Preservationists Try to Sway Monks to Their Cause: Religious order wants to raze earthquake-damaged monastery building, but some Sierra Madre residents are trying to save it. In Sierra Madre, epicenter of a magnitude 5.8 temblor that rocked Southern California last year, there is now quaking of a different kind. The tiny town faces a divisive debate over the fate of a picturesque monastery nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, where the whitewashed bell tower has for decades stood like a beacon.
To the chagrin of preservationists, a dwindling order of Roman Catholic monks wants to tear down the 1920s, Spanish-style monastery, damaged three times by earthquakes and shuttered since the Sierra Madre quake in June, 1991. The monks say they have no more worldly use for the building and can ill-afford to restore the three-story structure, which far exceeds their space needs.
"Our only responsible decision is to take it down," said Father Clemente Barron, head of the Mater Dolorosa monastery and, at 49, among the youngest of the 12 Passionist Fathers who call the 75-acre retreat their home.
As the priest walked through the empty building, cracked from its red-tiled roof to its elegant sanctuary with rough-hewn beams, he said: "We're all so sad."
Local preservationists are more than sad. They're mad.
"If we have to, we'll go to the Pope," said Judy Webb-Martin, who heads the city's Cultural Heritage Commission and feverishly is calling preservationists around the country in a last-minute effort to marshal help.
The commission at first tried to block the monks by recommending that the City Council declare the monastery a historical landmark and deny their request for a demolition permit. But at a July 28 meeting, council members said they reluctantly had no choice but to deny the historical status--partly because the building is on private property owned by a religious institution and also because the monks expressed no desire to restore it.
"The council was afraid to go against the priests," said Phyllis Chapman, a heritage commission member who conducts local historical tours that feature the monastery. Barron, she said, "in a very lovely way threatened the city by saying this is private property."
In an attempt to seek a resolution, city officials requested, and Barron agreed to, a 30-day cooling-off period before applying for a demolition permit. Mayor Gary B. Adams requested the Passionist Fathers to assume a "listening posture" and remain open to alternatives.
"It didn't make a lot of sense for us to put it on the historic register if they were just going to tear it down," Adams said.
To undertake repairs and seismic work, Barron estimates, it would cost $2.2 million. But for only $160,000, he said, the building, which has 20-inch-thick walls and 45 rooms for monks, can be razed.
The dozen Passionists cannot devote the effort required for fund raising and restoration, he said. The order wants to build a smaller monastery on the grounds, where the monks also run a retreat facility popular with Catholics throughout Southern California.
Officials of the Passionists say the issue is one of conserving ever-dwindling resources.
When the 1991 quake hit, 20 Passionists were at the monastery. Since then, several moved from Southern California. In recent years, a few elderly ones have died. As with other orders, the Passionists' numbers have declined since the mid-1960s.
In a letter to the commission, Father Michael Joseph Stengal, who heads the Passionists' western U.S. province based in Chicago, left no apparent room for negotiation:
"If someone would give us $10 million so that we could restore the monastery, enhance the grounds, and even expand, we would not accept it since we do not have the priests and brothers."
Still, Adams is trying to arrange a meeting with Stengal, either in Chicago or Sierra Madre.
Despite joining the unanimous vote to deny the historical status, Adams said he is torn by the decision. "I don't think there is a single member of the City Council that wants that building removed," he said. "It's very troublesome. The monastery is part of the soul of our community.
"They claim the building isn't historic--not compared to the Vatican," Adams said. "But you don't get 400-year-old buildings if you tear them down when they are 60 and 70 years old."
The debate, partisans on both sides say, is made even more painful because the relationship has been a cordial one since the monks came to Sierra Madre in the 1920s and gathered for their first retreat under a huge Moreton bay fig tree that stands above the monastery.
For years, the monastery's red, 1935 GMC truck--driven by the beloved Brother Joe--carried a parochial school band in Fourth of July parades.
Barron said he understands the sentiment for saving the building in the tightly knit San Gabriel Valley community of 10,700 people. "We lost something very dear to us. We were taken from our home."
But those who hold steadfastly to the building, the priest said, miss his order's spiritual nature. Passionists are dedicated to helping people reflect on suffering--including that caused by earthquakes--and conquer it through the grace of God.
Like the monks, preservationists are worried about more than the building. They fear that the solitude, beauty and the historic trees may all vanish if the monastery is demolished.
Chapman and Webb-Martin say the monastery building could be restored and put to other uses, as perhaps a retirement or nursing home, or an expansion of the retreat facility.
His order, Barron said, has no desire to undertake such a project as running a nursing home and wants to be allowed to tear down the building, build a smaller one and continue to be a good neighbor.
(Mod: Link here. According to the website Meetup.com - link, here is how this story ended up. If anyone knows differently, let me know.)
In 1991 an earthquake devastated the monastery and it subsequently was demolished. In its place a beautiful Monastery Memorial Gardens was created in 1999. This area consists of the Garden of Seven Sorrows, the Plaza of the Sacred Heart, and an amphitheater. Following the earthquake, the Community lived in the former convent at Assumption Parish in Pasadena, but now have returned to live in the Retreat Center. From the Community residence, Passionists serve as the retreat team, in parishes and other ministries within the Archdiocese."