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The dedication of the new St. Michael's Abbey took place on May 5, 2021.

A New Abbey for California’s Norbertines

Norbertine priests who fled Hungary for America in 1950 would be filled with joy to see the new St. Michael’s Abbey, dedicated May 5.

A story that began in 1950 Hungary with a small group of Norbertine priests escaping Communist persecution under cover of a July midnight starts a new chapter with the opening of a new St. Michael’s Abbey and Church in the canyon area of Orange County, Calif.

The new St. Michael’s, built about 10 miles from the old one, replaces an abbey set atop multiple layers of landslides elsewhere in Orange County – a precarious location that precluded building anything new there even as “God has blessed us with an overabundance of vocations,” says Prior Chrysostom Baer, prior of St. Michaels.

“The old buildings were insufficient,” Baer says, “so new land and new buildings were the answer. The new [abbey] is better ordered for our life. It is also bigger and of a more renowned architectural style, namely Romanesque.”

“A place they always wanted”
What would the small group of priests who fled Hungary for De Pere, Wisconsin, and eventually California more than 70 years ago think if they could see the new abbey and church?

“The Hungarian Fathers would be awestruck and joyful,” Baer says. “They originally thought they would only stay a few years and then communism would fall, so actually founding a new abbey was not their first thought. But this new abbey has brought us a place in the diocese they always wanted.”

The Hungarian priests’ move to California from Wisconsin came after Cardinal James McIntyre, an American prelate of the Roman Catholic Church and the Archbishop of Los Angeles from 1948 to 1970, invited them to teach at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California, in 1957. The priests started a new home: St. Michael’s Priory, now St. Michael’s Abbey. They taught at a high school and served in local parishes. They opened St. Michael's Minor Seminary and Novitiate in Silverado Canyon, which would become St. Michael’s Prep School for boys.

St. Michael’s school closed on June 30, 2020, upon graduating the largest class in school history, in preparation for the abbey’s move to Silverado. Until a new school is built, St. Michael’s offers the Archangel Institute, a weekend apostolate designed to offer some of the same intellectual and spiritual formation for high school boys and their parents.

A vibrant community
St. Michael’s on the whole is a community of Norbertine canons, including about 50 priests and roughly as many seminarians. The priests teach in grade schools and high schools while also serving as chaplains to colleges, hospitals and prisons. They preach retreats for clergy and even have under their direction a parish church, St. John the Baptist, in Costa Mesa, Calif.

And none of this ever would have come to pass without that invitation to come west in 1957.

“I don’t think there would have been a St. Michaels,” Baer says, “without Cardinal McIntyre.”

A sister community
St. Michael’s sister community for Norbertine canonesses north of Los Angeles – the Bethlehem Priory of St. Joseph, in the mountains just outside the city of Tehachapi, Calif. – is the only cloistered community of Norbertine sisters in the United States.

As canonesses, these women are especially dedicated to the solemn and reverential celebration of the Church’s Sacred Liturgy, which they celebrate in keeping with the traditions of the Premonstratensian rite, with pride of place given to the Latin language and Gregorian chant. The nuns live out their canonical vocation within the monastic rhythms of liturgical prayer and contemplation, of community life and work, of silence, study and penance. Their monastery is tucked away in a quiet valley in the Tehachapi Mountains in the Diocese of Fresno.

St. Michael’s at a glance

  • Location: Silverado, Calif., southeast of Los Angeles
  • Distance from old St. Michael’s: 10 miles (to the north)
  • Architects: Hyndman & Hyndman Architecture, a local firm that has designed many church projects.
  • Interior art: Enzo Selvaggi, the creative director at the Heritage Liturgical studio, is working on newly commissioned artwork for the church, including mosaics.

May 13, 2021