At the Abbey of Our Lady of New Clairvaux, 42-year-old monk Brother Luis Cortez sits behind two computer monitors in his office, busily responding to phone calls while simultaneously checking website analytics. His long black beard falls over the black Champion zip-up hoodie he normally wears over his traditional monastic robe, as he leans into the screen to update the @MonksOfVina Instagram account and exchange emails with Californians who inquire about spiritual retreats.

His office sits in a brick building at the intersection of the Northern California monastery’s two roads. On one side are the walnut trees and grapevines of California’s Sacramento Valley. On the other side are the closed red gates to the cloister, a secluded area normally reserved for the monks. Founded in 1955, the monastery belongs to the Trappist-Cistercian order of the Roman Catholic faith, and the monks that live there follow the nearly thousand-year tradition of selective silence, prayer and manual labor.

But monastic life is under threat nationwide, from the Carmelites in New York to the Dominicans in LA. In California, abbeys are closing rapidly. And unlike the Jesuits, another Roman Catholic order, the Trappists are sworn to seclusion; unable to proselytize in their community, they can’t rely on traditional outreach techniques.

“There’s no reason to sugarcoat it,” Cortez said. “Monasteries are closing left and right, even in our own order.”

Faced with this new reality, the monks at New Clairvaux are trying to keep their tradition alive in untraditional ways.

Three hours north of San Francisco, halfway between Chico and Red Bluff, the Abbey of Our Lady of New Clairvaux is located in Vina, a small town founded shortly after the end of the Gold Rush. It’s built on land originally belonging to the Nomlaki and Konkow Maidu people and was later taken by Danish prospector Peter Lassen, who established a 22,000-acre ranch. It was eventually purchased by businessman and politician Leland Stanford in 1881, who used the land to build the world’s then-largest vineyard. After the death of Stanford’s wife in 1905, the property was divided and sold off.

In 1955, Trappist monks bought 600 acres of the land, drawing on a history of Italian Cistercian winemaking to revive the accompanying vineyard. The monks’ bet paid off —the monastery sells about 15,000 cases of wine each year, bringing in enough profit to support the vineyard while also maintaining the abbey’s standard of living. With the help of 2023’s Best Woman Winemaker winner Aimée Sunseri, their wines have been winning awards across California.

Beyond the Napa-threatening bottles, the chapel house attracts thousands of tourists per year. The stones that make up the chapel house were first used to construct Santa Maria de Óvila, a 13th-century Cistercian monastery in Spain. After the original monastery was abandoned, the stones were brought to the Bay Area in 1931 by William Randolph Hearst.

Though Hearst reportedly planned to use the stones to build an indoor swimming pool, Depression-era troubles instead led him to donate the stones to the city of San Francisco before his construction project could ever be realized. When the Abbey of New Clairvaux was founded in 1955, Father Thomas Davis passed through the city, learning of the stones, which were in storage in Golden Gate Park to be used for the de Young Museum. Plans to reconstruct the chapter house never came to fruition. In 1995, Davis, by then abbot of New Clairvaux, came to an agreement with the city: He could take the stones, under the condition that the chapel house be open to the public. Nearly 20 years later, construction was completed, and New Clairvaux held up their end of the promise; the chapter house is open all-day, free of admission. They hold services multiple times a day, allowing guests to join them in chants and hymns.

Now, the historic chapel is the abbey’s most well-known feature. The architecture is classically Cistercian: the sleek white stones and angular pillars cause a cavernous echo, and the bright natural glow lights up the abbey’s central golden organ. Looking out the glass doorway to the vineyard outside, the rippling heat and California palms make the whole atmosphere stand out against the surrounding miles of farming towns.

For visitors — religious or otherwise — who want a longer stay, the abbey offers paid retreats. Guests stay in guest housing with access to monk-cooked pescatarian meals, and the historic chapter house is only a short walk away.

“When people come to this place, they step out of their normal ambiance, and their normal way of living,” Davis said.

Since 1965, the number of Catholic religious brothers in the U.S. has decreased by nearly three quarters, from 12,000 to 3,500. Fewer men are becoming novices, and monastic populations are shrinking around the country as a result. The monk in charge of training novices at New Clairvaux, 44-year-old Father Guerric Llanes, a soft-spoken Bruneian Canadian, acknowledges how difficult the path to monkhood is. Starting as an “aspirant,” it’s a minimum of six years until a new monk is fully integrated into their monastery.

From SFGate