After decades of dreaming, several years of planning and two years of preparation, work finally began last week on reconstruction of the 800-year-old Santa Maria de Oliva Chapter House at the Abbey of New Clairvaux, the Trappist monastery in Vina. Workmen spent several days pouring concrete for the portal, or west, wall of the building to its full height of 24 feet, 8 inches.
This is a project rich in history. The monastery is located on land once owned by railroad baron Leland Stanford, who operated the world’s largest vineyard and winery there, and before him pioneer explorer Peter Lassen. The impetus for the construction was the abbey’s acquisition, about 10 years ago, of a collection of 800-year-old stones from a Trappist monastery near Madrid, Spain. The stones had been collected by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who hoped to use them to build a “castle” at Wyntoon, his mountain retreat near Mt. Shasta.
When he ran out of funds during the Depression, he sold the stones to the city of San Francisco, which wanted to use them for a museum. That project never panned out, and the stones sat for 70 years in Golden Gate Park, slowly deteriorating.
“After so many years of the stones’ sitting in Golden Gate Park, we are literally putting the pieces back together,” said Victor Hanson, vice-president of Sunseri Construction, of Sacramento, the project superintendent.
For two years master stonemason Oskar Kempf has worked to prepare the stones for reuse. He’s had to repair many of them because of breakage and carve many new pieces from fresh limestone. About half the stones in the finished Chapter House will be old ones.
The project is complicated by California’s strict earthquake laws, Hanson said, showing a piece of the rebar used. It was more than an inch thick. The stones will be attached to the cement walls in a way that will allow them to move slightly without collapsing in case of a quake, he said.
“It’s being built to last a thousand years,” added Father Thomas X. Davis, abbot of New Clairvaux.
The abbey, which houses 23 monks currently and is operated as a self-sufficient, 580-acre farm, has raised some $2.8 million so far and will need to find another $1.8 million to complete the next phase of construction.
Why spend so much to salvage a bunch of old rocks? As the monks will tell you, it’s because these aren’t ordinary stones. They are, as the name given to this project says, "sacred stones."