The Norbertine Code

Monks and canyon dwellers go mano a mano in Silverado Canyon

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Saint Norbert was born in 1080 near the banks of the Rhine in Xanten, near Wesel, Germany. A man who found his heavenly calling relatively late in life, St. Norbert gave up lustful pursuits at age 30 while riding to a village near his hometown. That's when he was thrown from his horse, which was struck by a thunderbolt. He remained prone in a near-dead state for about an hour, so the story goes. Having decided to consecrate himself to the penitent life, St. Norbert became a priest at 35.

Later, he founded a religious order in the diocese of Laon, in France. The order was established in the forest of Coucy and was little more than a handful of disciples living in wood-and-clay huts. The priest eventually rose to become the Bishop of Magdeburg in Germany, where he died at the age of 53. According to St. Michael's, its priests were vaunted teachers in secular and religious schools alike in Hungary until, in the aftermath of World War II, as the communists suffocated Eastern Europe, private schools were nationalized in 1948. The priests faced imprisonment.

Kenneth M. Ruggiano
Not in our back yard
Kenneth M. Ruggiano
Not in our back yard

The Norbertine Abbey of Csorna saw two small groups of monks flee for the United States on different nights in July 1950, leaving the religious community to languish under communist suppression. In 1957, Cardinal James McIntyre invited the monks to teach at Santa Ana's Mater Dei High School, which was then part of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. About a year later, McIntyre allowed the priests to start a new foundation, one that would continue to practice their religious traditions.

In 1961, they bought their first property and opened St. Michael's Junior Seminary and Novitiate. Later, the school would start a college-preparatory program for lay students, and by the 1970s, St. Michael's thrived as a small high school, rather than a seminary, according to abbey history. By 1995, St. Michael's Abbey Preparatory School touted itself as the only one in the American west to provide an all-male residential study program for Catholics seeking a secondary education.

At the same time, St. Michael's Abbey sought to blend the traditions of old-school Catholicism with the best of modern teaching. St. Michael's became fully autonomous as an independent priory of the order in 1976, and in 1984, Rome elevated the community to abbatial status, according to the abbey.

It grew its community from a handful of members in 1961 to several dozen today. In its effort to expand over the past several years, St. Michael's scouted the county for a new location, including land off Ortega Highway. The new location keeps it in the neighborhood and is already zoned for a church and school. The priests say the hunt for a new home was brought on by the "geological instability of our present site in Trabuco Canyon." According to the abbey, a piece of its school building was lost in the El Niño downpour of 1998, and the school bled enrollment.

But the peaceful abbey has also been squeezed by housing tracts, and another proposed development, called Saddle Creek-Saddle Crest, loomed over it for years. The monks vow to keep half of the Holtz Ranch land as undeveloped open space, integrating gardens, orchards and gravel pathways among buildings made of wood, stone and other natural materials. They plan to keep the existing Holtz Ranch stacked-stone entry pillars and believe the project will complement the character of the canyon and become an area landmark.

Father Gregory Dick says canyon residents can expect "nothing different than what they've experienced from us in 50 years. It's not like we're blowing our horns by any means, [but] we've been [here] longer than most of the people in the canyons. It's also true that many people didn't even know we were up on the mountaintop, which speaks to itself."

The monks also say they have God on their side. The Reverend Eugene J. Hayes, the abbot at St. Michael's, wrote in a newsletter posted on their website that the Lord is leading the Norbertines to the land flowing with creeks and honeybees. "The Lord has a plan, and He knows what it is and how He will bring it about," he wrote. "All we must do is cooperate and receive the things He wills to give us. Ultimately, this is what our lives come down to: being generous in opening ourselves to receive the things the Lord wishes to give us, in being unstinting in our cooperation even when we don't see the larger picture, even when things don't make immediate sense to us. Because our Lord wants to give us more than we can fathom, and in preparing us to receive, He must often stretch our capacities—and stretching is challenging, painful and requires cooperation."

He—God, that is, and Hayes, for good measure—isn't getting much cooperation from many of the canyon people, though.

"It's completely out of place with a teeny, little, already-dangerous, very-busy road with lots of bicycles on the weekend," says Chay Peterson, a 25-year canyon resident and co-founder of the Canyon Land Conservation Fund. Peterson, 51, would like to see Holtz Ranch return to its natural state. She recalls the days when the Holtz family still visited the property on weekends, when there were remnants of old turkey cages and canyon residents would take photos with the family.

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