EARLY GOTHIC CHAPTER HOUSE REBUILT IN VINA
story: Melissa Mendonca photos: Kathi Rodriguez
It had been a long journey by the time the young Cistercian Trappist monk stepped off a train in San Francisco from his mother abbey in Gethsemani, Kentucky, in 1955. En route to his new home in the tiny unincorporated Tehama County town of Vina, there was a bit of time before the next leg of his journey to the 2 ½-month-old Abbey of New Clairvaux, so a friend offered to show him around the city. There, behind the De Young Museum and Japanese Tea Garden, he found crate after crate of stones – sacred stones – which had once been the Chapter House of Sancta Maria de Ovila, a 12th-century Cistercian abbey about 80 miles northeast of Madrid, Spain.
While Thomas Davis was just beginning his life as a contemplative monk, these sacred stones had already had an incredible life journey from Spain to California via the hands of their original Cistercian owners, Spanish government officials, the infamous newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and city officials in San Francisco. The image of these stones seared into the mind of the young monk, along with a dream to bring them back to Cistercian soil.
Upon arrival at New Clairvaux, Davis took up a lifestyle typical to the Trappists. He heeded a call to prayer seven times a day and lived simply in his brotherhood of monks supporting themselves through agricultural endeavors away from the hustle and bustle of modern living. This included extended periods of silence, which have now been modified to after-evening prayer until morning prayer rather than entire days. He wore the brown robes so iconic to Catholic monks.
In 1970, Davis became abbot at New Clairvaux, offering him the opportunity to realize his long-held dream of bringing the stones to Vina to reconstruct the original Chapter House. Today, that dream is becoming a reality. Davis has retired as abbot but remains at New Clairvaux, where he continues his contemplative life, farming walnuts and prunes and tending to the grapes of the abbey’s vineyard. As he toils away at the earth, stone masons carefully work the original stones and connect them to new limestone bricks quarried from Texas – the closest match to the original.
The stones made their way to California via Hearst, who bought the condemned building of Santa Maria de Ovila. His original goal was to recreate his Wyntoon Castle in McCloud with the stones, but economics being what they were in the 1930s, he ended up selling them to the city of San Francisco in the hopes that a grand “monastery” museum would be built with them. The city never raised enough money to continue with the project and the stones languished for decades, subject to pilfering, vandalism and five fires.
After much negotiation between city officials and the monks, the stones were loaded onto 272 pallets and hauled by a Corning trucking company from Golden Gate Park to their final destination in Vina. It was this award from the city of San Francisco that makes the stones accessible today. As a condition of the award, city officials require that the stones be made available to the public.
And so the public is invited to witness as one of only three authentic medieval, early Gothic structures in the United States is recreated right here in the North State. The Chapter House is now far enough along that one can witness elements unique to Cistercian architecture, including light, harmony, simplicity and space. The original stones form the interior of the building to protect them from further deterioration.
A chapter house is a gathering place for important decisions and discussions amongst the order. It is where the abbot reads a daily chapter of the governing Rule of St. Benedict and where novices are received into the monastery. In a word, it is a place for discernment.
The reconstruction is slow, not just because it is a laborious undertaking, but because the monks have adopted a pay-as-you-go approach to the financing in accordance to their monastic lifestyle. The end result will be worth it, as finance committee member Jane Flynn wistfully envisions the day when the stones will “hear the same prayers, the same petitions, the same readings as a group of men that heard them more than 800 years ago.”