Of the three ancient Cistercian monasteries that have been reconstructed in the United States, only one, the Cistercian Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, Calif., serves its original purpose — being part of an active monastic community.  

California Cisterians reconstruct chapter house
Photo courtesy of Sacred Stones

“It’s the only building of its kind,” said Robert McMullin, director of development for the Sacred Stones Project for the Abbey of New Clairvaux, which is rebuilding an 800-year-old chapter house on the community’s property in the Sacramento Valley. 

The reconstructed chapter house of Santa Maria de Ovila not only contains stones from the original Spanish site, but the building from which they were taken had not been remodeled over the centuries, so the configuration is as close as possible to the original structure. 

By contrast, The Cloisters in New York, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux in North Miami, an Episcopal Church and wedding chapel, both contain authentic monastic stones, but the buildings have not been reconstructed according to any original designs. In addition, the New Clairvaux building dates to the early Gothic period, while The Cloisters and St. Bernard’s are Romanesque.

Built up, dismantled 

The story of these “sacred stones” in California dates back to 12th-century Spain. The Abbey of Santa Maria de Ovila, located about 80 miles northeast of Madrid, was founded in 1181 as an outpost to help control lands that Alfonso VIII, king of Castile, had taken from the Moors. Construction began on the chapter house in 1190, and the building was completed in 1220. 

For more than 600 years, until 1835 the monastery remained active until the government of Maria Christina suppressed religious communities. The abbey was sold to a private family and the buildings used as a farm.  

In 1931, newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst purchased the building, along with some others on the property, for $85,000, intending to use the material to build a swimming pool and bowling alley at his vacation estate at Wyntoon, Calif., near Mount Shasta in northern California. 

He had the entire building dismantled, but the Great Depression intervened and Hearst abandoned his original project. Eleven shiploads of stones were sent to the United States, but remained in storage until 1941 when Hearst gave them to the de Young Museum of San Francisco in return for a cancelled debt, with the stipulation that they would be used to build a medieval museum in Golden Gate Park.  

Saved from obscurity 

Cisterian Abbey monks

Photo courtesy of Sacred Stones

Over the years, the stones were marred by vandalism, theft and fire, and all the reconstruction codes were lost. They languished, almost forgotten, in various stages of disorder until 1955, when a 21-year-old man on his way to joining the brand-new monastery of New Clairvaux spotted them.

Upon learning their story, the novice, Thomas X. Davis, was charmed and captivated by their history. It became his dream to rebuild the chapter house and return it to active use in a monastic setting. When Davis became abbot of the community in 1970, he worked to bring the stones to New Clairvaux.  

“I’m trying not to put words in their mouths, but my impression is that monks and nuns do see the ‘magic’ in paintings and buildings,” McMullin told Our Sunday Visitor. “For them, the symbolic meaning is very real. When Father Davis saw these stones, there was something tangible to him in them. He wanted to reverse the disgrace, because these stones have absorbed the spiritual energy of prayers for hundreds of years. He was able to convince the other [monks] that while this is something outside their charism, their reason for living, there is a reason for doing it. There is value in reaching their hands out across the ocean and the centuries to members of their own community.” 

In 1980, Margaret Burke, a medieval art historian, determined that the stones were salvageable and reconstruction would be possible. She inventoried and relabeled all the material, even searching out and reclaiming stones that had been removed. In 1992, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco awarded ownership of the then-deteriorating material to the monastery, and in 1994 they were shipped to their new home. 

Interest in project 

It was then the real work began. Thanks to records kept by Hearst and careful reconstruction efforts, plans to restore the building began and on Sept. 12, 2003, ground was broken for the resurrection of the chapter house on American soil.  

“There are photographs of the inside and the portal,” said McMullin. “We know exactly what it will look like, so it is authentically reconstructed on Cistercian soil.”  

He explained that “the stones Hearst brought back included more than the chapter house, but the chapter house was one of the only buildings that was authentically medieval, dating to the 12th to 13th centuries. Most religious buildings over time are rebuilt because the style changes, but the chapter house was never rebuilt. We have about two-thirds of the original stones, and the community has had to purchase other limestone that matches,” he told OSV. Where stones were missing or broken, exact replicas, quarried in Spain, were carved and laid in place. 

“The funding to restore the building comes from private donors. Going back to 1994, [the monks] started cultivating relationships with people who were as charmed and captivated by the concept of doing this as they were, including the Hearst Foundation,” McMullin said. “The chapter house and atrium that will be adjoining it, a space for people to marvel at the construction, will be finished at the end of 2012.”  

The chapter house will be open to the public as part of the requirement for being given the stones. In fact, it already is, he added.  

“Literally, from year to year, we see the increase in interest. The number of tours has tripled in the past two years,” he said. 

Building’s significance 

One of the reasons Father Davis wanted to reconstruct this particular building is because “a chapter room is the center of any Cistercian monastery,” McMullin told OSV. A chapter house was, and still is, the place where monks listen to the Scriptures, talks and sermons, as well as where they first take the habit, make their vows and conduct elections. The chapter house, along with the church, is considered the heart of the monastery (see sidebar below).  

“The current abbey has a room inside the cloister called the chapter room, where, on a daily basis, the monks get together to hear lectures, have a conversation or recite from a chapter of Rule of St. Benedict. That’s the purpose of this space; the building was the chapter house in monastery in Spain. The stones from this other monastery were languishing and had been desecrated. Now they are brought back to Cistercian soil to be used by Cistercian monks.” 

The monastery where the Sacred Stones now reside was established in 1955. The land, originally called Great Vina Ranch, had been owned by Leland Stanford, founder of Stanford University, and once home to the world’s largest winery, McMullin said. In fact, much of Stanford University was funded by profits from the winery. 

After Prohibition, when the winery was closed, the vineyards languished until 2000, when the monks started growing grapes again. 

In addition, McMullin told OSV that New Clairvaux is the only Cistercian monastery that is a working farm. “Not only do they have vineyards, they have walnuts, prunes, and they make and sell wine,” he said. 

Community life 

Currently, the monastery at New Clairvaux is home to 23 monks, McMullin told OSV. About half are in their 70s or older and another half in their 30s and 40s. “More than half are from other cultures,” he said, “Vietnam, Kenya, Ecuador, Brunei.”  

In the past year, three men have come into the community. 

With the reconstruction of the chapter house as well as the attention being paid to their wine, McMullin said, “the challenge that exists is that Cistercians are contemplative. How are they going to maintain their integrity as a community with all of the interest they are going to draw?” 

But, he added, “one of the great things about working in this environment is being around such amazing people, who don’t look at (life in) such a polluted way. … They are the real McCoy. They are praying seven times a day, and that really does turn you into a different person.”

Woodeene Koenig-Bricker writes from Oregon. For more information on the Abbey of New Clairvaux’s reconstruction project, visit www.sacredstones.org/.

Cisterian History (sidebar)

The Cistercians, or Trappists, as they are sometimes called, are one of the major religious orders in the Church. The name Cistercian comes from the village of Cîteaux, near Dijon in eastern France, where, in 1098, a group of Benedictine monks founded an abbey that would more closely follow the Rule of St. Benedict. The name Trappist comes from La Grande Trappe Abbey in France, where a reform movement began in 1164. In 1892, the Trappists became a distinct monastic order. 

In order to support themselves, Trappists produce products ranging from fruitcakes to coffins. Beers made by monks in Belgium and the Netherlands are considered among the best in the world. One interesting footnote is that the monks of the Tre Fontane (Three Fountains) Abbey in Rome raise the lambs whose wool is used to make the pallia of all new archbishops. There are about 170 Trappist monasteries in the world, including 15 in the United States. Thomas Merton, author of the best-selling memoir “The Seven Storey Mountain” was a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. The Abbey of New Clairvaux was founded by Gethsemani monks.

Blessed Beverages (sidebar)

New Clairvaux is the first Cistercian winery in North America, joining a long tradition of European Cistercian wineries, including Clos Vougeot in Burgundy and Kloster Eberbach in the Rheingau. Under the direction of fifth-generation winemaker Aimee Sunseri, the monks of New Clairvaux are producing award-winning reds, whites and rosés. (For more information, visit www.newclairvauxvineyard.com/

In addition to the vineyard, New Clairvaux is working with a California brewing company, Sierra Nevada, to produce another beverage long associated with monastic orders — beer. The first of the Ovila Abbey Ales, which will be similar to Belgian abbey ales, was released in California last month. A portion of the proceeds will go toward the chapter-house-reconstruction project.

A Chapter House (sidebar)

A chapter house is, essentially, a monastic meeting space. Its importance is shown by the fact the chapter house is built shortly after the monastery church’s frame is erected. Generally located on the eastern wing of the cloister, it must be large enough to hold all the monks at one time. According to the Abbey of New Clairvaux’s Summer 2001 newsletter: “The chapter house was the part of the monastery where one of the monks daily chanted for the community a chapter from the Rule of St. Benedict, which translates the Gospels into a way of life. Hence the name: chapter house. The monks also used the chapter house for their community meetings, for giving the monastic habit to newcomers, for monks making their first vows, and for the election and installation of the abbot wherein the monks individually promised him obedience until death. Today, every monastery has a chapter house or room that is used for the same purposes as they were in the 12th century. The only difference is that the Rule of St. Benedict is read aloud rather than chanted. The chapter house is the most important room in the monastery, even taking precedence over the church.”

Additional articles in our Spring vocation special section:

Carmelites: Carmelite monks brew up prayerful existence in Wyoming

Benedictines: Nuns' spiritual enclosure fosters community life at abbey