Abbey of New Clairvaux
This Trappist monastery in northern California has medieval European origins. In the 1930s, William Randolph Hearst had the 12th-century Cistercian monastery Santa Maria de Óvila disassembled and brought from Spain to the United States. For several decades, throughout the Great Depression and World War II, the stones sat unused in Golden Gate Park. The Abbey of New Clairvaux was founded in the 1950s, and eventually acquired the stones from Santa Maria in the 1990s. The monks raised enough funds to rebuild the Gothic Chapter House, open to public tours since 2012. They also maintain vineyards to make wine and partner with Sierra Nevada Brewing to produce Ovila beer. Watch the videos below to learn more about monastic life and the Sacred Stones construction project!
Backstory and Context
The monks who currently live, work, and pray at the Abbey of New Clairvaux are Cistercians of the Strict Observance, commonly known as Trappists. Cistercian monasticism has a centuries-long history. According to the traditional narrative, the Cistercian Order arose out of a conscious effort to reform monastic life during the High Middle Ages, casting aside the perceived excesses and worldly attachments of many eleventh-century monasteries and returning to a purer adherence to the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict.
Robert, abbot of Molesme, and a group of followers left their abbey in 1098 seeking to build a community that was simpler, more isolated, and more fully dedicated to the Rule. At Cîteaux, they found the seclusion and austerity they sought. The harsh conditions and scarcity of new recruits meant that the community struggled to survive its first decade of existence. The famous future saint Bernard (c. 1090-1153) joined the monastery in 1112 and became abbot of Clairvaux in 1115. His subsequent work as abbot, writer, and preacher seems to have revitalized the community, which expanded rapidly over the following decades.
Cistercian ideals included devotion to simplicity, as expressed in their unadorned art and architecture, as well as in their performance of manual labor. Cistercians viewed labor in the fields as essential for truly conforming to the Benedictine Rule, which states, “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. The brethren, therefore, must be occupied at stated hours in manual labor.” Nonetheless, the monks could not perform all of the necessary work themselves, so they accepted lay brothers (conversi) as well. Lay brothers, who were generally drawn from lower social classes than monks, were responsible for performing physical labor and managing Cistercian estates. Despite their lower status, they were vital to the survival of the monastery, and they, like monks, received “a full assurance of salvation” for their works (Southern, 257).
A branch of Cistercians called the Trappists emerged in the 17th century. Taking their name from La Trappe Abbey in France, Trappists sought to reform monastic life once again and follow a stricter observance of the Benedictine Rule. Among the general public, Trappists are perhaps best known for their production of beer, cheese, and other items.
Santa Maria de Óvila's Journey to the United States
The Cistercian monastery Santa Maria de Óvila was built in Spain, approximately 80 miles northeast of Madrid, during the late 12th-early 13th centuries. It remained active until the 1835, when the Spanish government forcibly closed and suppressed numerous monasteries across the country. Santa Maria then fell into ruin.
When William Randolph Hearst had the monastery dismantled and shipped to the US, he did not envision that it would retain its original monastic use. Rather, he hoped to use the stones to adorn his enormous Wyntoon Castle estate. The Great Depression, however, interfered with his expensive plans. He then decided to donate the stones to the city of San Francisco for the establishment of a monastic museum in Golden Gate Park, a plan that also fell through from lack of funds. Over the decades, the stones were left to the mercy of vandals, inclement weather, and fire.
In the 1990s, monks from the Abbey of New Clairvaux acquired the stones with the intent to rebuild the Chapter House within the following decade. Their reconstruction project has succeeded, despite the challenges of modern building codes and California's vulnerability to earthquakes. The Chapter House is now standing and open to visitors. The monks also hope to continue expanding the monastic complex by building a cloister, an archival library, a pastoral center, an infirmary, and a church.
In the words of the abbot, Rev. Paul Mark Schwan, "We got into possession of the stones, and they’ve come home — a long ways from Spain, but back on Cistercian land with Cistercian monks returning it to sacred space. I look at this, and it’s remarkable we’ve come this far, that this is actually all put back together" (quoted in Onishi, NYT).
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