons on 11 different freighters through the Panama Canal to San Francisco. It had all cost Hearst $1 million. However, even before the last shipment of stones reached California, his fortunes were rocked by the Great Depression, forcing Hearst to donate the stones to San Francisco just to pay $25,000 he’d spent to store them.
They then moved to Golden Gate Park for planned reconstruction as the center piece of a West Coast version of the Cloisters, New York’s tribute to medieval art and architecture which was then being constructed from parts of five French monasteries. However, World War II and other calamities prevented the museum from being built and the stones lay scattered about Golden Gate Park. In 1955, Thomas X. Davis, a Cistercian priest saw them as he passed through the park on his way to his new assignment at Vina.
That brief encounter inspired a lifelong effort to return them to the Cistercian order. It would be years before Fr. Davis’ vision could be realized. For one, it was unsure, after years of neglect, that enough stones remained in good enough condition to rebuild the chapter house. Dr. Margaret Burke, a medieval art historian, settled that in 1980 when she catalogued them, locating 50 to 60 percent of the original stones, including all the chapter house’s springer stones, vital to support the room’s vaulted ceiling.
Fr. Thomas, by then abbot of the monastery, sought to convince the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco to return what he called the abbey’s “sacred stones” to their intended use as a monastery’s chapter house. Deaccessioning the stones from the de Young Museum to the Abbey of New Clairvaux occurred in 1992 and two years later the city authorized their transfer on the conditions that the chapter house be reconstructed accurately and be open to the public for a period of years.
Raising $6 million to reconstruct the chapter house began then and has continued to this day, aided by many individual donations, large and small. To help support monastery operations and reconstruction of the chapter house, the abbey entered into new partnerships, such as a winery and recently with Sierra Nevada Brewery which brews a craft beer named Ovila.
Reconstruction of the chapter house of the Abbey of Santa Maria de Ovila began in 2003 and by 2008 its impressive portal, containing five gothic archways and two oculus windows, was completed. From May to December this year, visitors to Vina will have the rare, “twice in a millennium” opportunity to see a medieval structure being built anew, as a team of the world’s most elite stone masons, led by master mason Frank Helmholz, continue their work on scaffolds, placing stones that comprise the complex series of vaults and ceiling within the room in ways that satisfy California’s stringent earthquake design standards.
Once completed, the chapter house at the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina will be the largest and purest example of Cistercian architecture in the Western Hemisphere and one of the most beautiful ever conceived. Its soaring vaulted spaces will again provide spiritual sustenance to the monastery’s community and enthrall countless visitors to come.
As this work progresses, the quiet work of prayer, contemplation, field labor and devotion continues among the monks of New Clairvaux. Proving that in this world of noise, confusion and conflict there is a place of silence, inner discipline and peace — as well as architectural resurrection — at the Abbey of New Clairvaux.
The Abbey of New Clairvaux and its historical chapter house are open and free to the public every day. The abbey’s New Clairvaux Vineyard offers wine tasting, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., except on holy days. More about the Sacred Stones and contributing to their reconstruction is found at sacredstones.org.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.