Dangerous 70-mile-an-hour winds known as "sundowners" exploded fire across parts of Southern California on November 13-14, injuring at least four people, destroying an estimated 100 homes, and leveling an internationally known monastery of the Episcopal Order of the Holy Cross.
Residents of the picturesque Montecito area of Santa Barbara were evacuated as firefighters battled flames after the winds had died down. The "sundowner" effect results from the violent clash of hot air from the Santa Ynez Mountains and the cool air of the Pacific Ocean.
Property losses were estimated in the millions and climbing in the scenic area, where many celebrities, such as Oprah Winfrey and others, have homes.
Six monks of the Order of the Holy Cross who reside at the Mt. Calvary Retreat House were evacuated at about 7:30 p.m. on November 13 to St. Mary's Retreat House, run by the Episcopal Order of Sisters of the Holy Nativity, according to Brother Nicholas Radelmiller, OHC prior.
He estimated that losses from the destruction of the 41-year-old Spanish-style monastery, which had hosted international conferences and retreat guests, were in the millions.
"We all feel kind of numbed, shocked, by the whole thing," he said. About 25 guests who were staying at the retreat center, which sat atop a ridge 1,250 feet above Santa Barbara, left at 6:00 p.m. on November 13, Radelmiller said. Shortly afterwards, he said, "we looked out our refectory window and could see flames a ridge away. They were getting bigger and bigger. We did the dishes and decided we had better leave, so each of us packed a little suitcase and left."
Penny Hurt, an assistant to Sister Abigail at St. Mary's Retreat House, described the brothers as shaken by the ordeal. "We tried to get up there last night but the police weren't letting anyone into that area. Shortly afterwards, they came down. All of that area is gone now, it's terrible. We're just so glad the sisters can offer them refuge."
"It is a lovely gesture by St. Mary's," said Nancy Bullock, Mt. Calvary retreat house manager. She said the brothers were getting organized and she would like to get to a computer so she can "let everyone know we won't be doing any retreats soon."
She said the retreat house, established in 1947 by Fr. Karl Tiedemann, OHC, as the retreat and conference center of the Order of the Holy Cross on the West Coast, books two years in advance. The guesthouse is operated and staffed by six members of the monastic community and a professional staff and chef.
Bishop J. Jon Bruno of Los Angeles, who is in close telephone contact with clergy leaders in the Santa Barbara area, has asked the prayers of the diocesan community and the wider church for all those affected by the fire. The bishop and staff of the Diocese of Los Angeles have pledged their support in assisting the coordination of fire recovery efforts. Checks, payable to the Treasurer of the Diocese and earmarked "Montecito Fire Recovery," may be sent to the Bishop's Office, 840 Echo Park Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90026.
Expressions of concern and offers of assistance are already pouring in to the diocese and to nearby parishes. All Saints' Church in Montecito offered a noon prayer service on November 14 and the church is open, although the parish school remains closed as a precaution. There were reports that classrooms at nearby Westmont College had burned and the campus had been evacuated.
Staff at All Saints' are working with other area churches to coordinate efforts to help those who were evacuated or potentially lost their homes.
"Part of the problem is, we just don't know a lot yet," said Bullock, whose husband, the Rev. Jeff Bullock, is rector of All Saints.
Melinda Carey, parish secretary at Trinity Church in Santa Barbara, said the office was staffed in case parishioners needed assistance, and that the Rev. Mark Asman, rector, is networking with Jeff Bullock and other clergy in the area to coordinate relief efforts as needed. As yet, they had not received many calls. "Part of the problem is, it's still happening," Carey said. "We don't know which homes have burned yet, so those who've been evacuated don't even know if their homes are standing or not."
She added, "Bishop Bruno was on it right away--he called and talked to everyone."
Dick Tiff, a Santa Barbara resident and associate of the OHC order, called news of Mt. Calvary's destruction "devastating."
"I usually go there every Friday morning for breakfast and Eucharist," he said. "When I heard the news, I just gasped. I've been going there about 20 years."
Meanwhile, Nancy Bullock was already focused on the next steps, of obtaining a computer, accessing the mailing list and notifying future retreatants. "People in the immediate area will realize that retreats are cancelled, but we get people from all over and we want to let them know they need to make other plans," she said.
Staff of the retreat center at the Cathedral Center of the Diocese of Los Angeles, and Canon Peter Bergstrom, executive director of Camp Stevens in Julian, California, have already offered to work with the monks and their staff to accommodate cancelled retreats.
The company that carries Mount Calvary's insurance policies has already been contacted, Bullock said, but added that many of the furnishings inside the 20,000-square-foot retreat house were priceless. "It's in the millions of dollars. I just don't know what to say," she said. "There was the beautiful gold altar, from 17th century South America, and the 1652 painting of Jesus healing the paralytic, as well as the painting of our founder, as well as the brothers' personal belongings."
The brothers and staff at Mt. Calvary, were able to leave with some of the hilltop retreat house's valuable art treasures, as well as computer records, Bullock said, adding, "But so much is lost."
Radelmiller said that the monks intend to rebuild their ministry.
"We have great gratitude that we're all safe and we're very grateful for all of the expressions of concern, help and prayers that people have mentioned to us," he said. "We've all lost personal possessions and all of the stuff at Mount Calvary including artwork--and in the end, that doesn't really matter. The life and ministry of Mount Calvary will go on, maybe in another fashion, but it will go on. We're confident in that."
-- The Rev. Pat McCaughan is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for the dioceses of Province VIII and the House of Bishops. She is based in Los Angeles. Bob Williams, canon for community relations for the Diocese of Los Angeles, and Janet Kawamoto, associate editor for Episcopal Life Online, contributed to this report.