On a recent Sunday afternoon, Abbot Eugene J. Hayes steps outside of “the parlor,” a meeting room near his office at St. Michael’s Abbey in Trabuco Canyon, into brilliant sunshine.
He walks past the abbey church, where the faithful are gathered after regular Mass for benediction prayers for goodness and wellness.
Abbot Eugene points to a bed of rose plants, their stems cut for winter.
“Did you know,” he asks, “that we have more than 150 varieties of roses on these grounds?”
The muffled but distinct sounds of live blues music can be heard coming from Cook’s Corner, the biker bar located just down the hill from where the abbey has stood since August 1961 — four years after a group of seven refugees from the Abbey of St. Michael in Csorna, Hungary, started teaching in Santa Ana and helping out at Orange County parishes.
Big changes are coming for St. Michael’s Abbey of the Norbertine Fathers, located up a steep hill near the juncture of El Toro and Live Oak Canyon roads.
The abbey is expanding and relocating to a new home eight miles away in Silverado Canyon — a setting that mirrors the rustic charms of its home for the last 50-plus years, with abundant coast live oak, California walnut trees and coyote brush at the base of the Santa Ana Mountains.
“We are thrilled,” says Abbot Eugene, who in June will mark his twentieth year as the second abbot of St. Michael’s Abbey of the Norbertine Fathers, whose traditions date back 900 years.
Grading on the new site, the former home of what historically is known as Holtz Ranch, located about two miles down Silverado Canyon Road from Santiago Canyon Road, is under way and expected to be completed in late spring or early summer. Construction on a collection of structures that will make up the abbey’s new home is expected to begin in the near future, Abbot Eugene says.
“God willing,” he adds with a smile.
When finished, the new St. Michael’s will occupy only about 50 acres of the 327-acre property. The remaining land will stay in its natural state.
St. Michael’s Abbey has, for some time, needed more space. It has grown from seven founding priests to 50 priests and 29 seminarians studying for the priesthood – 79 men who live a monastic life of regular prayer and care of souls.
Heavy rains in 1998 damaged the abbey’s main apostolate, St. Michael’s Preparatory School, a Catholic boarding school for young men from grades 9-12.
And because the monastery sits on top on an ancient landslide plane, there is no room to expand, Abbot Eugene says.
What’s more, he adds, a remodeling would be prohibitive, since all the existing buildings would have to be razed and new foundations set deeper on the hill.
These are some of the reasons St. Michael’s Abbey has been looking for a home for some time.
Various proposals for the Silverado Canyon property have been made over the years. Largely thanks to a gift from an anonymous donor, St. Michael’s Abbey was able to purchase the land in 2012.
The new St. Michael’s will include a sisters’ convent, welcome area and meeting rooms, a monastery, church, cemetery chapel, the preparatory school, a gymnasium, a sports field and a cemetery.
The project’s architect is Hyndman and Hyndman, and Matt Construction is the contractor overseeing the site work.
The influence of St. Michael’s Abbey is felt throughout all of Orange County.
On any given Sunday, about 30 of the abbey’s priests fan out to celebrate Mass or assist at Mass at other parishes. The abbey staffs St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Costa Mesa, and its priests teach in several schools and provide chaplains to colleges, the military and communities of religious women.
St. Michael’s priests also conduct spiritual and educational services in prisons, youth facilities, hospitals and nursing homes.
Abbot Eugene says the new St. Michael’s will have ample room for visiting priests and be able to house more seminarians. The existing abbey has, on average, only two to three guest rooms available.
“We will have a place that, at any time of the year, all Norbertines who are part of our community will be able to come and stay overnight,” he says. “It will be much more welcoming.”
The new St. Michael’s will have room for 85 priests and seminarians — a cap that comes by design. The preparatory school will grow from its current 64 to 100.
“If we grew bigger than that, we would lose our family atmosphere,” Abbot Eugene says.
The new St. Michael’s Abbey itself, he adds, will be for the ages.
“We are building to last for centuries,” Abbot Eugene says. “And who does that in Orange County?”