USA — The raging wildfire that destroyed more than 100 plush homes in the hills above Santa Barbara, Calif., also claimed a hilltop oasis for thousands over the years, an Episcopalian monastery.
About 25 guests and the seven monks who lived and worked at the Mount Calvary Monastery and Retreat House fled Thursday night with the approach of the fast-moving blaze, said Brother Robert Sevensky, superior of the Order of the Holy Cross in West Park, N.Y.
Today, a few of the monks are expected to return to pick through the rubble of the sprawling Spanish-style complex that had been filled with quiet reading rooms, endless shelves of books on myriad topics and commanding views of the city and ocean 1,250 feet below.
All that remains are a couple walls under a collapsed roof and the large metal cross in the courtyard.
The fire had spread from nearby Montecito, famous as having the multi-million-dollar estates of Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe and other Hollywood celebrities. By Saturday, the winds had calmed and the area switched to recovery mode. For the monks of Mount Calvary, that means trying to pick through the ruins for what little is left.
“The brothers were doing dishes. They saw the flames on the next ridge. They realized they better get their suitcases together,” said Sevensky, who lived at Mount Calvary for 11 years and now supervises from New York.
The monks loaded up their cars and headed for a convent down the hill. They had practiced what to take in the event of a fire, to consume the sacrament, load up the main computer and the rarest art. Sevensky said he was told that a California Highway Patrol officer may have been able to save additional artworks and drive them down to Ventura before the fire consumed the monastery.
The monastery was founded in 1947 with the donation of a large stucco-and-wood hacienda. It gradually became a haven for church groups seeking a spiritual setting outside the bustle of Los Angeles, about 100 miles south, and travelers who had heard about it.
The Rev. Peter Rood, rector of Holy Nativity Episcopal Church in the Los Angeles suburb of Westchester, said he first started visiting Mount Calvary in the mid-1980s. “It was very spartan,” he recalled, with thin partitions between the dozen or so sleeping quarters. Over the years, it was improved, including a dense gardens tended to by the monks.
“The place was a treasure trove of antiques and rare books,” Rood said.
Other guests over the years say they feel the same.
“Being on top of the mountain, you feel like you’re really close to the sky,” says Natalie Martin, a professional musician who visited several times with groups from St. James Episcopal Church near downtown Los Angeles. “You don’t have an TV, just wonderful libraries and services to go to.”
Another visitor from the same church, lawyer Alan Heppel, who estimates he had visited for a dozen years, says he “truly heartsick” about the monastery’s demise.
Over the years, he said his own home has been at risk to wildfires, along with the homes of friends. But they have always managed to escape. “This is the first time where I felt like there is a place that I am deeply connected to that I cannot go back to. It’s gone.”
He said he would spend afternoons curled up a nook with one of the many travel or art books lining the walls. “I remember the fog would burn off and you would be floating above the world.” He called it, “a healing place for me.”
In his blog, the Rev. Robert Cornwall, pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Mich., laments the loss of the monastery that had been both “a hidden treasure and a spiritual blessing.” He said he had trolled the gardens, bookstore, loved the church services and sweeping views.