The Sisters of Keur Guilaye, OSB
ABBEY OF KEUR GUILAYE (Sénégal)
Jubilee of foundation (1967-2017)
When the monastery of Keur Moussa was founded in 1961 near Dakar by the Abbey of St Peter of Solesmes the Archbishop of the diocese, Mgr Thiandoum, expressed the fervent wish that a community of Benedictine nuns would come and be established in the area.
Thus it was that the community of St Cecilia of Solesmes was asked to come. After two journeys of exploration in 1965 the first two prospective nuns left on 4th February, 1967. They became the two stalwarts of the foundation; one was superior, the other bursar. They arrived at the port of Dakar on 11th February. It had been planned that for the months of waiting and planning for the construction of the monastery a little habitation should be built near the sisters Servants of the Poor of Angers, who had taken charge of the dispensary founded by the monks of Keur Guilaye and were providing medical care. The sisters were not far from the monastery of monks. Two more nuns took ship in mid-April.
Life was organized. Already in the month of March study of the language wolof began. With the month of July the season called ‘winter’ started, ending only at about the end of October. It is a fairly trying period because health is often put to the test by the heavy and humid temperatures, with violent storms which bring heavy rain and change the tracks into rivers.
After several months of persevering research by the sisters, several farmers from a neighbouring village consented to transfer their fields to the nuns. Research was undertaken on the nature of the soil and subsoil and the possibility of supply of water and electricity. Various French and African bodies in Dakar, which were trying to make improvements in Senegal, helped. The land was studied on maps, aerial views and various schemes, and the land was finally acquired at the beginning of 1968. It is about 4km form the monastery of the monks of Keur Moussa, near the village of Keur Guilaye. The site is austere, bare, but relieved by a distant view of Lake Tamna.
An Alsatian architect from Colmar, Joseph Müller, who had dedicated the best part of his career to helping the lands of the South, especially in the context of Catholic missions, was asked to put forward plans for a construction project. He produced them in January 1968, and after numerous studies and discussions, these were accepted. Once governmental authorisation to take over the land had, after long months of waiting, been granted, work could begin. Finally the first stone was laid and blessed on 22nd November. A probe had found water at a depth of 32m. The work continued through the year 1969, taking up every possible energy.
The 1st March of that year saw the official erection of the diocese of Thiès, formed from part of the archdiocese of Dakar. The new bishop, Mgr François-Xavier Dione, previously Vicar General to Mgr Thiandum, made no secret of his admiration for the contemplative life. He was eager to rely on its spiritual vigour to help the 18,000 Christians of his diocese of 500,000 inhabitants. At the end of the rainy season one of the nuns returned to France to help prepare the departure from Solesmes of seven other sisters who were to join the community of Senegal as soon as the monastery was ready to receive them. In 1970 the office was celebrated in full. The blessing of the church occurred in April, and the monastery was erected into a simple Priory on the following 31st July. In 1971 the farming made progress, and the sisters ate their own produce for the first time. The climate is rough for some sisters, and three of them had to return to St Cecilia’s.
In 1972 there was a great drought and the line of those asking for help or employment lengthened each day. The grain-stores were empty and the wells in many villages were dry. Food-stores for humans and animals were empty and there was no money to buy the necessities of life, for the only source of revenue for the country people was normally the surplus of their crops. From every side came people with touching confidence to look for help from the two monasteries. Heads of families begged that at least one of their family should be employed so that their pay could help the whole family to survive. That had been a principle which the nuns had normally employed for their workers, but they did not have work for everyone, especially since in that year they reduced the irrigation of land to save expenditure of water for human uses in the neighbouring villages. In the face of this problem and in agreement with the monks of Keur Moussa they envisaged buying meal and rice wholesale for distribution as gifts or payment in kind, with the authorisation of the administration, which was preparing official but insufficient help for those regions where it had declared a state of emergency.
In 1973 there was little change in the agriculture. Scarcity of fodder and water prevented any extension of land-use. In the orchard pamplemousse, mandarins and clementines had been grafted and were progressing well. The small plantation of bananas had as yet given only limited yield and needed to be improved. The same was true of the plantation of papaya and ananas which had yielded no harvest that year, no doubt through lack of irrigation. By contrast, the harvest of meal and potatoes had been very satisfactory. From 1974 onwards the colony of 350 chickens ensured a bi-weekly delivery of eggs to Dakar. The trees of the orchard reached full growth and gave their first yield, mango, avocado, papaya and bananas. In January 1975 the host-factory began full production and supplied regularly the six dioceses of Senegal, distributing some 3,000 large and 40,000 small hosts each month. The monastery was growing little by little. At the end of 1976 the noviciate had four members. Formation of the young is an absorbing task in which practically the whole community shared.
In 1977, seven years after its inauguration, the monastery had for the first time the joy of a solemn profession. The newly-professed sister’s father was the first baptised member and the first catechist of the village of Sangé in the diocese of Thiès. At the age of 14 she had entered the local congregation of the Daughters of the Sacred Heart of Mary. She had worked for many years as a nurse in various outposts. In 1972 she came to Keur Guilaye and on 1st October at last realised her dearest wish, to consecrate her life to prayer for missionaries and religious, who are so often overwhelmed by their apostolic labours.
The Priory became semi-independent in January 1978. The community could now assemble as a chapter and the Priory received its own Council. The buildings were growing and the community was full. On 27th April 1993 it was raised to the status of an independent Priory and Mother Françoise de Brantes was elected prioress. The dedication of the church took place three years later, on 27th April, 1996. The liturgy of Keur-Guilaye is very close to that of Keur-Moussa, but retains its own character. The sisters have recorded several CDs.
Three guest-houses, set up progressively according to need, now cater for retreatants, discerners, families of sisters and various groups. The bakery now provides hosts for a large part of the parishes of Senegal, Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. The products of the small farm (food, breeding hens and pigs) are sold in Dakar, as well as the fruit of the orchard, partly fresh, partly as jams, syrups and conserves in the shop on site.
The monastery was raised to the status of an abbey in 2008 and Mother Françoise de Brantes, founder and prioress, became the first abbess.
In April 2011 Mother Mary of Hope Joseph Sarr was elected abbess. She has devoted herself particularly to the deepening of the spiritual and intellectual life of the community, making use of external skills for retreats, conferences and regular courses, and by sending the sisters to our monasteries in France to complete their formation ‘at the well-head’. The community is concentrating on developing certain projects such as:
• The host-factory has become too small
• The construction of a model workshop for syrups, confectionery, popular conserves
• Research on herbal remedies, fabrication of soap and pomade
• Enlargement of guest-facilities
• Installations for the use of solar energy and re-use of water for the orchard and other plantations.
At present there are 19 members of the community, of whom 15 are solemnly professed, one regular oblate, one novice, one postulant and one external sister.