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California forest fire spares Benedictine monastery



John Burger - published on 09/25/20

Bobcat fire goes around St. Andrew's Abbey, "like the parting of the Red Sea."

“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.”

Such are the mixed sentiments of Benedictine Fr. Damien Toilolo, abbot of St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California, which was spared from the destruction of the Bobcat fire last week.

The Bobcat fire has destroyed some 95,000 acres in the Antelope Valley northeast of Los Angeles since it was started under dry conditions and high winds. As it spread, Fr. Damien and his 20 fellow Benedictines were getting ready to evacuate their 2,000-acre property.

“We left the abbey thinking it would burn down,” Fr. Damien told Our Sunday Visitor. “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?’”

But for some reason, the fire went around the abbey, sparing its main buildings. 

“I thought to myself, ‘It’s like the parting of the Red Sea.’ The fire just went around,” the abbot exclaimed.

Though it’s too early for the monks to return — electricity has to be restored, and the local fire department has to give the all-clear — Fr. Damien is reflecting on the ordeal as a “life-teaching moment where we get another perspective on the most important things in life.”

Most of the monks are staying temporarily at an old convent in Manhattan Beach, about 115 miles away. Five of the monks are staying in nearby private homes as the convent isn’t large enough for the whole community.

2020 has been an unprecedented forest fire season on the west coast. Over the past month, the fires in California alone have killed 26 people and destroyed more than 6,100 structures.

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