Late in the afternoon on a recent crisp and chilly Sunday, a single blue balloon floated more than 100 feet above a 327-acre site ringed by canyon ridges brushed in green from recent rains.
Tied to the ground and dancing in the wind, the balloon represented the height of where the bell tower of the new St. Michael’s Abbey will soar above Silverado Canyon.
On top of the bell tower, a cross will point to the skies.
“Take a moment to look at this property,” Father Justin Ramos told the 200-some guests assembled to mark the March 18 groundbreaking for the new abbey and to celebrate the success of a $120-million campaign to get it built.
“Dream of what it will become,” Ramos told the crowd, which included Bishop Kevin Vann, the Right Rev. Eugene J. Hayes, abbot of St. Michel’s Abbey, major donors (dubbed the “27 Apostles”) and the abbey’s nearly 100 Norbertine priests and seminarians.
“These majestic hills surround and (will) house a magnificent structure,” Ramos said. “Think of the many souls that will be touched at this site and the lives that will be changed, and all this because of you, the generous men and women who courageously sacrificed so much to build this abbey, a house of God, a gate of heaven.”
Years in the planning, the new St Michael’s Abbey will replace the existing one located a few canyons away, above Cook’s Corner.
Seven Hungarian priests who fled Communist oppression founded St. Michael’s Abbey in Trabuco Canyon in 1961. The facilities are aging and the 35-acre site has become geologically unstable.
The Norbertine priests and seminarians of St. Michael’s Abbey, members of an order dating back more than 900 years, live a monastic life of prayer and also run numerous community ministries, including teaching religious education in prisons.
St. Michael’s Abbey also houses an all-male boarding school that is ranked among the top 50 Catholic high schools in the nation.
The new 125,000-square-foot St. Michael’s Abbey, scheduled to open in 2019 or 2020, will include a church, monastery, convent, cemetery chapel and an administrative building.
It’s being built on the former Holtz Ranch on Silverado Canyon Road in Silverado Canyon.
Construction on the site’s infrastructure has been going on for more than a year; March 18, 2018 marked the start of “vertical construction,” or the buildings themselves.
At the groundbreaking, guests enjoyed beer, wine, soft drinks and coffee and appetizers including grilled chicken with feta, mac and cheese truffles, and mini short rib grilled cheese sandwiches.
For entertainment, two fourth-year seminarians at St. Michael’s Abbey played songs on the cello, keyboard, guitar and a hammered dulcimer, including tunes by George Harrison and Cat Stevens.
“We’ve outlived our old grounds,” said Frater (“brother” in Latin) Louis Hager.
The groundbreaking was held on the eve of the Solemnity of St. Joseph, husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary and legal father of Jesus Christ, and two days before the first day of spring.
“St. Joseph has never been known to fail us in our petitions,” Abbot Hayes said in his remarks, noting that a statue of St. Joseph was erected on the site a few years ago to guide its transformation into the new St. Michael’s Abbey.
“The Psalms tell us (God) brought forth his people like sheep, he guided his flock in the desert, he led them safely with nothing to fear, he brought them to this holy land, to the mountain,” Abbot Hayes said.
“We are very grateful to celebrate this momentous day with all of you, you who are the generous faithful of the church, the generous faithful of Christ who provided us with the resources to build a new abbey that will allow us to further glorify God and serve His people better.”
Paul Musco, owner of Santa Ana-based Gemini Industries, and his wife, Marybelle, led the $120-million fundraising campaign.
Musco, 92, teared up when he spoke.
“I look at this group and I choke up,” Musco said. “Without your work, this couldn’t have happened. I thank you with all my heart. I couldn’t believe it could be done, but it’s happened.”
Bishop Vann called the event an “historic moment, a moment in time in God’s providence, certainly for St. Michael’s Abbey but also for the diocese and us all.”
Added the bishop: “With the journey of this new St. Michael’s Abbey, we take another step that began years ago and ask for God’s continual blessing upon St. Michael’s, the Norbertines, their ministry, missions and community, and all involved in the construction.”
Father Gregory Dick introduced lead members of the general contractor, MATT Construction, but cited one person as the most valuable member of the construction team: St. Joseph.
“(This) is literally St. Joseph showing us how good he is, and how good God is,” Dick said. “We really owe him a debt of gratitude.”