Wednesday, November 14 , 2018, 3:39 am | Fair 51º


A Wondrous Cross Still Beckons the Faithful from Mount Calvary’s Ashes

Renowned Mount Calvary Retreat House faces an uncertain future, but a symbol of salvation stands tall.

When the smoke cleared from the Tea Fire in November, residents who returned to find their homes destroyed had to reckon with the grim reality of their losses. Multimillion-dollar houses that represented their dreams and life’s work went up in flames.

So it was for the seven resident brothers at Mount Calvary Retreat House & Monastery, 2501 Gibraltar Road, where the combination of fierce winds and a steep vegetated mountainside made it easy for the flames to access the Episcopal monastery complex. The fire was ruthless, eating up whatever the monks could not get out, including a 17th-century gold altar from South America, a painting of Jesus Christ made in 1652, and personal effects.

“There is nothing to recover,” Brother Joseph Brown told the Episcopal News of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles shortly after the fire.

The Rev. Nicholas Radelmiller, the monastery’s prior, has estimated the losses were in the millions of dollars.

But it wasn’t just the Brothers of the Order of the Holy Cross who lost their home. For many of the faithful in the Santa Barbara community and throughout the world, Mount Calvary was a spiritual home, a place to take refuge from the bustle of the day-to-day grind, or to work out life’s problems, or to simply meditate in silence, the quiet broken only by the breeze or by the piercing cries of hawks soaring high above. When news of the monastery’s destruction spread, there was an outpouring of sympathy for the brothers and grief over the devastation.

Gunnar Thielst with his wrought-iron handiwork at Mount Calvary Retreat House in 1989.
Gunnar Thielst with his wrought-iron handiwork at Mount Calvary Retreat House in 1989. (Gredizer family photo)

But not everything is lost.

Amid the ashes and the rubble, one icon of Mount Calvary remains standing, a silent symbol of salvation and triumph: the wrought-iron cross that was erected in 1949, shortly after the monastery was established.

Looking worse for wear from the firestorm that consumed everything around it, the cross nevertheless continues to tower over the burned-out courtyard. Its bronze ornamentation is tarnished, maybe even melted, but the flames of the Tea Fire were not strong enough to undo the delicate lacework of the body of the cross. Surrounded by charred, collapsed walls and burned-out debris, the cross still commands a reverence, perhaps even more so for having survived one of the most devastating wildfires in recent history.

When artisan Gunnar Thielst in 1947 accepted the commission offered by Amy du Pont of the prominent American family, he may have already understood the importance of his work. It was only two short years after the end of World War II, which had America rationing its iron and scrapping what it could to help the war effort. Thielst, who had to give up his studio for lack of iron, was only just starting over.

The long view from Mount Calvary is still spectacular but rubble and uncertainty fill the monastery's short-term picture.
The long view from Mount Calvary is still spectacular but rubble and uncertainty fill the monastery’s short-term picture. (Colin Macfadyen / Noozhawk photo)

“What my stepfather told me was that Ms. du Pont traveled throughout Europe, going to cathedrals, looking for a design for the cross,” said Ursula Gredizer, Thielst’s stepdaughter. She describes him as a reticent, serious Dane who nevertheless had his own brand of humor.

When du Pont returned to Santa Barbara, however, it was Thielst who came up with the design that she eventually wanted for her gift to the monastery. Working with Father Karl Tiedemann, who established the monastery, he laid out plans for a more than 20-foot-tall cross, wrought from about a ton of iron. It was airy enough to let wind and light pass through it, but majestic enough to stand out against the backdrop of the Santa Ynez Mountains towering behind the monastery. On it would be bronze ornaments to symbolize Jesus Christ’s suffering before his crucifixion on the mountain for which the Mount Calvary monastery was named.

“My stepbrother would go to the monastery once a year and take down those ornaments to polish them,” Gredizer said.

Mount Calvary Retreat House's welcoming entrance arch stands in ruin, its murals spattered by wind-hurled embers.
Mount Calvary Retreat House’s welcoming entrance arch stands in ruin, its murals spattered by wind-hurled embers. (Colin Macfadyen / Noozhawk photo)

What Thielst could not have known was that the iron he and his team spent months painstakingly bending and flexing would eventually be able to withstand a wildfire so intense in some places that even houses constructed with stone burned to the ground.

Now, more than a month after the Tea Fire, the brothers are trying to rebuild their lives while dealing with the emotions that come with a painful loss: sorrow, confusion, maybe even some anger at those responsible for starting the blaze.

“... It is very difficult for me to process the feelings,” Brown wrote to Noozhawk after the fire. “I was one of the monks at Mount Calvary monastery. It was my home and the spiritual home of literally tens of thousands of people from around the world. Priceless works of art, books, historical treasures pertaining to the order, archives, and all of the personal possessions of the monks were lost.

“And this is the point at which being a Christian monastic reaches its very core. I have to forgive these young people, and do all that I can to help them. ... That is what Christianity is ... it is forgiveness and reaching out to those who have hurt us. If as a monk I am unable to do that, then I did not deserve to live at Mount Calvary.”

It hasn’t been an easy process, but the brothers have indicated they will be picking up the pieces and moving on. How exactly they will be moving on will be determined at the order’s annual conference in June.

High chaparral fueled the Tea Fire as it raced up the mountainside to engulf the Mount Calvary campus.
High chaparral fueled the Tea Fire as it raced up the mountainside to engulf the Mount Calvary campus. (Colin Macfadyen / Noozhawk photo)

“It’s still undecided,” said Nancy Bullock, Mount Calvary’s retreat director. The monks could try to rebuild the monastery, or they may take advantage of the clean slate and go somewhere else, do something new, she told Noozhawk.

The Right Rev. Jon Bruno, bishop of the Los Angeles diocese, has established a fund to address the Mount Calvary losses. Contributions may be mailed to Mount Calvary Retreat House & Monastery, P.O. Box 1296, Santa Barbara 93102, or to the Bishop’s Office, 840 Echo Park Ave., Los Angeles 90026.

For now the brothers are staying at St. Mary’s Retreat House, 505 E. Los Olivos St., which is run by the Episcopal Order of Sisters of the Holy Nativity.

“The life and ministry of Mount Calvary will go on, maybe in another fashion, but it will go on,” Radelmiller told the Episcopal News. “We’re confident of that.”

Should the brothers decide to rebuild their monastery, there’s a big wrought-iron cross ready to welcome them back to the mountaintop.

Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made using a credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Select your monthly membership
Or choose an annual membership

Payment Information

Membership Subscription

You are enrolling in . Thank you for joining the Hawks Club.

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.
You may cancel your membership at any time by sending an email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.