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Abbey Opens for Fun

Cloistered 363 days a year, the monastery opens its gates this weekend for markets, food, games and lots of animals.

September 25, 1997|LAURIE K. SCHENDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VALYERMO — St. Andrew's Abbey is a world away from traffic jams and concrete jungles, a serene monastery that boasts green grass, a rustic high desert view and a natural duck pond. It's a place the Benedictine monks share with the public in near silence 363 days out of the year. But on the other two days, crowds gather for the abbey's annual fall festival, and St. Andrew's Abbey rocks.

In the weeks leading up to the 40th annual celebration, stages have been constructed and booths built to accommodate dozens of entertainers and hundreds of craftspeople who on Saturday and Sunday will turn the peaceful retreat into the hot spot of the high desert.

Volunteers have transformed about five acres of orchards and fenced-in pasture areas into makeshift marketplaces where arts, crafts, food and games are expected to draw several thousand visitors (last year, 20,000 attended) to the tiny town of Pearblossom, about 80 miles from Los Angeles near Palmdale.

To city kids, St. Andrew's Abbey is paradise. On this one fall weekend, kids are allowed to climb inside a pen with goats, sheep and pigs and hold live chickens in their arms without an adult saying, "Don't touch" or "Get away from there."

"A lot of the kids come from the city and only get to see farm animals in pictures," said Pat McCord, the Little Rock 4-H leader charged with rounding up 4-H'ers and their animals to run the festival's petting zoo and pony rides. "For them to see and touch these animals is really exciting."

It's also a kick for the high desert 4-H kids, McCord added, because they get to show off their prized animals and earn credit for community service as well.

"It's a lot of work, but it's a really great experience," said McCord, who continues to participate even though her own children have grown. "We have about 50 [4-H] kids who come here, from 5 to 18 or 19 years old, and their families. The camaraderie is really good, and it's just a lot of fun."

The 4-H'ers also earn money to help with the cost of attending the county fair. (Many of them recently entered their animals at the Antelope Valley Fair, McCord said.) The club charges $2 for pony rides and $1 for the petting zoo, which it splits with the abbey.

Festival favorites on the entertainment stages include the Nuns for Fun, a group of local women inspired by the singing nuns in the film "Sister Act," and the Dance Vespers, which typically draws the St. Andrew's monks and other onlookers who want to dance to the stage.

"Some of the monks think [Nuns for Fun] are a bit much," said Abbot Francis, head monk at St. Andrew's, "but I think it's good entertainment, and people love it. They're a lot of fun."

Food venues include the monks' dining hall, where the traditional roast beef dinner is served ($7.50); other culinary offerings include a buffet, barbecue chicken and an assortment of fast-food booths.

Another big attraction, said Abbot Francis, are the monk-made ceramics offered for sale. The abbey's Father Maur Van Doorslaer created most of the designs, which range from traditional holiday ornaments and Mother Teresa's likeness to such whimsical pieces as a snowboarding angel (a happening dude with goggles and plenty of attitude) and the motorcycle angel (not to be confused with a Hells Angel). There are also sports angels, musician angels and occupational angels. Something for everyone, to be sure.

The sale of these ceramics, formed and fired on the abbey grounds, accounts for one-third of the total money earned from the fall festival, which, as the major fund-raiser of the year, helps to keep the abbey going, according to Abbot Francis. There are 24 monks who reside at the abbey, which is quietly prayerful the rest of the year.

The event started as a combination harvest festival (the Benedictine monks harvested cherries that were already growing on the property) and a thanksgiving in celebration of the monks' delivery from China's Communist regime.

The monks were kicked out of their monastery in China in 1952. The 750-acre California monastery, a working ranch when it was bought in 1955, was meant "to keep the dispersed China monks together, with the hopes of going back," said Abbot Francis, a 30-year resident of the monastery.

Although the cherry trees no longer exist on the property, the festival has gotten bigger than ever. "You don't have to be of the Catholic faith to enjoy it," said McCord. "You just have to see it in action."

BE THERE

St. Andrew's Abbey, 31001 N. Valyermo Road, Valyermo. Saturday, Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission free, parking, $4. (805) 944-2178. From Los Angeles, take Interstate 5 north to California Highway 14 north and exit at Pearblossom Highway. Turn right; follow California 138 about nine miles to the town of Pearblossom; turn right on Longview Road; follow signs to the abbey.

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