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The Monastic Church


by David Richen, Church Architect


In 1955, the Trappist monks moved from Pecos, New Mexico to Oregon and built what was to be a “temporary” Monastery until they could build a permanent one of bricks and mortar. Over fifty years went by before any major work or changes to the Monastery itself took place. The monks did, however, build guest quarters, a bookstore and a meditation/reception building (Bethany House) for guests as well as numerous structures to accommodate their various industries.

On Pentecost 2001, after several years of meetings, committee work and presentations by the architect, a Master Plan was approved by the Community. The first phase of work involved the most serious issues of fire and life safety, new kitchen, renovated cells and everyday living quarters. The second phase consisted of the new Church and converting the old church to a Library and Chapter Room. The final Phase III includes a new elevator, Senior Wing and Infirmary.

There are several major parameters that established the design of the new Church. The site was selected for its prominent location on axis with the main entry road, not totally disrupting the life of the monastery during construction and because it could tie-in -with the existing Monastery’s main entry level. The shape of the Church plan is influenced by numerous factors including the configuration of adjacent buildings forming the main entry plaza, to make provision for sunlight into the existing contiguous wings of the Monastery, orientation to views and outside environment and historical precedents.

The footprint of the Church is of a rotated square within which is placed a cross. The earliest Cistercian (Trappist) church of which there is a record was a square with a pyramidal roof. The cross, of course, forms the plan of innumerable monastic churches, many of them built by the Cistercians. The main monastic and liturgical spaces are situated in the cross form which is the highest space. Private veneration and devotional spaces occur in the low ceiling ambulatory spaces formed between the square and the cross.

“The Church is

conceived as

a vessel of

prayer for

the monks.”

The church is conceived as a vessel for the prayer life of the monks which centers around the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours: five to seven prayer periods through the day beginning at 4:15 am and concluding around 8 pm. Based on the Psalms, these periods of prayer and hymns celebrate all aspects of creation including dawn, day, dusk and the dark of night as well as the natural and liturgical seasons of the year. The church is designed for the monks and guests to experience the wonder of these times with special attention to lighting, views, etc. For example when moon and star light fills the space at night, choir desks and pews have their own lights so as to not

interfere. Finally, all liturgical norms are adhered to including focusing the entire church on the Altar as the primary symbol of Christ.

It is important to note that the early Cistercian churches were “state of the art” in terms of technology and design. The new Church is designed around the earliest and formative Cistercian ideals of simplicity, authenticity, honest use of materials, clarity of structure, minimal imagery/decoration/color, and attention to acoustics, limited palette and light as a source of spiritual inspiration. There is also a rigorous underlying geometry which gives a sense of harmony and order to the space.

The Church is designed to tie in with the present Monastery rather than introduce a totally different style or type of construction. It also draws upon “Northwest Regionalism”, a local architectural tradition which in turn includes some elements of Japanese and Shaker traditions. Materials of the Church are native to the Northwest with few exceptions. The lumber for the pews, choir stalls and liturgical furniture was logged from the Abbey’s own sustainable forest. Other “green” features include day-lighting, natural “chimney” ventilation in lieu of air conditioning, and a totally dimmable lighting system. Choir desks and stalls also contain recycled wood from benches out of the old Chapter Room.

The monks commissioned three original pieces of work for their new Church. The main entry doors form the Gathering Space (part of the former church) are carved bas reliefs of Sts. Benedict and Bernard out of Oregon White Oak, the same type of wood as the liturgical furniture. The sculptor was Mary Lewis. Artist Tomasz Misztal carved the Christ corpus for the processional cross. Finally, the large tapestry of Our Lady of Guadalupe was woven in Belgium under the artistic direction of John Nava who designed the tapestries for the Los Angeles Cathedral.

In addition to these fine artists, there were numerous furniture makers, metal smiths and craftsmen of various media and trades commissioned for the furniture and other items in the Church. Everything for the Church was newly commissioned or venerable pieces from the patrimony of the Monastery. There are no catalogue items in the Church. Remaining to be commissioned pending donations is a new pipe organ for the loft over the main entry just inside the Church.

It took sixteen months and $3.5 million to build the Church , Crypt Offices below, site work and furnishings. A joyous, sunny dedication was held on the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th , 2007.

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