For me it started in 1974. I was 28 years old and just starting my career was a commercial contractor. I remember the day when two projects came into our office. One was of a 60-unit apartment project on Nord Avenue in Chico. the other -- an unusual project to be constructed at the Abbey of New Clairvaux. Shortly before then, the famous Leland Stanford mansion on the abbey property had burned down. The monks had plans to construct their new library and refectory on site. the architecture was special, as it was designed by a monk named Bob Usher. Later I learned that Bob was a talented artist and movie set designer who gave up his career to be a monk at the Abbey of New Clairvaux. Today the buildings he designed...are reverently referred to as the "Usher Style."
It turned out to be a life-changing event. I could bit a project with a building type I knew and a client I had a relationship with, or construct a building type that I didn't know with a client I had no relationship with. I chose the later. And my life would not be the same forever.
Some may say I bit off more than I could chew. the buildings were difficult to build and the plans were prepared by a talented artist but a novice architect. The monks represented a no-nonsense strict order dedicated to work and prayer. Their vision was a lot different than mine as a 28-year-old self-confident builder. I remember the first time I came to the monastery to talk to the monks about the job I had just been awarded. Brother Regis (King) was the cellar master and he wanted to make sure that my way of thinking was consistent with theirs. He asked me a question. "Phil, what do you envision the useful life of a building to be?" I knew it was a trick question. I told him an extreme. I roughly doubled my age and said this building will last for 50 years. He promptly explained that Cistercian monastery buildings last for hundreds of years and they're designed for that expectation. He warned me that every yard of concrete that I poured, every board I installed, and finish material that I used, would be reviewed with the scrutiny of a structure that would last for hundreds of years. You see, to a Cistercian monk, a building is their gift to future generations. For this reason they build to the highest quality standards possible.
From that experience I learned many things:
1. The Abbey of New Clairvaux is a special place. It is a statuary from the chaos of the rest of the world.
2. The monks here are special; they have dedicated their selves to God through a life of prayer and work.
3. The workd of god is a marathon, not a sprint. Be patient and great things will happen. But it takes time.
4. The monks in 1974 talked about this Cistercian building laying in waste in San Francisco and had the vision then that some day it would return to Cistercian soil and the Abbey of New Clairvaux.
By 1996 Father Thomas Davis had negotiated the stones be gifted to the abbey and were being moved to the monastery. A terrible wind storm hit the Vina area and destroyed a portion of the brandy cellars intended to store the stones. I was called to the monastery to rebuild the roofs and make the structures usable for the stones. While I was there, Father Thomas asked if i might be interested in helping to reconstruct the chapter house. I only had a faint idea of his vision, but was intrigued with his confidence and agreed to help. However, I was not qualified. I was not a stone mason. I didn't understand stone construction let alone early Gothic construction. There were no plans or dimensions and only 30 percent of the cut stones were available. I told the Abbot that I would go to Europe and meet with contacts ...in Paris. I told him while I was there I would got o Spain and visit the site of the monastery were were reconstructing and see what I could learn. Father Thomas was quick to encourage my trip and immediately decided to meet me in Madrid and visit the sites with me. that really was the start of the reconstruction and the first of many trips to Europe. We met scholars such as Jose Miguel Merino de Caceres, Dr. Margaret Burke and others who became the foundation of reconstructing the building the way you stt it today.
For me this day honors 38 years of my involvement with the Abbey of New Clairvaux and 16 years of construction with the Sacred Stones. I have no doubt that the stones are now safe and restored back forever on Cistercian soil.
It is impossible for me at this point in my career to talk about architecture without invoking the divine…mostly as a result of my work here.
When I was a wee lad praying, for a vocation in the priesthood, at the behest of my teacher Sister Mary Paul, I came face to face with possibly my most horrific demon. That would be the giving sermons part of being a priest…standing in the pulpet, in front of a group of strangers talking about something of which I know very little…GOD. Well here I am today to do just that very thing.
I have said so many times that Architecture is a language. Intentionally or inadvertently it says volumes about who we are, all of those who help it to become a physical reality: And it says it for a long time. In the case of this reconstructed medieval Chapter House, it will tell for a long time how this community of monks, whose very institution aspires to great heights in their everyday lives, gifted to all of us a place of magnificent beauty that we too may aspire to higher values. And it tells of the friends of the monastery with their faith and their trust in the unknown results of their hard earned donations, hoping for the near impossible outcome that we see here today, and it will tell about us worker bees who have endeavored to live up to the elegant marching orders given to us in every stroke of our pencils and every tap of our chisels.
When I started this work 14 years ago, two messages were given to me which became my obligation to translate into the physical language of architecture.
First, I asked Fr Thomas to try to convey what our intentions would be. He responded with the most noble program any architect could possibly be given. From an architect’s perspective, this is what creates extraordinary architectural works. It gives me an understanding of how the great medieval cathedrals of Europe got built. I would like to read it in its entirety because it should be honored here today as much as the assembled stones.
Abbot Fr. Thomas Davis’ Intention for the Abbey of New Clairvaux
The first structures of the Cistercians were in the style Burgundian Romanesque simplified. When early Gothic architecture made its appearance, the Cistericians developed it to their own spiritual advantage. Space, form and light would be their experience of God, the God in whose presence they worship and live while inhabiting these buildings.
I would like to offer a few ideas about Cistercian architecture as a means of being in God's presence. It is not uncommon for persons to use words, images, metaphors in articulating their approach and relationship to God. Such use of words, images, metaphors is clearly a cataphatic way into the Divine.
Another approach is an opposite approach, the apophatic.' This via negative, negative way, believes that God can not be adequately expressed in words, images, metaphors. Due to the unknowability of God, there is very little that can be said. When it is all said and done, God is really beyond both of these approaches: there is simply the divine presence.
I believe that Cistercian architecture, as a language about God, integrates both of these approaches. By the radical elimination of the superfluous, that is, ornamentation and color, a statement is made that God truly is not what these elements represent. By the emphasis on form, space and light, a statement is made that God is what these elements represent, namely, integrity, harmony and beauty. The experience of walking around quietly in an authentic Cistercian architectural structure, conveys a sense of awe of the mystery of a powerful divine presence that is beyond what both these approaches state.
My desire is that The Abbey of New Clairvaux, dedicated in a special way to Bernard of Clairvaux reflect in its architectural development this radical approach to God with emphasis on being in the divine presence. It is not a question of simulating a 12th century style but of creating something new by using the basics of form, space and light in a radical architectural simplicity conveying the presence of God. The acquisition of this Chapter House is an impetus to this direction of development. If it is true that buildings and environment affect and influence the attitudes and consequently, the lives, of persons inhabiting them, those who live in structures of Cistercian architectural elegance, will tend to flee curiosity and embrace humble simplicity in their journey to God.
Cataphatic come from the Greek kataphanes meaning "visible." Apophatic comes from the Greek apophasis meaning "negation." These terms are used in the writings of Maximos the Confessor (580-662), John Damascene (c 650 to c 750), and Pseudo Dionysus (probably about 49Q, although dates 129 to 544 are possible). I’ve made a few copies of that program for any of you who might wish to have one.
The second message guiding my pencil was a simple coda I heard Father Paul Mark give to a Los Angeles Times reporter at the end of an interview. He summed up the entire exchange by saying to him, “What we are trying to do here is live in the absolute truth.”
Through the years that I have worked with this community I have seen that lived out and expressed repeatedly. There is no need to ornament the architecture when one is living in the radiance of the absolute truth, and as I have learned from reading Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Merton, such “ornaments” are most likely distractions from that very truth that we seek and which is available only outside the cacophony of multi-sensory noise we live with in our society.
Which brings me to my final message about what I have learned from working here on this project. I am an architect in general practice. I deal with the expediency weaved throughout our culture and affecting us in many adverse ways, not the least of which is stress related illness. Most of my other projects are driven by the time factor of money. We rush to our death. When I showed my first sketches to Fr Thomas, he said, "That is what we have been looking for but it looks pretty ambitious. How long do you think it will take?" I responded, "Maybe a hundred years” to which he countered, “If it’s the right thing, it doesn’t matter."
So this building, is to me, a monument to life lived outside the bankers time schedule. A monument to beauty that can be created by human hands given time. Beauty, not of the stones themselves, after all they are common rocks, but by the love that is expressed in changing them into architecture.
I want to leave you with a quote from Mother Theresa: “It is not what we do, it is how much love we put into the doing."
Lastly I would like to thank the monks of the Abbey of New Clairvaux for the opportunity to do this work and to share a little of their perspective of God and learn about myself. I would also like to thank the community of friends who are continuing their trust in this important project, making it become what is starting to show. And finally thank you to all the folks who helped us do the work, my staff and consultants who are here today and especially Anne Dennis who lives in Texas now, and to all the construction personnel especially the masons under the direction of Frank Helmholz and Oskar Kempf and most especially Phillip Sunseri whom needs no introduction but can best be defined as the leader of the orchestra…I love you all.
May 5, 2012
It was vision that brought into birth the foundation of the monastery of Sancta Maria de Ovila (Our Lady of the Sheepfold) in 1167. It was vision that allowed the beginning of construction of the chapter house you see before you in 1190. It was vision that made possible the perseverance of Cistercian monks for 668 years to gather daily in this room for the reading and commentary on a chapter of the Rule of Saint Benedict by their abbot so to live that same vision as fully as possible. Then came the fateful day in 1835 when the Spanish government sent soldiers to the monastery of Sancta Maria de Ovila to evict the monks and confiscate their property. This eviction was bent on destroying the vision and the stones went silent as they watched their beloved monks walk away with heavy hearts.
For 96 years there was silence as these stones mourned the loss of their beloved monks. In 1931 that vision was re-awakened when a gentleman named William Randolph Hearst arrived from America to dismantle the stones to ship them to America. But though Mr. Hearst had good intentions the time of restoration was not to be fulfilled. Finally in 1992 the vision aroused itself from a slumber of 157 years when a Cistercian monastery, Our Lady of New Clairvaux, Vina, CA, chose to welcome home to Cistercian soil these stones that remained silent for so long.
Today, after 177 years that silence is about to be broken. In a few moments the ancient Cistercian Marian hymn, the Salve Regina will echo within these walls. And these stones will sing and dance in welcoming and sheltering Cistercian monks once again, serving the purpose for which they were carved and placed 812 years ago.
Each of you shares in this vision, for that we monks say THANK YOU! This vision belongs to all of us for it is none other than the Vision of God!
Abbot Father Paul Mark Schwan, OCSO
May 5, 2012
On May 5, 2012 a seminal moment in the Sacred Stones project was celebrated. A ceremony was held that honored the completion of the stunning trans-vaulted ceiling of the medieval chapter house.
The evening began with Vespers inside the church. The Brothers of New Clairvaux proceeded to the chapter house where a gathering of approximately 200 were on hand. There were brief speeches by Father Paul Mark Schwan, Sacred Stones chair Jane Flynn, Architect Patrick Cole, general contractor Phil Sunseri and Master mason Frank Helmholz.
the highlight of the evening was the singing of the ancient Cistercian Marian hymn, the Salve Regina, by the monks.
As Father Paul Mark said: "These stones will sing and dance in welcoming and sheltering Cistercian monks once again, serving the purpose for which they were carved and placed 812 years ago.
The evening concluded with a tastefully-catered meal and background music provided the the North State symphony.
The stunning trans-vaulted ceiling of the reconstructed medieval Spanish chapter house can finally be seen in all of its splendor. Crews removed the shoring and scaffolding before Easter Sunday. The public is welcome to visit the grounds at the Abbey of New Clairvaux to lay eyes on the gorgeous ceiling made from the exact stones that made up the Santa Maria de Ovila chapter house in Spain in the Twelfth Century. If you would like a group tour or would like to help the monks complete their spiritual and historic masterpiece call the Sacred Stones office at 530-839-9936.
A team of docents has graciously volunteered to help the Sacred Stones office conduct tours of the grounds. All of them answered our call from an announcement in their church bulletins. They come from Our Divine Savior Catholic Church and St. John's the Baptist Church in Chico, St. Patrick Catholic Church in Corning, and Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Red Bluff.
"They are a wonderful blessing to us," said Jerry Olenyn, the director of development at New Clairvaux, "especially since many of them bring experience as docents and church volunteers.
The docents are needed especially in the spring when more visitors come to the abbey. In addition, the local, national and international attention that the Sacred Stones project is receiving is creating more enthusiasm and interest in the abbey.
"The docents are enormously valuable," said Karla Johnson who works in the Sacred Stones office. "We will now be able to provide more tours."
If you're interested in becoming a docent please contact the Sacred Stones office at (530) 839-9936 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Another significant milestone in the reconstruction of a medieval Spanish chapter house was finished. On March 5, 2012, the crew sprayed gunite over the five tons of rebar atop the trans-vaulted ceilings.
Phil Sunseri, the project's general contractor, says the 800-year-old sacred stones are now "locked into place."
"It's no longer an abstract pile of rubble," explained an excited Sunseri. "It's now a Gothic building."
The gunite will take one month to cure and will be tested before the shoring will be removed. At that point, we will see the stunning ceiling!