Lafayette, Oregon

Church Shows Light, Simplicity of Cistercian Past - in Northwest Way

January 10, 2008


Trappist AbbeyLAFAYETTE — At night, the simple glass and wood cupola atop the new church glows gently from within. For those passing Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey, the illumination will serve as a beacon of deep contemplation and welcome.

“The church is conceived as a vessel of prayer. It’s also meant to be a light,” says Abbot Peter McCarthy, spiritual leader of the abbey.

The 10,000-square-foot house of prayer, to be dedicated by Archbishop John Vlazny in December, will replace a well-liked building that was, however, meant to serve as a barn when the monks built it 50 years ago.

The $2.5 million church is inspired by the clean lines and simple forms created by Cistercian monks 900 years ago. Its footprint — a diamond shape— pays homage to the earliest known Cistercian church, a wooden structure with a pyramidal roof built at the start of the 12th century under the watch of the great theologian St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

With its maximized natural light, exposed beams, simple lines and withholding of decor, the new prayer space reflects the stark, light-filled spirituality here.

“It’s what we don’t offer that becomes important,” Abbot Peter told the Sentinel in a 2003 interview about Trappist monasticism. “There is such a radical simplicity to this life. There is the Word, the community and yourself. In today’s world, that is seen as an impoverishment. In the Gospel, that is seen as the fertile soil where any spiritual life can grow.”

The new abbey church also emerges organically from the Northwest in design and material. The lumber used for pews, choir stalls and liturgical furniture was logged by monks from their own sustainable Douglas fir forest. Wood for the altar, ambo and presider’s chair comes from a nearby stand of old-growth oak. The many windows are meant to allow the light and texture of the sky and land to become part of the worship space.

From far away

“We are not becoming a museum piece,” says Abbot Peter. “We want to clearly as we can describe Cistercian architecture in its purest form, but we want it expressed in a Northwest way.”

With just more than 30 monks, the abbey supports itself by binding books, making fruitcake and other morsels, storing wine for local vintners, logging sustainably and welcoming guests for retreats. Many clergy, religious and laity come here to revive their spirits. The abbey is an essential haven for many local Protestants and even Buddhists.

“Cistercians are supposed to be lovers of the place,” Abbot Peter explains, adding that the monks see themselves not as separate from the land, the local church and the broader community, but as part of all three.

The official name for the Trappists is the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. The religious community began as a reform movement at the French abbey of Notre Dame de la Grande Trappe in 1664, in reaction to relaxation of rules in some Cistercian monasteries. The order spread all over the world.

Oregon’s Trappists came from New Mexico in the mid-1950s, hoping for more arable land. They farmed, built furniture and logged and then hit upon a fruitcake recipe people liked.

At an invitation-only event, Archbishop John Vlazny will consecrate the new Trappist church on Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. On the abbey’s patronal feast — Dec. 12 — spiritual leaders from Trappist monasteries from around the nation will gather at the abbey for a Mass of thanksgiving.

The monks’ church is a “commission of a lifetime” for Portland architect David Richen, who designed the prayer lodge for the Trappists a decade ago. He has done work at Mount Angel Abbey, Our Lady of Angels Monastery, the Carmelite House of Studies and dozens of local parishes. He is also doing work for Cistercian monasteries in California and Iowa.

As a young student, Richen was captivated by early Cistercian architecture, which has informed much of his work.

“It is just so pure,” he says. “There is very little ornamentation; it’s very spare in terms of art. Everything has a real meaning and a purpose. There is clarity of the space and truthfulness.”

In the new church, the main monastic and liturgical space takes a cruciform shape. In the low-ceilinged spots left between the cross and the diamond are private areas for veneration, devotion and contemplation.

For four years, Richen remained in conversation with the Trappist community.

“It’s to be a place where the monks and guests experience the darkness of early morning Vigils and the daily course of movement from darkness to light and then to the darkness at Compline with all the nuances in between,” says Richen, 67. “It’s also a place in which to witness the changing seasons, liturgical and natural.”

If the moon is out, if there is blue sky, if clouds are sailing by, if it is pouring rain, it will all be apparent from inside the church.

“I’m hoping that the wonder of our world comes present to people,” says Richen. “I don’t want to shut out the world.”

Richen made sure the new church would not block much sunlight from making its way into the rest of the monastery.

Like the prayer lodge, he designed the church based on modules of seven feet — doorways and beams and other spaces come in increments of seven, which Richen calls a “very human proportion.” Inside, sight lines work their way cleanly almost all through the building, an effort to give harmony to the space.

Each pew will have its own light source, down where it is needed, not high up where the light scatters all over the whole church. That will prevent artificial light from canceling out what is going on outdoors.

Like other buildings at the abbey, the new church sits at a graceful angle to the rest of the structures. The geometry here, like the spirituality, is not rigid and square. It explores within bounds.

The monks have commissioned some simple original art for the church. Sculptor Mary Lewis has carved doors for the main public entry. Made of local white oak, they include reliefs of St. Benedict and St. Bernard, seen as spiritual fathers of the Trappists. Tomasz Misztal has carved a figure of Christ for the processional cross.

A large tapestry of Our Lady of Guadalupe, 6-by-10 feet, was woven in Belgium under the direction of artist John Nava.

The church is part of the second phase of a monastery renovation. The first phase handled safety issues and renovated monastic cells and everyday living areas, including the kitchen. After the church is done, plans call for a new elevator, a wing for senior monks and a new infirmary.

Ed Langlois is a reporter with The Catholic Sentinel, Portland, Oregon.  This article first appeared in the October 26, 2007 issue of The Catholic Sentinel and is reprinted here with permission.

Photo Credit: Brother Philip Wertman

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