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The Abbey, Mount Saint Benedict. Trinidad & Tobago

History Of The Mount
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This brief history of The Abbey Of Our Lady Of Exile at Mount Saint Benedict in Trinidad and Tonago, covers the period from conception and inception. It is extracted from the diamond jubilee souvenir magazine printed in 1972.

 

That the Benedictines came to Trinidad is largely due to the missionary zeal of Dom Mayeul de Caigny, Abbot of San Sebastian in Bahia and first Conventional Prior of Mount St. Benedict. His first visit to Trinidad began on 27th December 1911 and he spent two months here discussing plans for the new foundation with the late Archbishop John Pius Dowling. After much searching in the districts around Sangre Grande and Arima, a site was finally chosen on the 17th January, 1912 on the estate of Mr. Andrew Victorino Gomez in the hills above St. Joseph, which commanded a breath­taking view of the island. The first monks arrived on the sixth of October of the same year, and by 1917 the monastery of Mount St. Benedict was complete according to the plans of the Abbot.

 

Dom Mayeul will be remembered as a brilliant student, an accomplished preacher and an able conversationalist. These qualities of his made him popular in all classes of society from the Governor himself down to the poor pilgrims who frequented his parlour daily.

 

In 1923, ten years after his arrival in Trinidad, he resigned his office of Conventual Prior and retired to the Abbey of St. Leo in Florida, U.S.A., where he died in 1939.

 

 

 

Benedictines, the world over, have always chosen sites rich in natural beauty for erecting their monasteries.

 

Trinidad, situated as it is, in the emerald waters of the Caribbean, presented the monks with an admir­able setting for their foundation.

Civil unrest in Brazil during 1911 compelled the monks to seek refuge in other lands.

 

The following is a letter from Dom Mayeul of Bahia, Brazil, to Archbishop Dowling, OP. of Port-of-Spain, Trinidad:-

 

                                                ­October 16th. 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,

Mayuel, O.S.B.

Abbot.

 

To which his Grace replied:                                                                                                                          Archbishops House,

                                                                                      Port-of-Spain,

                                                                                 15 November 1911.

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.

                                                                        I am,

                                                            Right Reverend Father Abbot,

                                                                        Yours truly in Christ

                                                                        John Pius

                                                            Archbishop of Port-of Spain.

 

 

Dom Mayuel, receiving that letter, lost no time. He arrived in Trinidad on December 22 1911, and proceeded at once to Archbishops House, where he had a long interview with his Grace.

 

A suitable place was needed for the venture, not too distant from town or village, yet sufficiently secluded so as to ensure to the monks the fullest possible freedom for the observance of their rule.

 

On the morning of January 17, 1912, Feast of St. Anthony the Hermit, the Abbot had said Holy Mass in the Parish Church of St. Joseph, the ancient Capital.

Returning to the Sacristy, an elderly gentleman of Spanish descent was introduced to him as Mr. Andrew Con­rad Gomez. He was the proprietor of a small estate in the hills above St. Joseph, and insisted

 

very much that the Abbot should come and visit his place. Not to disappoint the poor old man, Dom Mayuel accepted the

invitation.

Traffic was not heavy on the East­ern Main Road, in 1912, and half an hours pleasant drive brought our visit­ors to the village of St. John. There the road came to an end and the buggy was left. The ascent had to he made on foot.

After a stiff climb, a small hut was reached, occupied by an East Indian. named Kisto Barcoa, the factotum of the estate. The hut measured some fifteen feet by nine feet and was built of mud. It had a thatched roof and the interior was divided into two small compartments. Beneath the floor there were cocoa drying trays. The view took the Abbot by storm and conquered him. Dom Mayuel was impressed by the solitude and solemn stillness of the place. He was en­chanted by its natural beauty, and refreshed by the coolness of the water.

The Abbot had found HIS SITE. By June 28th 1912 transactions

were completed and the property of Mr. Andrew Voctoriano Conrad

Gomez passed over to the BENEDICTINES.

On September 27. 1912, the first monks departed from Bahia for Trinidad. They were: Reverend Dom Ambrose Vinckier, Reverend Dom Paul Dobart, and Brother Anthony Feldner. the founders of the first Benedictine Monastery in the West Indies and Central America. They arrived in Trinidad on the morning of October 6th 1912 on the Vauban.

It was Rosary Sunday and the three Benedictines received a truly Bene­dictine hospitality from their Dom­inican hosts.

In a letter of introduction pres­ented to Archbishop Dowling by Dom Ambrose, the mission was called Our Blessed Lady of Exile, situated on Saint Benedicts Hill. These titles were officially bestowed upon the new foundation by the Abbot founder.

Short1y afterwards, however, the name Mount St. Benedict was adopted by the monks on the suggest­ion of Archbishop Dowling. Ever since the nineteenth of October 1912, the Benedictine property in the hills above St. Joseph has been known as:

Mount St.Benedict or simply the Mount.

 

Two more monks were to arrive by the end of November and Brother Anthony set out to prepare a little ajoupa for them. No definitive work was undertaken before the arriv­al of Brother Joseph Kleinmann and his companion Brother Donatian Mar­cus, on November 27, 1912.

One room of the ajoupa was arranged as an Oratory and contained a most primitive alter, two carriage lanterns serving as candlesticks. The other room was the Communitys dormitory. A large mango tree nearby, served as reception room, kitchen and refectory. All furniture was of the most primitive kind imagin­able: empty packing cases serving as table, chair, bed and cupboard.

Visitors were not wanting; nor were they in anyway deterred by the inaccessibility of the place. They found their way all right, for at first curiosity brought them there.

Everyone wanted to see what monks were like, how they could sub­sist in such miserable surroundings and yet be happy and receive every­one with a smile and a kind word.

The language was still unfamiliar to the missionaries, but a strong mix­ture of French, Portuguese and German, together with a smattering of English satisfied all and sundry. All visitors went away greatly impressed and edified, firm in their resolve to return as soon and as often as possible.

In their kindheartedness, they brought fowls, eggs, rice, coffee, and even pieces of furniture and kitchen utensils.

The clergy too showed their in­terest in the new venture. His Grace had already visited the property prev­ious to the arrival of the monks.

The Very Reverend Father Hen­ry Vincent Casey, Vicar Provincial of the Dominicans and Editor of the Catholic News kept his readers well informed of all the movements of the monks.

The Holy Ghost Fathers visited the place with the Parish Priest of St. Joseph, Reverend Father James Mc Donnel, C.S.Sp. and Reverend Father Leimann, C.S.Sp. took a photograph of the ajoupa which was afterwards printed on postcards under the caption: Benedictine Beginnings.

February 11th 1913 brought rein­forcements in the persons of two sol­emn professed clerics: the brothers U!rich and Fridoline Fromhertz, and Mr. Gustav Frommhertz, an oblate brother postulant. A third solemn professed cleric, Dom Maurus Varr­iera de Alancar, a Brazilian, arrived on February 23rd and was accompanied by two postulant lay-brothers:

Messers. Adrian van Tongeren and Everard Mokveld (the present Brother Gabriel). The little community numbered now eleven members and it was time to look for some more accommodation. A fairly large work­shop was built of round wood and galvanized sheets; this was to house the machinery. An annex was made to serve as an oratory. This last structure was of the simplest kind.

The ajoupa, which had rendered such good services, was now promoted to library and classroom for phil­osophy. The reporter of Port of Spain Gazette of May 25th 1913 writes:

We were taken to the library, a thatched roof ajoupa, where already there is quite a valuable selection of books including St. Thomas Aquinas incomparable works, Janssens works, the Catholic Encyclopedia and some other leading works of theology and philosophy. Here, we were formally introduced to three students of the priesthood, who are pursuing their course of studies at the monastery.

Together with the last arrivals came also Dom Mayeul on his second visit to Trinidad, which was to last one month. He returned once more in November 1913. He indicated the spot where the temporary chapel should be erected, and studied the plans for a better road - a carriage-driven road this time - so as to get easier access to the monastery.

The temporary chapel was com­pleted early in August 1913. The first mass was said therein on August 10th and on that same day a postul­ant lay-brother was received into the canonical novitiate under the name of Brother Gabriel.

November 1st Dom Sebastian Weber and Dom Bertin Behaese join­ed the little band of workers in Trin­idad. Dom Sebastian had been proposed as assistant to the Parish Priest of Arouca until the latters departure for Europe, which was fixed for January 1914, when Dom Sebastian would act in his place. He took up residence in Arouca and did active parish work for some time, devoting his spare moments to

the study of English and Hindustani. Dom Bertin, an ardent preacher, speaking French and Portuguese fluently, was stationed at the monastery, but his name appe­ared frequently as the preacher of great sermons in the Rosary Church, where French sermons were then in vogue.

The only arrival during the foll­owing year was Brother Raphael Goe­mare, on the Feast of St. Benedict, March 21st 1914. The Stations of the Cross were canonically erected by Dom Mayeul on January 18th 1914.

At the same time, there took place also the solemn enthronement of the life-size statue of Our Holy Father St. Benedict, which is still in our Abbey Church. It arrived on January 7th by the S.S. Venetia from Ham­burg.

In May 1914,  the Apostolic Del­egate of  the Brazilian Congregation the Right Reverend Laurence Zeller, vis­ited the Monastery and suggested the erection of a guest house for pilgrims, who were coming daily to the Mount in greater numbers. While the con­tractors were busy building the Guest and Rest Houses, the Brothers were constructing a large refectory and chapter hall running parallel to the Church.

The year 1915 began with the arrival of two simple-professed clerics: Brothers Willibrord Luiten and Odo van der Heydt. (January 1st.). Later that same year seven more members came to Trinidad from Bahia. They were Brother Odilo van Togeren, sim­ple professed and Mr. Robert Boxruth, choir postulant (May 30th); August 10th - Dom Charles Verbeke, Brother Hugh van der Sanden, simple professed, and Mr. Anthony Callaghan, choir postulant. The last contingent arrived on September 10th bringing Dom Anselm Romano and Brother Wilfred Broens, a simple professed.

The first house with any pretense of durability was constructed in 1916 and partially finished in 1917. Upstairs there were thirteen rooms intended for the Brothers. Down­stairs accommodation was provided for workshops such as: a tailoring depart­ment, painting shop, bakery and printery. IN CONSEQUENCE OF A CANONICAL VISIT, THE NEW

FOUNDATION WAS GRANTED THE STATUS OF A CONVENT­UAL PRIORY BY A RECEIPT OF THE HOLY SEE, MARCH 6TH 1915. IT WAS DEDICATED TO OUR LADY OF EXILE.

 

 

 

The Right Reverend Mayeul de Caigny, having asked to retire in 1923, the Holy See sent a Visitor Extra­ordinary in the person of the Right Reverend Dom Maurus Etcheverry, O.S.B. On invitation of the Lord Abbot Primate, the newly appointed Prior, Very Reverend Dom, Hugb van der Sanden went to Rome and during his sojourn in Rome, sought affil­iation of his monastery to another Congregation, as communication with Brazil was becoming increasingly difficult. The Trinidad Community accepted Provisional Affiliation granted them by the Belgian Cong­regation in May 1925. Following upon a favourable report of a Canon­ical Visitor, the Right Reverend Dom Chrysostom de Saegher, who came to Trinidad in 1927, the General Chapter (upon the definitive incorporation of) in December of that year, decided upon the definitive incorporation of the Priory of Mount St. Benedict with the Belgian Congregation. This decision was fully approved by the Holy See, in December 1928. At the same time the Trinidad Government granted the community the right of corporation with perpetual succession

In 1947, the Monastery, having made wonderful strides was raised to the dignity of an Abbey. The monks in conclave, under the presidency of the Right Reverend Lord Abbot The­odore Neve, O.S.B.;D.D.., Head of the Congregation, elected the then Dom Adelbert van Duin, O.S.B.;Ph.D; I.C.D., as first Abbot; he received the abbatial blessing on 16th June 1947 from His Grace the most Rev­erend Dr. Fanbar Ryan, O.P.;D.D.:M.A.;L.L.D. Archbishop of Port of Spain. This was a memorable day in the history of Mount St. Benedict: that the people of the Island were pleased at this event, was clearly dem­onstrated by the crowds that arrived to witness the great function and filled the small church to overflowing; all the Chief Catholic Clergy, numerous important personages, and well wishers of all classes; messages of con­gratulations poured in and many journeyed from distant parts to offer their felicitations in person.

Dom Placid Ganteaume. the first local vocation for the monastery was ordained in 1926. Dom Maurus Maingot, another local, joined the Benedictine Community together with Dom Placid. Both of these eminent sons have now gone to their eternal reward. The other early local vocat­ions are Dom Basil Mathews, professed 6th August, 1930, ordained priest 21st December. 1935, and Dom Bapt. Osborne, professed 25th Decem­ber 1933, ordained priest 27th July, 1939, both of whom are still with us. At present thirty percent of the Community are locals.

During the many years from the foundation of the monastery to the present day, there has hardly ever been a lull in the building and other activities, first, under the wise direction of Dom Mayeul de Caigny and, later that of Dom Hugh van der Sanden, to whose perspicacity and driving force, supported by the able advice of his Council, was due a succession of important developments.

We are fortunate to have as Architect and Builder one of our own monks, Broth­er Gabriel Mokveld, who meticul­ously carried out the plans and per­sonally superintended all building, including the building of the present Abbey. The first public act of the newly elected Abbot was the laying of the foundation stone on 11th July

1947.

The new Abbey Church and the greater part of the present living quarters of the monks were completed in 1952. The guestrooms of the monastery were constructed in 1954, and the first Rest House, by now in­adequate to meet the needs of the in­creasing number of pilgrims, was re­placed by the present structure in the same year.

In 1961 the kitchen and refectory of the Abbey School, along with the library and auditorium were built by Bro. Gabriel, who is also responsible for building the Holy Shop and pilgrims parlors, which now constitute the southeastern wing of the Abbey, completed in 1963. The building of the tower, made possib1e through the generosity of a benefactor, was begun in 1964, and is to be capped off soon.

The road, which was fast deter­iorating, was resurfaced in 1965, thus making it possible for everyone to enjoy a comfortable drive to and from the Mount.

            Visitors and old-boys who still remember the pre-1967 sports field notice at once the diff­erence in the much bigger field on which the junior boys now have a section all for themselves and which sh­ould be an incentive for them to take a greater interest in sports, including swimming at the Abbey pool, lawn tennis, basket and volley ball.

 

St. Bedes Technical School, op­ened in January 1967, completed the Mounts building project for the 1960s. The early seventies have so far been taken up with general repairs and maintenance of the huge complex of buildings that go to make up MOUNT ST. BENEDICT.

 

 

Patroness of the Abbey

 

In the letter of introduction, presented by Dom Ambrose Vinckier O.S.B. to the Archbishop of Port-of-Spain on the arrival of the first monks in the island, Dom Mayeul de Caigny expressly stated that the Benedictine mission should be dedicated to Our Lady of Exile. The name was chosen by the Abbot because he intended the founda­tion in this island to be a place of refuge in the event of persecution, which was threatening in Bahia. The Abbot was, no doubt, well acquainted with the devotion to the Mother of God under this title because veneration of Our Lady of Exile was popular in Brazil as well as in other Portuguese territories.

 

Whatever be the reason for its choice, the title has a special significance for all of us as a salutary reminder that our life here on earth is merely a sojourn or exile from our true home which is heaven.

 

The Feast, which recalls the Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt to escape the persecution of King Herod, who sought to destroy the Child, is celebrated in the Catholic Church on the 4th February.

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