Buckfast Abbey

Below is an article,  written in 2014,  about the rebuilding of Buckfast Abbey Church

 Ee think this is an interesting example of the Inspired Creative Process


The story of rebuilding the church 

In 1882 the monks arrived at Buckfast from France. They had been forced to leave France by the government, and they were looking for a permanent home. The monks were offered the chance of buying the site at Buckfast. They thought it was ideal. It was very quiet and sheltered, and more importantly it was the very place on which an ancient abbey had once stood. The remains of the old abbey, which had been hidden through the centuries, were discovered by a monk who was digging the soil to grow vegetables. This meant that they could build the new abbey exactly where the old one had been

 At Buckfast the monks were welcomed by the local people, and soon they had found many friends who helped raise the money needed to start building a new abbey. Work started on the monks’living quarters, and by 1886 the south wing of the abbey was completed. There was a grand opening for the new refectory (the monks’ dining hall) with many guests and a big meal. But this was not the first time that the monks had eaten in their new building. True to their principles, the monks had gathered the evening before to have a simple meal of bread and water, eaten while kneeling on the floor.

In 1902 Buckfast was officially made an abbey. This meant that it would have to have an abbot, so the monks set about choosing their “Father Abbot”. Boniface Natter, a German, was the obvious choice. He was wise and gifted, and liked by all the monks.

Abbot Natter declared that he wanted to rebuild the old monastery as it had been before. This was a great task, but all the monks supported him.

But the steady progress of the small community was shattered in 1906, when Abbot Natter was tragically killed in a ship-wreck. The Abbot was on board a steamship called “Sirio” on its way to Argentina. She hit rocks off the coast of Spain and started to sink. Abbot Natter bravely remained on board as the ship went down, blessing the passengers, some of whom were to drown. But the Abbot’s companion, Anscar Vonier, survived and returned to Buckfast with the sad news.

Anscar Vonier was chosen to be the Abbey’s second abbot.

He decided that he would rebuild the Abbey Church in memory of Abbot Natter.

The rebuilding became his life’s work. He never gave in, even when it seemed impossible. When he started work all he had was £5 (with which he bought the first load of stone), and a horse and cart which was lent him by a farmer. He was always sure that the money would come from somewhere.

The work progressed very slowly. The building work was done by the monks themselves. Brother Peter was the only monk who could work the stone, so he had to train his helpers as they went along, the work was not easy. Most of the stone blocks had to be “dressed”; this meant that they had to be squared and faced by hand using chisels and mallets. The stones were very heavy, and most weighed more than 45kg (lOOlbs). They had to be lifted by ‘block and tackle’ made from rope and wooden pulleys. Because the monks did not have cement mixers, all the mortar for the building was mixed by hand.

As the church steadily grew in size, the monks had to make their own scaffolding. For this they used thin wooden poles which were usually less than 12 metres long. These had to be strapped together to reach the highest work platforms, some of which were up to 30 metres above the ground.

The work became quite dangerous. Once, Brother Ignatius was working on the scaffolding when he slipped and fell 15 metres to the ground. Brother Peter and his other helpers looked down to the ground horrified, to their amazement they saw Ignatius get up and walk away unharmed! He had landed on a large pile of sand that had broken his fall.

 In 1932 the Church was consecrated in the presence of Cardinal Bourne, who was the Pope’s representative. It was a very grand occasion. Many bishops and some abbots from other monasteries came. It was a day of great celebration, and the villagers of Buckfast also joined in. The quiet monks were surprised by the excitement that their work had caused. There were many newspapers there, and the BBC sent out the Cardinal’s speech on the radio.

The Abbey was filled to bursting point and loudspeakers had to be set up so that the people outside could hear the ceremony.

But there was still other work to be done. The tower needed to be taller and the inside of the Church had to be decorated. In 1937 the final capping stone was lowered into place. The Church was complete. The life’s work of Abbot Vonier was also complete, and a few weeks after the final scaffolding was taken down, he died. He had lived just long enough to see his dream fulfilled.