Monks seek to build Spanish-like monastery

VINA, Calif.

If you use your imagination, the rustic lands around Vina, near Corning in Northern California, could almost be Spain -- depending on where you look.

When the construction project is finished, it will add to the illusion. When finished, it will look like a 12th Century Cistercian chapter house from a monastery in Spain. That's exactly what it is, just in another place and another time.

Ask Father Thomas Davis how he feels about the monastery, and he'll get emotional. Father Davis echoes the sentiments of all 23 monks at the Abby of New Clairvaux, an enclave of peace, devotion, service and spirituality on 580 acres.

For those men in the nearly-1,000 year old order, it's a world unto itself.

"You're going to get up at three in the morning," Father Paul Mark Schwan says. "You will start praying. You will pray off and on through the day for four or five hours. And then you will spend five hours a day in manual labor."

Father Thomas, who entered the monetary out of high school, learned of the stones in 1955 by accident when they were mentioned by a tour guide at Golden Gate Park.

"As soon as I heard the word 'Cistercian,' I knew what that meant," Father Thomas said.

Decades earlier, William Randolph Hearst had found the abandoned abbey in Spain. He purchased it, dismantled it and shipped the stones to San Francisco. Hearst had planned to rebuild them in a grand style, but that didn't happen.

"Depression," explained Father Thomas. "Loss of money. He had debts he couldn't pay, so he let the city of San Francisco take the stones if they would pay the debt of the warehouse."

You can still find some of those stones around Golden Gate Park. Most of them went to the De Young Museum, which finally gave them to the monks in 1994.

"This was our monastery," Father Paul Mark said. "Our stones from our tradition. Our legacy. Our monks lived and prayed and dwelt in this chapter house among the other monastery spaces, and we wanted it back."

Even then, some of the monks remained skeptical until the monks found, and hired, Frank Helmholz. Based on rough architectural plans from the 1930s, Helmholz set to work using old stones where possible and crafting new stones when necessary, tapping into an instinct and feeling for limestone honed through the decades.

It's difficult to conceptualize that the oldest of the stones were carved 800 years ago. If you look closely at them, they tell stories.

"These marks...were meant as an accounting tool," said Helmholz. "These guys were paid by the stone, not by the hour like today."

Speaking of money, the monks estimate the project will take two more years and cost several million dollars -- quite a task for men who have taken vows of poverty. When asked where they'd get that kind of money, Father Paul Mark said that's a tough one.

"That's precisely it," he said. "We are poor! We can't afford to put a project like this up. That's where the public comes in."

The public, and continuing prayer and fate.

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