The New St. Michael's Abbey in California: An Architectural Landmark

Photo credit: Nobertines of St. Michael's Abbey
How exciting to receive a progress report on the wondrous new St. Michael's Abbey in Orange County, California.  The new abbey church and attached monastery are taking shape, inside and out, amid a live construction site.  Friends and benefactors are rejoicing over the progress of the $120 million project.  Everything is on schedule and is nearing completion, a huge plus for the 900-year old Order of Canons Regular of Prémontré.  Also known as the Norbertines, these "canons regular" are part of a religious order founded in 1120 by St. Norbert, one of the great reformers of the twelfth century.  There are Norbertine abbeys and priories all over the world.  The new abbey is a glimmering beacon of unified totality that continues the varying rhythm of architectural greatness established by other great Norbertine abbeys and priories of the past.  The chosen design speaks of great aesthetic thought, taste and power with a delicate proportionality that is well suited to the California landscape and roots of the community.  As the project is nearing completion, history is being made as the abbey is setting a new standard of bold aesthetic achievement that has been consciously applied with great care.  Indeed, the temple informs the city - the new abbey is a triumph and its architectural form is a type of "seeing" and understanding.

The members of the Norbertine community in California have been waiting a long time for this new upgrade.  Since their foundation in 1961 they have outgrown their current home.  The community has a fascinating story since their original foundation in Europe.  Their origins in California came when seven original Norbertine priests arrived in the U.S. in 1950 after fleeing Communist persecution in Hungary.  The fathers were led to California in 1957 where they were invited to establish a new home, teaching in a high school and serving in local parishes.  Just a few years later they opened St. Michael's Minor Seminary and Novitiate in Silverado Canyon, where the remarkable community took root and St. Michael's Prep was eventually created.  God has blessed the community over the years and today St. Michael's is exploding in growth and in recent years outgrew its current location.  The Norbertines in North America now have a fresh new look on the map and the Norbertine vocation remains an important option for many young men discerning a possible call to religious life.

Today the community of Norbertine canons in California numbers about fifty priests and nearly the same number of seminarians.  It seems like everywhere you go these days you see Norbertines, easily recognizable in their unique white habit and trademark white biretta.  All those who know and interact with the Norbertine fathers and brothers sing their praises.  The priests of St. Michael's are well educated and make a strong impression on everyone they meet.  Today they receive their formation at St. Philip's Seminary in Toronto while for years their seminarians studied at the Angelicum in Rome (where they made an immense contribution to student life at the Dominican University).  The Norbertine fathers in California are kept very busy in parishes and schools.  Under the leadership of their abbot they teach in grade schools, high schools, while also serving as chaplains to colleges, hospitals and prisons.  They preach retreats for clergy and even have their own parish church under their direction, St. John the Baptist in Costa Mesa.  Meanwhile, they also assist at nearly thirty other parishes in the area.  The original founding canons of St. Michael's were sons of  the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Today those same pioneer fathers would be rightly proud to see the monumental new abbey, with its members busy doing the Lord's work, rising anew amid the California sunshine.

The new abbey is situated on acreage in Silverado, southeast of Los Angeles.  The new location is just about ten miles north of the former location.  The architect of the project is the great Jean-Louis Pages of France, working with Hyndman & Hyndman Architecture, a well-known local firm who in the past have designed many church related projects.  Construction is in two phases, while phase one is nearing conclusion.  Phase one includes construction of the abbey and abbey church, guest wing and cemetery.  Phase two will include St. Michael's Preparatory School, a 9-12 boarding school for boys with its own dormitory, classroom space, gym and sports facilities.  Mr. Enzo Selvaggi, the creative director at Heritage Liturgical is working hard on the newly commissioned artwork in the interior of the church, including mosaics and stained glass windows.

The abbey has a sister community for women north of Los Angeles in the Diocese of Fresno, established in 1997 as a cloistered community of Norbertine canonesses.  The nuns are contemplative, the only community of Norbertine sisters in the U.S.  They wear a traditional white habit with black veil and sing their Mass and Office in Gregorian Chant.  The convent is called the Bethlehem Priory of St. Joseph, located in a quiet valley in the Tehachapi Mountains just outside the city of Tehachapi.  The sisters lead a life of prayer and contemplation, with solemn celebration of the Sacred Liturgy in keeping with the liturgical praxis of the Praemonstratensian rite of their order, following the Rule of St. Augustine.  To support themselves the sisters make and sell their own baked goods, granola, jams, and herbal teas.  For their online shop see here. 

Hearty congratulations to the Norbertine community of California.  In an age of seemingly inexorable architectural decay, you have built something great and lasting for the ages that will thrive and endure and mysteriously allure.  Thank you for this great contribution, planned with a full store of aesthetic knowledge.  The aesthetic values embodied in this construction speak of a primal bid for beauty, owing its attraction and success to what is permanent and beautiful, speaking of a consecrated and holy place.

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