100 years serving people
By CAROL MATROO Sunday, September 23 2012
The first monastery in Trinidad and Tobago, Mount St Benedict, or the Abbey of Our Lady of Exile, easily catches the eye of persons travelling on the ground below, as it sits like a towering giant amid the lush, verdant Northern Range, 600 feet above sea level.
Its sleek architecture, trademark tower and red roofs stand tall and proud on the hills. But it is the bird’s eye view one gets when looking out from the top of the Mount, as it is fondly referred to, that enthralls both the mind and the spirit. The vista is breathtaking, as it encompasses from Port- of-Spain to the Caroni Plains to Central Trinidad. This year, the Mount will be celebrating its 100th anniversary, in recognition of the period when the Benedictine brothers of Brazil first established what was then a Priory. To celebrate this landmark, a mass will be held at the Abbey church on October 6 at 10 am, where the book, Longing to Belong, the life story of Dom Mayeul De Caigny, the founding father of the monastery, will be launched. The Abbey, named after the original founder of Benedictine Order, Benedict de Norcia, born in Italy in 480, was founded in October 1912 by an order of Benedictine monks from Bahia, Brazil. This was largely due to the efforts of Dom Mayeul de Caigny, Abbot of San Sebastian in Bahia and first Conventional Prior of Mount St. Benedict. PAX, Latin for peace, is emblazoned at the front of the Abbey, a symbol of what the monks believed in and the motto of Benedictine monks throughout the ages. It was what St Benedict sought when he looked for solitude. Within the Abbey Church, there is a welcoming statute of St Benedict welcoming worshipers. St Benedict was the father of the Benedictine way of life. The statue was brought here in 1914 from Germany. According to the history books, Benedict was sent by his parents to Rome to study law when he was just 16, but the atmosphere of the great city shocked and depressed him. He thus decided to leave and joined up with some young men who called themselves monks. However, they followed no fixed rules. And while still under 20 years old, Benedict decided to live his life as a hermit. He found a narrow cave in a place called Subiaco, and lived there three years in solitude and prayer.
While trying to introduce regular observance and a stable form of community life, Benedict was reportedly met with so much opposition by some of the monks in the community that they tried to poison him. He therefore returned to his cave and eventually succeeded in gathering a number of men from the village who were prepared to follow his lead. Again trouble followed the monk and he and his followers were forced to move — this time to plains of Campagna to a place called Monte Cassino. It was here that he wrote his famous Rule for monks. It was the Rule of St Benedict, which has 73 chapters, and has never been changed through the years.
According to Abbot John Pereira, who is serving a second term as head of Mount St Benedict and has been a monk there for the past 27 years, the Mount is a place where people go for peace, solace and counselling.
“While it has been adapted to different areas and countries, the same rules applied.. The Benedictine Order is the oldest order in the Catholic Church that has survived. There were others that died a natural death, but the Benedictine have withstood the test of time, including the Rule of St Benedict,” Abbot Perreira told Sunday Newsday during an interview at the Mount.
“There have been many rules in the Catholic Church. Some of them have just withered away, but the Rule of St Benedict is known for its wisdom, its flexibility, its brevity and there is a certain wisdom that has sustained the way of life for over 1,500 hundred years.”
Pereira, who noted he himself had felt a calling to the life of a monk for many years, said he finally did so at the age of 30 and admittedly with some trepidation. He said he spent most of his young life as an altar server at the Rosary Monastery in St Ann’s, the only female monastery in TT at the time. They followed the Order of St Dominic. It was while serving in the church that Pereira said he felt an unconscious seed was planted in his mind about serving God after seeing how happy the nuns were.
“Coming to the end of my time for leaving school, I started to read books about monastic life, particularly one written by Thomas Merton. The way how he wrote about monastic life, it was a certain attraction to me, so that helped to water the seed that had been planted,” he said.
In 1985, at age 30, Pereira resigned his job as an accountant at Carib Brewery Ltd, and took the trek up to the Mount, which can be accessed via St John’s Road, Tunapuna, where taxis and a shuttle bus are readily available to members of the public.
“I wasn’t sure this was the way I wanted to live for the rest of my life knowing all the other attractions out there. But little by little the life grew on me, so it wasn’t life at first sight.
I was advised to try it because even though you join the monastery there is no final commitment until several years after you make your final vows,” he said. In 2003, Pereira was elected as the fifth abbot of Mount St Benedict.
“It was only in 1947 that we became an Abbey, which is a monastery that has an Abbot. Before it was a Priory. An Abbey is made so partly because of the number of monks it may have or partly because of its importance to the culture of the place,” he explained.
Looking at the history of the Mount, Perreira said it is in existence today because of the efforts of Dom Mayeul de Caigny. After being put in charge of the oldest and most prestigious Benedictine Abbey in Brazil in 1907, Mayeul’s years of running the monastery were peaceful ones, until the period 1911-1912, when clericalism spread from France into Portugal and finally into Latin America.
By the end of the 19th century, the Benedictine monasteries in Brazil had begun to fizzle and de Caigny was advised to make immediate arrangements to find refuge for his monks. He took the advice and wrote to the Archbishop of Port-of-Spain, Most Rev John Pius Dowling, OP, the following letter:
“October 16, 1911
My Lord Archbishop,
As a religious persecution seems daily more imminent in Brazil, we are now looking for a place of refuge. To this end, Trinidad seems to us most suitable: first, because it is not too far distant, and within easy reach, even by direct line of steamers; the climate is similar, and so is the language. Secondly, the ecclesiastical administrations are entrusted to the Dominican Fathers, and the island is under benevolent British rule.
I wish, therefore, to place my plans as soon as possible before you. My intention is to buy a house in a healthy locality, somewhere in the mountains, that would serve as a refuge for my monks in case of expulsion from Brazil. In the meantime, the house could be rented out, and part of the revenue I offer to your Church, unless, perhaps, one of my monks should come to reside there and dedicate himself to apostolic labours under your jurisdiction.
I am equally prepared to accept a mission station in the mountains. If your Grace refuses not my humble petition, and if my proposals are acceptable to you, I shall come to Trinidad to discuss matters with you in person. I beg for an early reply.
I am the Abbot of the Benedictine Monastery of San Sebastien at Bahia, of Belgian nationality, and though I would not venture to write in English, the language is not altogether unknown to me, and I can easily read it.
My address is herewith enclosed.
Recommending myself to your fervent prayers,
I remain, my Lord Archbishop,
Your humble servant in Christ,”
The response was:
“Right Reverend Father Abbot,
Your esteemed letter of 16 October reached me only this morning, for it came I know not why via New York.
I thank you for the letter and wish to express my sorrow for the sad news of the threatening persecution. I was convinced that things went pretty well over there, and that the civil authorities were co-operating with His Holiness and the Clergy for the prosperity of the people.
With regards to the Archdiocese of Port-of-Spain, I can assure you that I shall be only too glad to have you in the Archdiocese, or in Trinidad. Come then, and you can judge for yourself what locality is best suited.
Right Reverend Father Abbot,
Yours truly in Christ
Dom Mayeul arrived in Trinidad on December 27, 1911, searching for a place that could be a refuge for his monks, but the asking price was initially too steep. Owners thought he, as an abbot, had endless coffers and so gave lofty prices.
Then it all took a turn for the better. Mayeul was introduced to Andrew Victoriano Gomez, the proprietor of a small estate in the hills above St Joseph.
“When Fr Mayeul and Gomez started off, it was in a donkey-cart, but when they reached the foot of the hills, they had to start climbing,” Fr Pereira said. The road came to a dead end, so the rest of the trek, a steep one, had to be made on foot.
After the rigorous climb, Mayeul found a small hut, an ajoupa, what was then known as a tapia house, built with mud and palm leaves. It was occupied by an East Indian named Kisto Barcea, the manager of the estate. Mayeul was most impressed with the site, the solitude and the view. He purchased the 60-acre estate for 4,000 pounds. There were, however, some problems to overcome – the provision of a fresh water supply, and the construction of an access road to the monastery site. This did not daunt the monks, however. They did most of the work digging into the hills themselves, paving the way for worshipers to travel along St John’s Road, the archway to the Mount.
Fr Perreira said despite its humble beginnings, the Mount is now a majestic place of worship not just for Catholics and Christians, but people of other faiths.
“Thousands of people visit the monastery and actually pay homage to the statue of St Benedict, some have even claimed to have had miracles. He (St Benedict) is the man who we are indebted to,” Fr Pereira said, adding that the Mount was thus important to many people.
“This monastery has been open from day one for people of all faiths. On any day you will see Hindus, Muslims, Baptists, Pentecostal, Seventh Day Adventists, Catholics and people of no faith who come here seeking a sense of solace ... peace, just like a monk would do his entire life, which is a search for God, peace, fulfillment ... people do that every day. People come seeking God and meaning, some sense of purpose,” Fr Pereira said.
The Abbey complex now consists of several buildings, among them a church, a monastery, a seminary, a yoghurt factory, drug rehab centre and Pax Guest House. Fr Pereira said from the very beginning, there was also a certain attractiveness to the Mount for Hindus who frequented the monastery.
“This has been sacred ground, so many people do not see this place as a Catholic Church like the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception. They see it as a holy place, so you may find a Hindu coming and taking off her shoes and going to pray. Mount St Benedict, in a sense, is bigger than just a Catholic place, it appeals to people of all races, cultures, religions,” Fr Perreira said.
“The monastery has become part of the spiritual landscape of the Caribbean. It is the centre of spirituality and peace for peoples of all faiths and for those who profess no faith at all. It is recognised as a sacred place on many counts. It has an inherent sacrality based on the natural beauty of its geography.
“It has become sacred on account of the experiences of healing and wholeness that many people have encountered here. The continual round of prayers the monks make to pray every day and worship which takes place on the Mount renders it a sacred place.”
The monks also assist the needy who may come to the monastery with dry goods and maybe some money. Apart from this, the monastery produces its trademark Pax yoghurt, and has its own wood-working area, where they make crucifixes for worshipers.
The monks, Fr Perreira said, have made it their duty to become self-dependent.
“One of the mottos of the Benedictine monk is ‘Ora et Labora (pray and work) –‘our prayer becomes our work, our work becomes our prayer,’” Fr Perreira explained.