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L.A. Scene / The City Then and Now

June 21, 1993|CECILIA RASMUSSEN

In the foothills of Sierra Madre is an 80-acre retreat with verdant gardens and a burbling fountain. It is a place where, for decades, Roman Catholic monks have sought tranquillity--and where Rose Bowl-bound football teams have sought a good night's sleep away from the temptations of the city.

The Mater Dolorosa Retreat Center has provided an environment of peace for monks as well as Methodists, Presbyterians and even movie crews.

In 1923, a small group of Italian priests of the Passionist order moved from Northern California to the City of Angels, and a year later bought R. J. Wilson's ranch for about $35,000. Dotted with olive trees, the area was known as Mt. Oliva. Before the monks bought it, the ranch house had been a tuberculosis sanitarium called El Reposo.

In 1926, the center held its first retreat under the large tree the monks have always called the Rubber Tree. Twenty-five men sat around the tree, listening to a monk talk about the simple, homely virtues of clean living. It was the beginning of the Roman Catholic retreat movement in Southern California.

The ranch house was transformed into a chapel and residence for the monks.

During the Depression, it was torn down and the Mater Dolorosa Monastery was built by contractor William Schiltz, later the mayor of Sierra Madre. The three-story building had 20-inch-thick walls, 45 rooms and a bell tower.

The serenity of the place was shattered by World War II, when the Army moved onto the site. Soldiers dug trenches and held weapons practice day and night. Sick and wounded soldiers were quartered in the monastery.

For nearly a year, the soldiers' activities supplanted the monastery's peacefulness. After the soldiers left, the order was forced to sue the Army for damages to the monastery and grounds. Retreats resumed in 1945.

By 1949, the Passionists and their weekend programs, called "50 Golden Hours," had outgrown the monastery, and a 75-room retreat center was built.

The center has traditionally been a place for wrestling with the devil. Just before the Rose Bowl game in 1958, Ohio State Coach Woody Hayes began looking for a place to sequester his team from the wicked distractions of Los Angeles. The monastery offered secluded serenity, along with a small band of black-robed friars to make sure the boys didn't get into trouble. The Buckeyes won the game.

When Minnesota and Michigan had their turn at the Rose Bowl, they also put up their players in the quiet of the monastery. Bobby Bell, a Minnesota linebacker, recalled the team bus pulling into the monastery late at night, with only the headlights and police escort lights shining against religious statues. He said to his coach: "You don't have to worry about bed-check tonight."

But it wasn't all peace and quiet. Other players can recall sleepless nights caused by coyotes howling in the woods and by the beds, too short for anyone over six feet tall.

In the 1970s, the monastery endured cinematic adventures. During the filming of the movie "Lipstick," the monks were shocked to wander upon the filming of a brutal scene under their 100-year-old tree. In the television film "The Priest Killer," starring Raymond Burr and George Kennedy, a bad guy was shot at the fourth Station of the Cross and a man fell to his movie death from the bell tower.

The picturesque monastery, with a whitewashed bell tower visible for miles, was severely damaged in the Sierra Madre earthquake in June, 1991. After a passionate battle between monks and preservationists, the Spanish-style monastery was demolished last April.

But the retreat center still serves church groups during the week and members of the Mater Dolorosa Retreat League on weekends. But the order is dwindling, leaving fewer monks to greet the participants.

The quiet is interrupted only on one weekend each June, when a fiesta of arts and crafts, entertainment, food and children's activities draws an average of 20,000 people..

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