Down a winding road into Silverado Canyon, surrounded by the grassy Santa Ana mountains, stands the finished St. Michael’s Abbey, ready to welcome the nearly 90 seminarians and priests of the Norbertine Order who will learn and live there.
The Catholic abbey was dedicated on Tuesday, May 4, with ceremonies consecrating its church and monastery as now-sacred places.
The original abbey was founded in 1961 by seven priests fleeing from communist oppression in Hungary. Outgrowing their Trabuco Canyon home, the Norbertine Fathers purchased 327 acres of a former ranch, much of which will remain untouched.
Years in the making, the 40-acre main campus also includes an administrative building, a cemetery, gardens, vineyards and a convent. The new development was made possible by $140 million in donations to St. Michael’s.
The priests who now call St. Michael’s Abbey home are members of the Norbertine Order, an ancient order celebrating its 900th anniversary this year whose mission is to “be prepared for every good work,” said Father Justin Ramos. The Norbertine Fathers serve the dioceses of Orange, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Bernardino and Fresno and have ministries that go out to hospitals, prisons and convents and hold summer camps and retreats.
Off a stretch of road in Silverado Canyon where few other buildings reside, the abbey’s secluded location was not an accident, said Shane Giblin, chief advancement officer at the St. Michael’s Abbey, calling the spot, “very providential.”
“It’s very fitting, to be surrounded by mountains and be secluded,” he said.
Before the morning’s ceremonies, the massive tan structure that will soon host mass and other religious services was “just a very nice building,” Giblin said.
“In about four hours, it’ll become a church,” he said before the service dedicating the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption.
To begin the ceremony, a procession rounded the main building and made its way to the front of the abbey church. An ark holding nine sacred relics was carried to be placed inside the altar during the dedication.
From the outside, the buildings that make up the abbey are clean and simple. That’s why church leaders chose a Romanesque style, Ramos said. While noble and plain, the design “speaks of heavenly things,” he said.
“The high ceilings make you think of heaven,” Ramos said.
The abbey’s architect, Jean-Louis Pagès, drew his inspiration for the campus from a 12th Century monastery in Provence, France, which also influenced two other monasteries he designed in Le Barroux, France, Ramos said.
St. Michael’s Abbey is marked by grand arches and a mighty bell tower that is more than 100-feet tall. The four bells inside heartily rang out to signal the start of Tuesday’s ceremony.
Sherry Alberoni Van Meter, a volunteer with St. Michael’s for two decades, said the new abbey was “a dream come true.” She sees the space becoming a fixture in the community that draws in visitors.
“A beacon,” she said. “It’s like the bells, calling us all together.”
After the procession, the church leaders and those attending the dedication moved to a sanctuary lined on either side with more archways. Above each one is a curved stained glass window that bringing blues, greens and reds into the main space.
Consecrating the main altar was a focus of the ceremony. A mixture of oil and balsam – called chrism – was placed on the piece first before incense was lit from five crosses etched into the alter. The altar was then covered by a white cloth, and six tall candles placed on top were lit. The ceremony ended after attendees participated in communion.
In a dedication ceremony, “every little element of it matters,” Giblin said. “Everything is intentional. That’s one of the beauties of the Catholic Church, is that nothing is done by accident.”
Even the orientation of the church has meaning. It’s eastward facing, “because we believe that Christ will come on the last day from the east, just like the sun rises from the east,” Ramos said.
“To me, it’s a miracle,” Ramos said of the new space tucked among the rolling hills.
The abbey’s physical presence has already helped its members further that pursuit, connecting people curious about the massive complex to the Norbertine Fathers’ work, Ramos said.
He said people have come up to the building asking about it. “And it gives us an opportunity, an opening, a window to tell them what we do and why we’re here and how they’re welcome.”