Thursday, January 06, 2005
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Monks set up residence near Blue Ridge Parkway

In 2001, a small order of monks that follows the rule of St. Benedict purchased 243 acres of farmland at the edge of Franklin County.

COPPER HILL - About 10 miles south of Adney Gap, fenced land to the east of the Blue Ridge Parkway opens into a wide green meadow. At the back of the field, past a large pond and a line of trees, looms a surprising sight: a huge stone building, enclosed in scaffolding, with arched windows and a tower, that looks like an ancient monastery transplanted from the European countryside.

In fact, it is a monastery. In 2001, a small order of monks that follows the rule of St. Benedict purchased 243 acres of farmland at the edge of Franklin County for about $684,000. The order, called Syon Abbey, intends to stay. Estimated to cost $1.7 million, the 11,683-square-foot monastery will have 2-foot-thick masonry walls, a cloistered court and a crypt - really just a basement - underneath.

"It's a building that's going to be there for years to come," said Franklin County building inspector Donnie Beard. "It's going to be beautiful."

Rising on the ridge of Five Mile Mountain, the monastery is visible from miles away, causing speculation and rumors among residents and passers-by in Callaway, a rural community nestled below the mountain.

"I've had people say, 'What in the world are they building up there?'" said Wayne Angell, chairman of the Franklin County Board of Supervisors, who runs a Callaway auto repair shop.

The monks building the abbey have not publicized their presence, and the monastery is not open to the public. That's not their goal, said the Rev. John Sebastian, a priest and monk who spoke for the order in interviews. "What a monk feels drawn to is to leave the cares and the noise of the world at large."

Their order was founded in 1962 in Kentucky as a mission that held religious retreats. The founding happened about the same time as the start of the Second Vatican Council, which altered aspects of how some sacraments were practiced in the Catholic Church, allowed local language to be introduced into liturgies in place of Latin and made other changes. Some conservative Catholics, including the Syon Abbey order, rejected the council's changes.

Syon Abbey - the name for the monastery and the order - is independent of any diocese.

"In the beginning it was really just a few priests," Sebastian said. The group founded a mission on the West Coast but eventually decided to stay to the east, where its support base was. "We decided that what we really felt called to do is lead a monastic existence."

St. Benedict, who died in 547, created a book of rules for monastic life that includes daily routines integrating prayer, study and manual labor. Under Benedict's rules, abbeys - monasteries headed by an abbot - are designed to be self-supporting and autonomous.

The monks at Syon Abbey will grow their own food and make wine for their communion. They do not intend to sell any products. "Everything we have in excess will be given away," Sebastian said.

The order searched for several years for a place to build its abbey. "It's not easy to find something that's remote and yet not too remote," Sebastian said. "We looked all over Virginia. We were impressed with the beauty of Virginia."

A slender man in his 20s, Sebastian wore a white monk's habit and sandals during a December tour of the abbey. He declined to allow his picture to be taken, citing religious beliefs that forbid monks to promote themselves as individuals. For the same reasons, he declined to discuss his life before he joined the order.

The order has about a half-dozen members, and most of them already live on the grounds in single-wide modular homes. All of them will live in the abbey, which is built to hold a dozen.

Funding for construction comes through private donations from people who support a monastic movement, Sebastian said. "It's all the free-willed gifts of Catholic laymen."

A Boston architecture firm designed the monastery, which is based on classic English architecture. The order hires contractors but also does much of the construction labor itself. "Our physical labor is also a sort of prayer," Sebastian said. "To do it badly is a terrible thing."

The building materials included a lightweight concrete block that can be cut with woodworking tools, and roof tiles made from recycled rubber. "It's vastly cheaper than the way most churches are built," Sebastian said.

There's no set date for when the monastery will be finished. Wednesday, Sebastian said the monks were grateful for the recent warm weather, which has allowed them to continue the construction through the winter.

The completed building will have a chapel, a large communal kitchen and library, outer walls clad in limestone imported from Spain, and a 65-foot bell tower with a spectacular mountaintop view.

"They've got some bodacious views up there," said Angell, who added that he believes the monastery's presence will benefit the parkway in the long run. "It may help preserve a pretty significant viewshed."

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