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Syon Abbey

The Building of a Traditional Monastery

by Father John Sebastian

For over fifteen hundred years Catholic monks following the Rule of St. Benedict have been building monasteries in all the many countries of Christendom, and in all the many styles of architecture favoured at different times in those countries, but it is the great Gothic abbeys which are the pinnacle of their achievement.

Of the many styles of architecture which the Church has adapted to serve her needs, the Gothic alone may be called the Catholic style, since it was created by the Catholic culture at its full flowering, in the 12th and 13th centuries.

As prayer may be defined as the lifting of one's mind and heart to God, so the Gothic's pointed arches and soaring roofs seem themselves a prayer in stone.

And as man is made in the image and likeness of his Creator, the need is born in us to make things: to arrange a plan, to work out details, to solve problems, and adapt the plan, and so to produce a finished and worthy thing.

Yet so much of what is made today does not give evidence of having been well planned or carefully constructed, and does not seem intended to long survive. This must be the test of whether one who constructs anything does so to the glory of God, that he seeks to offer the best to Him. With the help of the distinguished Boston architect Ethan Anthony, the principal of HDB/Cram & Ferguson, we set out to build a church which would be a worthy house for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

In the early spring of 2002, ground was broken for the new Syon Abbey, and the building site perched on the crest of the first range of the Blue Ridge Mountains was soon filling with large piles of stone and other materials, as well as the tools with which to work the stone, for the Abbey Church and Bell Tower, and for the Monk's Dormitory and Residence.

The entire building is of reinforced masonry, sitting on deep and massive concrete footings. The material chosen for the walls is aerated concrete block, which has all the benefits of regular concrete, in that it is immune to damage from fire, or rot, or insects. But the aerated concrete is much more soundproof and insulating than regular concrete, and does not need additional insulation to meet modern building codes. The residence portion of the monastery is very simple in design, with eight inch thick block walls covered by stucco on the outside, and plaster on the inside.

The church and bell tower have walls nearly two feet thick with a solid block core, and are faced with a thick limestone veneer on the outside and a thin limestone veneer on the inside. The block walls of the church and tower are supported additionally by concrete columns, with concrete beams connecting the columns, all containing ample steel reinforcement, to completely tie the high walls and roofs firmly to the foundations.

The limestone which we used for the church and tower, and which forms the arches in the cloister and along the church aisles, has for many hundreds of years been quarried and worked on the south coast of Spain. Not only is the stone very beautiful, it is also inexpensive, being quite a bit cheaper than any stone we could find in this country. Our architect expertly prepared shop drawings for the stone cutters, which showed each individual piece from several angles, and allowed the stone workers to cut, finish and label all the stones, to be assembled here precisely according to the plan. The result is a carved limestone building that cost less than one would expect.

For many hundreds of years monasteries which follow the Rule of St. Benedict have been laid out in accordance with a basic design. The church is oriented, that is pointed towards the East, and the rest of the buildings are ranged around the cloister on the protected southern side of the church. The cloister is a central garden entirely contained within the walls of the monastery, surrounded by a sheltered walk, the roof of which is supported by arches.

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