Norbertine Fathers’ New Abbey Takes Shape in the Silverado Canyon Hills

By Cathi Douglas     2/28/2020

Despite the ambitious construction underway on the new St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado Canyon, stillness pervades the remote hills, making it easy to hear God’s voice. 

His message, no doubt, is one of approval and excitement, given the ambitious project undertaken by the Norbertine Fathers. 

During a recent visit, the final exterior coat of golden-toned stucco was drying on two sides of the massive complex. “The shell of the monastery and church are nearly complete, and we are anticipating delivery later this month of the stained-glass windows,” says Fr. Justin Ramos, O. Praem., head of fundraising. “Like the buildings, the windows will be designed in the Romanesque style.”  

Once complete, the $120-million series of buildings will include a monastery, convent, administration building, church, guest house, conference center, cemetery, crypt, and cemetery chapel. The project, which commenced in July 2018, is on schedule for its tentative dedication in January 2021, Fr. Ramos says.  

Judson Studios of Studio City is creating the windows, which will include various meaningful symbols such as the fleur-de-lis, particularly significant to the Norbertine fathers, whose order was founded in France. Stained-glass windows in various sizes will be located throughout the project, including a huge rosette window with eight petals representing the eight Beatitudes. Rather than depicting saints or stories, the windows are designed primarily to bring in color, sunlight and warmth.   

The project’s architect, Jean-Louis Pagès, was chosen more than a decade ago after one of his abbey designs caught the eye of St. Michael’s leaders while they were touring southern France. Pagès and his associate Bernard Lacoutre have worked extensively with California architect Daniel Conrardy on the project. 

Matt Construction of Santa Fe Springs is building St. Michael’s Abbey. Matt Construction has worked on many prominent projects, including the Petersen Automotive Museum, The Broad, and the Music Center Plaza.  

An Italian company is working on thousands of individual tiles to create a huge mosaic of the Blessed Mother’s Assumption into Heaven that will grace the entire east wall of the presbytery, Fr. Ramos explains.  

Four bronze bells built in the French Alps were recently installed in the 115-foot-tall bell tower. Each handcrafted bell is decorated with artwork by a Norbertine father and was christened: The largest, at two tons, is Asumpta, for Our Lady of the Assumption; the others are called Bautista, for St. John the Baptist; Augustinus, for St. Augustine; and Gertrude, because St. Gertrude holds a special place in the Norbertine tradition. 

Under the 70-foot vaulted ceiling of the main church are two long ambulatories on either side of the sanctuary. From each of the two corridors sprout four smaller chapels named for saints, including one dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Huge areas are specially designed for the Norbertine choirs – the fathers are famous for their Gregorian chants – and upstairs areas are accessible for those who are sick or in need of wheelchair assistance so that everyone is able to participate in prayer. 

“This is a dream coming true,” says Gabriel Ferrucci, project manager, who began working on the plans 16 years ago. “Not only because of the project itself, but also because of its setting which is totally serene, quiet and private.” 

“It’s very unique,” Ferrucci adds. “It’s gratifying to finish my career doing something for the Church. I feel I’m answering God’s call to do something good for the glory of His name.” 

One reason the Norbertine Fathers are expanding is that they have the noteworthy ‘problem’ of attracting more men to vocations than they can accommodate.  

The abbey under construction is located several miles from the fathers’ current site and includes 327 acres on both sides of Silverado Canyon Road that was formerly part of the Holtz Ranch. As impressive as the ambitious complex is, just 50 acres is set to be developed.   

The new complex is funded with donations from people worldwide. Gemini Industries Corp. founder and chairman Sebastian ‘Paul’ Musco and his wife Marybelle led fundraising efforts, Fr. Ramos notes, with nearly 30 percent of the gifts for the new abbey coming from outside the Diocese of Orange. 

The Norbertine Fathers first came to Orange County in 1961, Fr. Ramos says, when seven priests fleeing the Hungarian Revolution were invited by Cardinal James McIntyre to live and work in Orange County, which was then part of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. They purchased the current St. Michael’s Abbey property in Trabuco Canyon, located one block from Cook’s Corner, from Mr. Cook himself and built the existing boys’ boarding school, church, and residences.  

Today the Norbertines minister and teach in dozens of parishes and parish schools throughout the diocese and in the Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino dioceses.