August 16, 2008
Taking Root: Cistercian monastery emerges in Walnut Grove after years of prayer, hard work
By Denise MacLachlan
Supporters of Our Lady of Chau Sun Sacramento community in Walnut Grove participate in a procession during a celebration and Mass of thanksgiving June 28 on the monastery grounds.
A newly planted monastery thrives in Walnut Grove.
With the blessing of Bishop William K. Weigand, Cistercian monks from Our Lady of Chau Son Monastery in Vietnam have established an adjunct community in the Diocese of Sacramento.
Nine monks now live in a cloistered, contemplative community in temporary buildings on 50 acres of freshly-cultivated farmland. They gather seven times each day to pray the Divine Office in between laying drip lines, hanging drywall, and pouring concrete foundations for the guest houses.
Cistercian Father Dominic Tran Thiet Hung, prior of the Our Lady of Chau Son Sacramento community, recently described his journey from a cloistered monastery in the mountains of Vietnam to the delta farmland of California’s Central Valley.
His abbot had sent him to Paris in 1997 to study for a master’s degree in theology and spirituality.
The following year, 1998, saw the 900th anniversary of the founding of their order. Cistercians from all over the world, including Father Tran, gathered to celebrate at the first Cistercian monastery in Citeaux, France, near Dijon. The monastery at Citeaux couldn’t house all of the visitors, he explained, so people were assigned to different religious communities in the area.
Abbot Thomas Davis of the Cistercian Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina was also at the celebration. He recalls coming downstairs one morning at the religious community where he was staying and taking the seat at a table across from Father Tran.
“We met over breakfast on March 21,” Abbot Davis said, “the anniversary of the day our order was founded in 1098.”
The Chau Son Abbey in Vietnam had run a Catholic school for boys, Abbot Davis told The Herald, and many of their alumni had settled in California, so the two monks fell into conversation. Abbot Davis invited Father Tran to visit the community at Vina.
After completing his master’s degree, Father Tran traveled to the Abbey of New Clairvaux in September 2000 to study English for a year. The following January, Abbot Davis flew to Vietnam to meet with the abbot of Chau Son Monastery, Abbot Francis Xavier Phan Bao Luyen, and invite him to visit his brother monastery in Vina.
In the summer of 2001, while Abbot Phan was in the United States, he met with as many of Chau Son Abbey’s benefactors as he could, to thank them for their support over the years.
“Our Lady of Chau Son needs support for its very survival,” explained Father Tran, “because the monks lost most of their land during the war, so that they could not grow enough to sustain themselves and the poor who come to them for help.”
Fortunately, he said, many of the Vietnamese people who had immigrated to the United States at the end of the war in Vietnam in 1975 remember the Chau Son monks and continue to support their lives of prayer and work.
People who had been writing to Abbot Phan in Vietnam now urged him to start a contemplative community in the United States.
“Many Vietnamese who came here in the 1970s live under great stress in this way of life,” Father Tran noted. “Their lives have increased in material wealth but diminished in interior peace.”
He added, “In 30 years of settling in this country, the Vietnamese people have undergone many difficulties: social differences, language limitations, culture clashes, especially culture clashes between the younger and older generations.
“Many have overcome all of these obstacles, but some are struggling. People told the abbot that they needed a place to rest in silence and prayer for a few days, a place to fill up with the presence of God, just as they did in our monastery in Vietnam.”
So Abbot Phan charged Father Tran with a mission: Build a monastery.
Then the abbot went back to Vietnam.
“I am just one monk,” Father Tran recalled. “I never planned to live in the U.S. I never planned to leave my monastery in Vietnam. I was living with the community at New Clairvaux. I had no money. I didn’t know what to do.
“So I did what monks know how to do: I prayed.”
A chain of prayer
Father Tran says that nothing happens without prayer.
He sent letters to the people he knew, asking for their prayers and offering to pray for them, just as he had prayed for the visitors to the monastery in Vietnam. And just as at Our Lady of Chau Son, if people could afford to give a gift to the community, their gift was welcome, but it was not expected. Father Tran wanted to create a chain of prayer.
“If we pray, God works though us,” Father Tran says. “God works very silently, but he works strongly, efficiently, successfully. He needs only our love and belief.”
“If we pray, God works though us,” he said. “God works very silently, but he works strongly, efficiently, successfully. He needs only our love and belief.”
Father Tran mailed his letters and answered every reply. He visited people who invited him and met their friends and families. The chain of prayer expanded outward. Father Tran called it the Chau Son family, he said, because he wanted to emphasize the true relationship between the laypeople who joined the prayer chain and the monastic community.
“People will think it is a foundation to raise money if I don’t explain what it is,” he said. There is no professional development effort, he said, no slick advertising campaign. The Chau Son Sacramento community prays seven times a day, and they pray for all who ask for their prayers. The people they pray for are their family.
Father Tran asked, “Do you know why St. Therese, the Little Flower, is the patron of missionaries? She never went anywhere. She lived in a cloister her entire life, filling her days with prayer.
“She’s the patron of missionaries because missionary work is the overflow of prayer,” he answered. He held up a cup of coffee.
“We are like this cup,” he said. “We fill our lives with prayer. If the cup is not overflowing, there is no missionary work.
“But when the cup is filled with a full life of prayer, and the prayer overflows the cup and the life, that prayer fuels the missionary work. Prayer is God at work.”
Donations came in to Father Tran at the Abbey of New Clairvaux. Large donors stepped forward and made it possible to buy land. Others brought supplies, food and equipment.
Bishop Weigand gave Our Lady of Chau Son Sacramento community permission to create their monastery in October 2004. The abbey in Vietnam sent monks to join Father Tran, and the new community of Our Lady of Chau Son Sacramento rented a house in Elk Grove while they looked for property.
In 2006, the Chau Son Sacramento community had found the right place: remote enough to be peaceful, near a river, calm. The monks commuted to the site of their new monastery in Walnut Grove, clearing the land, digging ditches, planting trees and watering by hand until water could be piped in.
And seven times throughout the day, the monks stopped to pray.
Father Tran looks at the land and sees how far they have come.
“There was nothing here when we arrived,” he said. “Nothing was planted. There was no water, no electricity. Everything is a gift.”
The gifts take shape with a lot of work. Monks built the low retaining walls at the front of the property and erected the shade structure that is their temporary church. A sculptor carved the garden arch with wood from Vietnam. The chapel podium was donated by an Episcopal priest. Catholic artists from Stockton created the church’s altar banner.
A neighbor, Joey Sanchez, and his wife, Debbe, “have helped us tremendously,” Father Tran said. He gestured to the wide driveway from the road to the monastery, which is 200 feet by 250 feet. Sanchez graded the road and hauled in the gravel to cover it.
A well-established farmer, Sanchez cultivates about 3,000 acres, much of it surrounding the monastery property. He has helped the monks put in water pipes and power lines. When his father passed away, Sanchez’s mother asked the monks to hold the funeral Mass at the monastery.
More than 400 people from the community attended the Mass on July 29, an event which Father Tran called another gift from God.
“We’re a contemplative community,” Father Tran said. “How are we going to meet our neighbors? And then this gift happens.”
Sanchez said in an interview he’s glad that the local community has come to know the monks. “Those monks are great people. “I met them in 2006 when the realtor introduced them to me — they needed an easement to their land through mine — and I could see the kind of people they are.
“Their whole intent is to help the poor, pray and work,” he said. “They’re the best people.”
A Mass of thanksgiving
On June 28, the community gathered for a Mass of thanksgiving to celebrate the establishment of the new monastic community in the diocese. Bishop Weigand presided at the Mass and blessed the monastery. Bishop Paul Bui Van Doc, bishop of the Diocese of My Tho in Vietnam, traveled to Sacramento to concelebrate the Mass.
Altar servers and liturgists came from Stockton. The processional drums and flags came from Oakland. The first reading was read in Vietnamese by a reader from San Jose. The second reading was read in Spanish by a reader from Walnut Grove. The Gospel was proclaimed in Vietnamese and English by priests from Vietnam and Tracy.
More than 1,000 people from across the country attended the Mass.
Mercy Sister Eileen Enright, delegate for religious in the Diocese of Sacramento, said in an interview that the Chau Son community members “are prayer-filled, joyful, enthusiastic, committed — I keep coming back to joy. They are a joy to be near.”
“Their enthusiasm is contagious,” she added. “They are filled with the spirit of the Gospel. I feel humbled to have had the opportunity to walk with them as they begin their ministry in the diocese.”