900-year-old Spanish monastery rebuilt—in northern California

A fascinating and inspiring story, as reported by the New York Times:

The rebirth of a medieval Cistercian monastery building here on a patch of rural Northern California land was, of course, improbable. William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon, brought the dismantled Santa Maria de Óvila monastery from Spain but failed to restore it. The City of San Francisco, after some fitful starts at bringing the monastery back to life, left its stones languishing for decades in Golden Gate Park. The Great DepressionWorld War II and lethargy got in the way.

But an aging and shrinking order of Cistercian monks have accomplished what great men and cities could not: the reconstruction of Santa Maria de Óvila’s most architecturally significant building, a 12th-century Gothic chapter house. The monks ascribed the successful restoration to their faith, though years of tenacious fund-raising, as well as a recent alliance with a local beer brewer, also helped. …

With two-thirds of the original stones and modern earthquake-resistant reinforcements, Óvila’s chapter house now sits, perhaps incongruously, in an open field near the abbey’s modest church and vineyards, a couple of hours north of Sacramento.

The piece recounts the history of the original monastery, which was  founded in 1167 by King Alfonso VIII of Castile and was closed by the Spanish government in 1835. The Abbey’s website has the following information:

The Chapter House, reconstructed here at the monastery, was originally built in Spain between 1190 and 1220.  It was originally purchased, dismantled and brought to San Francisco by William Randolph Hearst in 1931.  Originally intended to be the centerpiece of a new building project that was to surpass that of San Simeon, it remained scattered about Golden Gate State Park until the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco awarded it to the Abbey.  

The SacredStones.org website has much more information (along with many photos) about the monastery’s history and the ongoing rebuilding project, including the essay, “The Saga of the Sacred Stones”, written Thomas X. Davis, O.C.S.O., Abbey of New Clairvaux, whose dream of building the Chapter House dates back to the 1950s:

Miraculous some call it. Yet there can be no doubt that it was all in God’s providence. It began on September 15, 1955. A friend was driving me through Golden Gate Park, a part of small tour to show me a bit of San Francisco before we headed to New Clairvaux Abbey at Vina, CA. As we continued down a drive, now known as John F. Kennedy Jr. Drive, and passed behind the De Young Museum and the Japanese Tea Garden, my friend mentioned off handedly, nodding his head to the left, towards a rather significant pile of wooden crates neatly stacked, “There is the Cistercian monastery that Hearst brought over from Spain.” The sight was etched clearly and profoundly on my mind. There they were, quite a few crates, under the graceful hanging branches of eucalyptus trees. The impression made upon me was as if they were somewhat orphaned, as if waiting for something to happen, for someone to come along and adopt them. The word “Cistercian” intrigued me and I couldn’t let his statement simply pass. I questioned him. While I do not remember his exact words, I did ascertain that these were the stones of a ancient Spanish Cistercian monastery of our own Order that somehow got to San Francisco. The inspiration, desire, passion came immediately to birth. Wouldn’t it be great if these stones could come to Vina to be our monastery! A pretty wild ambition for a 21 year old who just landed in San Francisco an hour or so earlier, for the first time in California, and heading for a Cistercian monastery he had never seen and which itself had been in existence for only two and a half months. We drove on. I would have liked to have stopped. We saw a few other sights, then headed toward New Clairvaux Abbey that night. I never forgot that vision of crates, sacred stones from the Abbey of Sancta Maria de Ovila, nor that ambition.

Read more here.

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About Carl E. Olson 1163 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.