Gems of O.C. canyon country, including a monastery, wildlife center, to shine during free tour

St. Michael's Abbey on Silverado Canyon Road.
St. Michael’s Abbey on Silverado Canyon Road is one of the six stops on the Amazing Places of the Canyons Tour on April 1.
(Courtesy of St. Michael’s Abbey)

What do a Romanesque abbey, a rescued girls’ sanctuary and a famous Shakespearean actress’ Victorian homestead have in common?

They all call Orange County’s canyon country their home. And on April 1 the public is invited to visit any, or all, of them on the Amazing Places of the Canyons Tour. The free self-guided tour invites you to take a peek inside six canyon gems.

One of those gems is a fairly new addition. St. Michael’s Abbey, perched atop a hill just after you tuck into Silverado Canyon, was dedicated in May 2021.

Famed French architect Jean-Louis Pages designed the abbey in the Romanesque style, heavy on the arches. Highlights include a $2-million special collections library, a glittering Virgin Mary assumption mosaic (by Italian artists) behind the high altar, a rose stained-glass window like the ones decorating Notre Dame and limestone floors imprinted with the occasional sea shell fossil. Price tag for the entire project: $160 million.

“It really is a minor miracle,” says Father Edmund Page. “Everything here is built on the generosity of our benefactors. We pray for them every day.”

St. Michael's Abbey on Silverado Canyon Road.
Light shines on a crucifix inside St. Michael’s Abbey on Silverado Canyon Road, one of six stops on the self-guided Amazing Places of the Canyons Tour on April 1.
(Courtesy of St. Michael’s Abbey)

The abbey sits on 327 acres along with a conference center for retreats and a monastery where currently 70 men, 43 of them seminarians studying to be priests, live.

“We have so many men interested in joining our way of life,” says Page. “Our kind of life is in between ministry out in the world and this monastic life. The divine liturgy, the praise of God.”

The men in the order sing Gregorian chants seven times a day (the St. Michael’s choir once chanted at Segerstrom Hall for Maestro Carl St. Clair’s conception of Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony) and visitors are welcome to attend.

“The acoustics here are amazing,” says Page. “There is a several second delay, perfect for Gregorian chants.”

A little backstory on St. Michael’s. The monastery was originally founded near Cooks Corner off El Toro Road in 1960 by seven priests who escaped Hungary after the communists shut down their monastery. There the order remained until 2016 when the Silverado property came up for sale.

Just a few miles down the road from the abbey, in Trabuco Canyon, you can visit Vera’s Sanctuary for trafficked teens. Here, on the former Boys Town property, is a place for rescued girls to heal. The donor-funded property is perched on a hill with sweeping canyon views that on a clear day stretch to the ocean. A small tree-lined street and five houses with tidy front porches make it look like a movie set of a cozy little Anytown, U.S.A.

In Modjeska Canyon you can step back in time at Madame Helena Modjeska’s historic home. A famous Shakespearean actress, Modjeska came to California from Poland with her husband, Count Karol Bozenta Chlapowsk. The couple hired acclaimed American architect Stanford White to design a large Victorian country house in a live oak grove on the banks of Santiago Creek, where they lived from 1888 to 1906, entertaining Hollywood friends.

Just above the Modjeska home is “Islandia.” Rumored to be one of Madam Modjeska’s guest cabins, it has been given a tropical makeover by owners Nor and Greg Killingsworth. The couple built a tree house and brought in some giant metal dinosaur sculptures to roam the terraced property, which is guarded by ancient wooden gates from a temple in India.

Further down the road is the Tucker Wildlife Center. The 12-acre sanctuary includes a natural history museum, trails and a bird observation deck.

If architecture is more up your alley, don’t skip the concrete Dome Home, an engineering marvel. Set in the canyon brush, it looks futuristic, like something out of a “Star Trek” episode. But inside it’s bright and warm — temperatures naturally hover around 70 — with teak floors and cathedral windows. A graceful standalone spiral wooden staircase takes guests up to an outdoor deck.

Maps will be available April 1 starting at 10 a.m. at the Modjeska Home, 29042 Modjeska Canyon Road in Silverado, or call (310) 995-0976. The tour ends at 3 p.m., and no tickets are needed.

Lori Basheda is a contributor to TimesOC.

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