LOS ANGELES — On Tuesday the monks met with their insurance agent.
Like thousands of other residents of Southern California, the seven Benedictine Anglican monks who lived at Mount Calvary Monastery and Retreat House, on a breathtaking ridge 1,250 feet above the Pacific in Montecito, were coming to terms with what they had lost in the fires that have swept across Southern California since Thursday.
Early last Friday, fire consumed most of the complex where the monks had chanted, studied the stars and welcomed guests from around the world. The next afternoon, they returned to survey the damage.
“We were very quiet,” Brother Joseph Brown recalled in a telephone interview Tuesday. “We just looked around. We were in shock.”
By the time the Tea Fire, in Santa Barbara County, was under control, all that remained of the 60-year-old monastery itself were a skeletal archway, a charred iron cross and a large Angelus bell.
Two small artist’s studios near the main building were intact. An icon of Christ that Brother Brown had been painting with pigments made from egg yolk and mineral powder was still on a desk. A cello sat a few feet away, unharmed. In the chaos of wind and fire, a sheriff’s deputy had moved another monk’s telescope outside, where it remained unscathed.
“In the midst of all this destruction,” Brother Brown, 46, said Tuesday, “miracles happened all over the place.”
“The feelings right now are difficult to describe,” he said. “One of the hazards of monasticism throughout the centuries is we become attached to what we have or where we are. This is simply a reminder that what we are called to is not our stuff. This is a cleansing by fire.”
Since the fire, the monks have stayed at St. Mary’s Retreat House, run by Episcopal nuns near the Santa Barbara Mission, as they searched for solace and prepared themselves to help others in the area who were displaced by the blaze.
Brother Brown said the monks, part of the Order of the Holy Cross, spent much of Tuesday meeting with an insurance agent and a contractor to discuss their options. Though the coastal mountains of Montecito were dear to their hearts, he said, they “need time to pray and discern” whether to rebuild there, and if so, how to go about it.
“And we’re like, ‘Hmm, how do we get a hold of Oprah?’ ” he added, speaking of another famous Montecito property owner, Oprah Winfrey, who was not there during the fire but who said on her show last week that she had made a plan to send her staff and dogs to stay at a nearby resort, and that her home was safe.
Residents of mansions and mobile home parks alike found the trappings of their communities devoured by the Tea Fire, the Sayre Fire in Orange County and the Freeway Complex Fire in Los Angeles County.
On Tuesday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued an order waiving fees for those needing to replace driver’s licenses, birth certificates and other documents destroyed in the fires.
The state has spent $75 million responding to the three fires, which burned over 40,000 acres, and destroyed 858 homes, the state Office of Emergency Services said. In Santa Barbara County, the Tea Fire was 100 percent contained, state fire officials said Tuesday.
When orange flames sprouted on a ridge below the wood and adobe buildings Thursday evening, the monks and 25 guests, leaders of local nonprofit groups, had just gathered for dinner. They continued eating for several minutes, Brother Brown said, but as wind-whipped flames grew larger, they decided to evacuate. He and the other monks rose from the table and told their guests it was time to go.
“We very calmly and quietly and efficiently and without great gravity got folks’ stuff out of their rooms,” and packed up their cars. The monks, he said, stayed a bit longer, grabbing what they could.
Brother Nicholas Radelmiller, the monastery’s prior, who has lived there for 18 years, carried a century-old painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe under his arm. Others grabbed two 600-year-old paintings, a cash box, laptops and a change of clothes.
Brother Radelmiller, 68, was the only one to get his habit, a white robe with billowing sleeves. The six-inch-long ebony cross he received at his ordination 38 years ago was tucked into the pocket.
The habit and cross, Brother Brown said, are a monk’s only personal possessions. The fire destroyed antique Spanish furniture, oil paintings, books and cherished photographs, he added, but the loss of their habits and crosses stung most. Even in that, though, he found comfort. “We are stripping away the outward symbols that eternally rest in our hearts,” Brother Brown said.
Brother Radelmiller confessed to being “still somewhat numb about the whole thing, and a little overwhelmed by all the stuff that has to be done.”
“I keep running into little things that I’d missed,” he said, “things I had not realized I’d lost.” He began to cry quietly, then took a breath, saying: “But I really do feel like the most important thing is that we’re all O.K. and together. If they’re memories, I’ll just have to remember them. The most important thing is us.”
IN RESPONSE: For those who've emailed or commented on "how can we help" here's this update from the Diocese of Los Angeles:
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.