A firefighter told Father Damien to expect the worst.
“There was sadness. There were tears. We thought, ‘This is the end,'” said Father Damien Toilolo, the abbot of St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.
Father Damien and the other Benedictine monks evacuated their monastery last Thursday as a raging wildfire closed in on the 2,000-acre property, about a 90-minute drive northeast of Los Angeles.
A firefighter friend had given Father Damien a heads-up that an official evacuation order would be forthcoming. The monks packed their bags, celebrated noon Mass and had lunch before leaving the monastery. They said what they thought would be their final goodbyes.
“We left the abbey thinking it would burn down,” said Father Damien, who told Our Sunday Visitor that the abbey’s maintenance man, who had stayed behind for last-minute preparations, called him Friday afternoon and told him, “Father, the fire is here.”
Said Father Damien: “I was resolved when I went to bed Friday night and said, ‘Dear Lord, tomorrow we start planning. What is the new direction you want us to go? Where do you want us to go?'”
As the Benedictine community learned that next morning, it appears the Lord had other plans. Father Damien began receiving messages, and word quickly spread on social media: St. Andrew’s Abbey escaped the fire unscathed.
“The fire literally went around (the monastery),” Father Damien said. “The abbey proper, the main buildings are still intact, according to the pictures I’ve seen. I thought to myself, ‘It’s like the parting of the Red Sea.’ The fire just went around.”
The abbey was spared, but it remains off-limits to the community of 20 Benedictine monks who call the monastery home. The fire destroyed the area’s electrical infrastructure, and it will take at least two weeks to restore power.
“Of course, we’re all anxious to go back,” Father Damien said.
Until the local fire department gives them the OK to return, Father Damien and most of the monks will be staying and praying in community at an old convent about 115 miles away in Manhattan Beach, California.
“It’s nice to have an ocean breeze here,” said Father Damien, who added that five of the monks are staying in nearby private homes as the convent didn’t have enough space for the entire community.
“There is a deeper gratitude and appreciation for the beautiful piece of property we have and for the kindness of the friends of the abbey, who came out to Manhattan Beach to see us, who said, ‘Call me, we have a room in our home if you need it,'” said Father Damien, who added, “the outpouring of generosity was just extraordinary.”
The Los Angeles Times reported that the wildfire — known as the Bobcat fire — exploded last Friday amid dry conditions and intense winds. The fire burned more than 95,000 acres and several homes in California’s Antelope Valley.
The Bobcat fire broke out in the midst of a historically unprecedented fire season in California, where more than 7,900 wildfires have burned over 3.5 million acres in the Golden State since the start of the year, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
In mid-August, dry lightning strikes sparked hundreds of blazes that quickly spread through vegetation that had been dried out by a record-setting wave. In a little more than a month, the fires in California alone have killed 26 people and destroyed more than 6,100 structures.
The Bobcat fire has burned and is still threatening to destroy homes and other structures in Valyermo. For now, at least, the fire is no longer threatening the Benedictine monastery that for decades has been a spiritual refuge for people in Southern California to get away from hectic city life.
“God in his mercy saved the abbey for whatever reason. But I can’t answer why other people’s homes have burned to the ground,” said Father Damien, who described the events of recent days as a “life-teaching moment where we get another perspective on the most important things in life.”
Said Father Damien: “The whole time we were praying and other people were praying for a miracle. My prayer was to accept God’s will, and yet I was having a hard time accepting it (if the abbey were to burn down). There has been a personal spiritual journey of sorts for me here to process.”
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.