Half century of holiness
Music-making monks at St. Michael’s Abbey mark 50 years in Southern California . . .
Southern California is known for many things: sunshine, surfing, movie stars and the modern life. Few people would associate this part of the country with monks singing Gregorian chant at a monastery — something more closely associated with the Middle Ages in Europe. Yet that’s exactly what you will find in Orange County.
The real deal
St. Michael’s Abbey boasts a vibrant community of 70 Norbertine priests — one of the fastest growing abbeys in the country. On any given Sunday, 40% of all parishes in the Los Angeles, San Diego or Orange dioceses have a Norbertine priest preaching at one of their Masses.
This group of white-robed men, who live according to the 900-year-old tradition of St. Norbert, give witness to their faith and how to live it out in the 21st century. And California Catholics can’t help but notice.
Travis King, president of the St. Michael’s Abbey Foundation — the business arm of the Abbey — recalls his first meeting.
“When my wife and I converted, we were on fire with the faith,” he explained. “It was a breath of fresh air to meet the Norbertines. Everybody who meets them, without fail, says that they are the ‘real deal.’ They live authentically.”
King, a member of Legatus’ San Diego Chapter, recalls the effect on his own children when they went to a summer camp run by the Norbertines.
“I saw the biggest transformation in my kids. My son wouldn’t stop talking about them. ‘Let’s say the rosary,’ he would say to me. Or he would wake me up at 6:30 am and say, ‘Dad, let’s go to Mass.’”
King himself felt so drawn to the Norbertines that he eventually discerned that God was calling him to work with them full-time. Today he heads their foundation, which raises funds and provides financial transparency for the order.
St. Michael’s Abbey was founded by a group of seven Hungarian Norbertine priests who fled religious persecution in 1950. Communists had taken over Hungary in 1945 and began closing all Catholic schools. By 1950, they were arresting priests.
“They fled to several countries,” said Abbot Eugene Hayes, head of St. Michael’s Abbey. “Two went to France, two to Austria and three to the U.S. Finally in 1957, all seven were accepted into the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.”
During these years, the priests learned or improved their English. They also looked for land to build a monastery. In 1957, the priests were invited to teach at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif. In 1960, they purchased a 37-acre property for what would become St. Michael’s Abbey.
Now, a half century later, the Norbertine community has grown to 70 men. The Abbey is home to a boarding high school called St. Michael’s Preparatory School and a Norbertine seminary. Twenty-three men are in seminary formation. The rest teach at the high school, seminary or other schools — from elementary to college level — in the dioceses of Orange and Los Angeles. Saint Michael’s Abbey also runs a summer camp. Norbertine priests regularly speak to Legatus’ four Orange County chapters and beyond.
What impresses most people is the fact that these men live the same way that their founder, St. Norbert, did in the 12th century. They live a communal, monastic life — and own nothing. Once they enter the order, they live a life of poverty. They sing the choral office and Mass every day.
“We get up at 5:30 am every day and process into the Church,” said Abbot Hayes.
Their morning prayers are all done in Gregorian chant. The Norbertines go into their chapel a total of seven times a day, singing every time. All their singing is done acapella, which led to the idea of recording the men’s voices.
“In 2002, our founding abbot heard us sing the tracts of the Easter Vigil,” said Fr. Jerome Molokie, director of development. The tracts are chants sung between the seven readings from the Old Testament. Abbot Ladislas Parker was taken by their simple beauty.
“He made a motion during a summer meeting to record the chants for our own archives. I was musical director since 1994, so I said that we needed recording equipment. I got a microphone and CD burners and we recorded the track.”
Once they finished, the Norbertines were pleased with the result.
“So we decided to go on and record polyphonic pieces, not just Gregorian chant,” Fr. Jerome explained.
The monks burned several copies of CDs and gave a few away to friends of the community. They thought this was the end of their musical endeavors, but Divine Providence had other plans.
In 2007, Fr. Jerome’s office assistant gave him a curious message from Jade Records. The company was interested in the monastery’s music. Father Jerome called back, somewhat embarrassed, because selling musical CDs was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind at St. Michael’s Abbey. Nevertheless, he sent them a copy of a homemade CD.
After Jade’s director Stefan Karrer got the disc, he immediately called Fr. Jerome back and told him that his people had “flipped out” over the recording and wanted to market it internationally.
The Norbertines of St. Michael’s Abbey decided to go for it. To date, they’ve recorded three discs — Christmas music, Gregorian chant and an anthology, which includes chants and polyphony.
The recordings have become a form of apostolate, Fr. Jerome said. “The CDs have brought in thousands of dollars, but that wasn’t why we did it. We did it so that we could become better known.”
Besides singing, teaching and preaching, the Norbertines have another project on their minds these days: moving and building a bigger abbey. They recently discovered that the entire property upon which the abbey was built is geologically unstable. The monks need to move or they may find themselves at the mercy of a mudslide.
They’ve set in motion plans to build an abbey that would house 100 men. Since more and more men enter the Norbertines every year, housing has become a problem. But it’s a good problem.
Tim Busch, a member of Legatus’ Orange County Chapter, knows the Norbertines through work they’ve done at two schools he and his wife Steph founded: St. Anne’s Elementary School and JSerra High School.
“They are awesome. They stand for faith and hope,” Busch said. “What can Catholics learn, in general, from their way of life? They have a life right from the Middle Ages, but their lives are pertinent to today. Many feel the Norbertines are out of touch, but they are really the only ones in touch.”
Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is a Legatus Magazine staff writer.