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A French architect designed an abbey in California … and the reason will move your heart

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Photo By Fr. Joseph Horn via Norbertines of St. Michael's Abbey facebook page

Cécile Séveirac - published on 12/26/22

The architect brilliantly incorporated into the building spiritual symbols used by the architects of the Middle Ages.

Jean-Louis Pagès is almost 90 years old, yet his eyes are still youthful. He’s a builder of Romanesque abbeys, but also an architect of luxury hotels and seaside villas. This hard worker with the temperament of a wanderer seems to love contrasts. 

Born in 1933 in Rabat, Morocco, Jean-Louis Pagès discovered his vocation as an architect very early on. As a young boy, barely 4 years old, he was already taking drawing classes. At the age of 12, architecture became an obvious choice.

“I had found a roll of tracing paper on top of a cupboard on which were drawn the floor plans and cross-sections of my house. That was a revelation,” he tells Aleteia. “I immediately decided that I would be an architect, and that firmness of decision has never left me.”

Jean-Louis Pagès

A profession that owes nothing to chance and everything to Providence 

Jean-Louis Pagès seems to have inherited this taste for drawing and proportions. “We’d already had three or four architects in the family over the centuries,” he says with a smile. And one of them is none other than Hippolyte Pagès, a close friend of the saintly Curé d’Ars and the main witness at the latter’s beatification.

The Pagès family maintained such a close relationship with this saint that some of his authenticated relics remained within the family from 1863 until they were entrusted to the abbey of Sainte Madeleine du Barroux at Jean-Louis’ request. They played an important role in his family’s life; he tells Aleteia about one particular incident that especially impacted him.

“My little sister, who was two years old at the time, had typhoid fever, so bad that she was dying. She wasn’t expected to survive the night. My grandfather went to get the big box in which the relics of the Curé d’Ars were kept and put it against the cradle. The next day, the fever went away,” Jean-Louis tells us. 

His encounter with monasteries was no accident. Having an uncle who was a monk at Hautecombe Abbey, and having made repeated excursions to these special places of prayer and silence, Jean-Louis seemed almost destined to participate one day in bringing new abbeys to life. “As a student, I went to survey Gellone Abbey, and I was fascinated. Then I discovered Greece, and visited Mount Athos three times, seeing 18 out of the 20 monasteries.”

Tradition and modernity at the service of the sacred

It was precisely the architecture of Gellone Abbey (in Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, Hérault), and that of Sénanque Abbey (in Provence) that inspired him when he was called upon in 1983 to work on the construction of the abbeys of Barroux, choosing with the Benedictine monks and nuns a Romanesque style, “very simple and very refined.”

As a bonus, there was a requirement to work “as in the Middle Ages,” with techniques specific to that period, particularly for determining proportions, while imposing certain limits related to safety concerns for the construction of the vaults. Tradition and progress went hand in hand for 25 years, during which time Jean-Louis Pagès worked among the monks and nuns of Le Barroux (building the abbeys of Le Madeleine for the monks and Our Lady of the Annunciation for the nuns). 


St. Michael’s Abbey in Orange County, California, the peak of his career

Two monasteries is already quite an adventure, but this was obviously not enough for Jean-Louis, then 72 years old.

In 2006, he received a phone call from far away. A voice on the other end of the line, that of Brother Jérôme, speaking with an American accent but perfect French, asked Jean-Louis if he would accompany him “on a great adventure.”

“Obviously, I said yes!” Jean-Louis recounts.

It would play out more than 6,000 miles from France, in California, and would involve building the largest Catholic abbey in the United States for the Norbertine community in Orange County, California.

The interior of the church of St. Michael in Orange County, California, lit up on St. Michael’s Day

“And what shall this abbey be called, brother?” Jean-Louis asked. “St. Michael,” came the reply, met with silence on the other end of the line.

“I was silent for so long that Brother Jerome thought the call had ended,” he says. “Michael” was the first name of Jean-Louis’ and his wife Françoise’s son, who died very young and brutally in 1991. The couple’s grief had been extremely hard to overcome, and was still an open wound. “For me, it was as clear as day,” Jean-Louis says with emotion. “It was a gift from heaven, a wink from my son.”

The construction lasted 11 years. Jean-Louis also incorporated symbols used by the architects of the Middle Ages into the building, in particular those of the time of St. Bernard, who placed in each part of the construction a spiritual symbol aiming at attracting man to God.

Among other things, the church of the Abbey of St. Michael is oriented towards the west so that the rising sun illuminates the choir on the feast day of the saint who gave his name to the abbey, thanks to clever calculations. 

Jean-Louis is still living a rich life, carrying out work the connects heaven to earth.

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