A tale of moguls, monks and sacred stones

Posted April 10

VINA, California — If you’ve visited San Simeon, the mansion in Southern California built by newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, you know the man never went in for half measures.

And back in the 1930s, Hearst had one of his brainstorms. He bought an 800-year-old church in Ovlia, Spain, broke it down, numbered the blocks, then mailed the church to himself in California. The delivery required 11 ships.

Hearst hoped the church would spiff up his summer home near Mount Shasta.

But sometimes even moguls overreach. The Great Depression, back taxes and other problems forced Hearst to dump his load of “Legos” in a San Francisco park and take a tax write-off. The blocks sat there for years, attracting moss and vandals.

Then the enterprising friars at the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, California, had their own brainstorm. They offered the city $1 for the stones. City officials didn’t even blink.

Sold! they said.

Now the old church (a chapter house from a monastery) is nearly rebuilt. The monks hope to be praying and chanting in the building by Christmas.

Intrigued by the tale of the Sacred Stones, as the story is known, I dropped by last week to see how things were coming along.

I left much impressed.

Years ago a friend handed me a rock and told me to squeeze it.

“Can you feel the life inside?” he asked. “It comes from an Egyptian tomb.”

I couldn’t feel a thing.

But at the Abbey of New Clairvaux, I could almost feel those old stones sing beneath my touch.

That old church has been around for almost a millennium now. In America, it’s the Methuselah of monastery churches. And in Vina (about 100 miles north of Sacramento), the church is surrounded by vineyards and olive orchards. It looks right at home. Vina is a lot like Spain. It’s a lot like the Holy Land, if the Holy Land were in County Cork, Ireland.

As I spoke with the office staff and people around the grounds, I got a sense that Randolph Hearst himself would be pleased. After all, the old chapter house originally belonged to the Trappist Order of monks — the same order as the monks at New Clairvaux (and also those in Huntsville, Utah, for that matter).

The structure has come full circle. There’s poetry in its story.

I can almost hear Hearst now:

“Love that monastery church! Play it on split page above the fold, with art.”

In other words, play it like this story you’re reading.



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