A JUBILEE: 50 YEARS OF SYLVESTRINE BENEDICTINES IN INDIA
Dom Pio Kanakunnel OSB
The Sylvestro-Benedictine Congregation is a Benedictine Foundation initiated by St Sylvester Guzzolini (1177–1267) at Montefano near Fabriano, Italy. Sylvester Guzzolini, a native of Osimo in central Italy, who as a Cathedral Canon turned hermit, began his religious conversion as a solitary at Grottafucile near Fabriano, Italy, intending to live his Christian life very much like young Benedict in the cave of Subiaco. Obliged to form a community with a bunch of disciples that gradually gathered round him, and advised by two Visitors sent by Pope Gregory IX, he gave rise to a hermitage dedicated to St Benedict at Montefano, near Fabriano in 1231. Starting with St Benedict’s Monastery at Fabriano in 1244 St Sylvester subsequently founded twelve cenobia during his lifetime in central Italy, adopting the Rule of Benedict and the Benedictine habit, but made of coarser stuff. In 1248 the new monastic family received official recognition from Pope Innocent IV under the title, ‘Order of St Benedict of Montefano’.
Extension to Asia
Till the end of the 1800s the Congregation was confined to central Italy. In 1875 it extended its territory to Ceylon, present-day Sri Lanka, when its first monastery outside Italy was established in Kandy. New subsequent foundations came up in America, Australia, India and Congo.
In the 1930s and 1940s postulants from India were received for the Congregation to be formed in Sri Lanka. The number of Indian monks had reached a dozen when a historic meeting was held for these monks in 1960 in the monastery at Kandy. The Bhandaranayake government’s policy that all foreign missionaries must either adopt Sri Lankan citizenship or quit the country necessitated this meeting. In this meeting they took the crucial, bold decision to quit Sri Lanka and found a Sylvestro-Benedictine Monastery in India.
Subsequent search to find a suitable place for the Indian foundation resulted in the establishment of the first Sylvestro-Benedictine monastery in India on March 19, 1962 at Makkiyad in the district of Wayanad, Kerala. There was nothing significant about Makkiyad which was at the time a practically unknown corner of the ancient village of Tondarnad when the first batch of monks arrived here. There was practically nothing except an abundance of pure air and sparkling water from the gorgeous mountain slopes and some forest land convertible for cultivation. There were no roads worth the name, no bridge across the Makkiyad River, which though not very broad would be in spate during the six month long season of rain, blocking all passage to the world beyond it, even on foot, to say nothing about transport facilities by bullock carts, which was the common man’s luxury transport in this part of the world, or the then rare automobiles. Crossing the river by means of a crude risky bamboo bridge, one had to walk five kilometres to reach the bus station at Vellamunda to catch an occasional bus plying to Mananthavady, the nearest town 21 kilometres from Makkiyad, or to Kozhikode, the nearest city, 90 kilometres from Makkiyad. There were no schools or places of worship except a small Hindu temple, no hospitals, no post offices, no wireless or telephones, no banks, no government services of any sort. The place called Makkiyad, hidden and unknown in a corner of Tondarnad was yet to travel a great deal to arrive at the marvellous development it has attained in the course of the past fifty years. Makkiyad, which did not even merit a mention in the ‘Souvenir of the opening of Sylvestro-Benedictine Monastery in India’, has a place now on the world map. All this, thanks only to the Monastery and the leadership and untiring efforts of its inmates who laboured physically, intellectually and spiritually to bring it up to the present state of growth, economic, cultural, social, political and spiritual.
Makkiyad is blessed with the most charming natural beauty, but what imparts a heavenly aura to its charm lies in the most endearing fact that Makkiyad is now a valley of prayer. Since March 19, 1962, the day the first batch of monks to arrive from Sri Lanka began celebration of Divine Office and Holy Eucharist in a prayer room improvised in a small bungalow a kind neighbour, I.Z. Cherian, put at the disposal of the monks, Christian prayer hasn’t ceased to rise from Makkiyad.
Our Monastery, the veritable heart of Makkiyad, is situated on a hillock surrounded by a mind-boggling mountain range at some distance. Attached to the monastery we have the Shantiniketan Retreat Centre with its Perpetual Adoration Chapel, and the Holy Face High School with its Holy Face Chapel. In the neighbourhood, in the following years came up Ananthamatha Ashram of the Cistercian Sisters, St Scholastica’s Convent and Senior Citizen’s Home and Hospital of the Benedictine sisters of Our Lady of Grace and Compassion, the Syro-Malabar Parish Church which was built and administered for ten years by the monks before it was handed over to the diocese of Mananthavady, and the Convent of the Missionary Sisters of Mary Immaculate. Ananthamatha Ashram has been recently replaced by the Novitiate House of the MSFS Fathers who bought the Ashram and property from the Cistercian Sisters who shifted to Kunnampeta, near Kalpeta.
St Joseph has been the special patron after whom the pioneers preferred to name the Monastery. St Joseph’s Monastery, whose bank balance right from the beginning has been meagre and often fell several points below zero, has as often had to seek his intercession for sustenance on the morrow. We are immensely grateful to him, for his intercession has never failed to sustain us.
The past fifty years has been a period of growth for the Sylvestro-Benedictine Congregation in India under the providential care of Almighty God. Already in 1962 St Joseph’s Monastery at Makkiyad started receiving young boys of age twelve and above to be educated in our ‘Apostolic School’ with a view to forming as monks whoever of them would so desire upon their majoring. At present, however, we accept as postulants only boys of sixteen years and above. The Apostolic School has given way to a Minor Seminary which functions in regional monasteries to facilitate early formation for postulants from various regions of the country. In 1964 St Joseph’s Monastery opened its Novitiate and from 1965 St Joseph’s Monastery is a Major Seminary approved by the Holy See to train students of philosophy. Philosophy students from other religious congregations as well as dioceses are formed in our philosophate. Such students also are expected to follow all the community exercises. Theology studies are done at Vanashram, Bengaluru, the junior monks attending courses in Kristu Jyoti College, the Major Seminary of the Salesians of Don Bosco.
In 1983 St Joseph’s Monastery was raised as a Conventual Priory with two Daughter Houses, namely, Vanashram in Bengaluru (1973) and Jeevan Jyoti Ashram in Shivpuri (1982). Later, Nava Jeevan Benedictine Monastery in Vijayawada (1987), Benhill Monastery at Iritty (1994) and Ashir Sadan Ashram at Teok in Assam (1999) were added as Daughter Houses of St Joseph’s Conventual Priory. The General Chapter of 2001 raised Nava Jeevan Benedictine Monastery, Vijayawada to the status of a Conventual Priory.
Schools are a powerful means for us to inculcate Christian values into children of all religions. More than 4,000 students of all religions receive education from our schools in different states of India. The number of students in all our schools is on the increase every year. Our Schools are Holy Face High School Makkiyad, Benhill Higher Secondary School Irity, St Benedict’s High School Vijayawada, St Benedict’s Higher Secondary School, Shivpuri and Bengarden High School, Teok. All our schools are run in accordance with the government regulations and on the staff monks, religious sisters as well as men and women of all religions render service.
Around fifty male students attending Holy Face High School from distant places, mostly catholic boys, avail themselves of accommodation in our hostel near the school at Makkiyad. A similar hostel is contemplated at Iritty. At Teok there is a hostel in the premises of the Monastery for poor boys attending Bengarden High School.
At Makkiyad, on class days, students and staff of all religions frequent Holy Face Chapel in our School for prayer and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. On every First Friday the students and staff of the School come for a special Eucharistic celebration in the Monastery Chapel. All the children in our hostels participate in daily Eucharistic celebration together with the monastic community. They are provided opportunity for regular confessions and spiritual direction. As Holy Face Chapel is housed within the same building as the hostel, it is a venue for regular prayer of the inmates of the hostel at Makkiyad.
We have two parishes administered by our monasteries, one in Vijayawada and the other in Shivpuri. The parish in Vijayawada has substations in several villages around, while the Shivpuri parish has one substation about fifty kilometres away. Though the Catholic population in Shivpuri is meagre, about twenty thousand Hindus visit the Parish Crib during Christmas every year.
In all our monasteries in India guests and devotees turn up seeking the intercession of St Benedict. They come for prayer, retreats, counselling, confession and other spiritual assistance. Devotees from near and far participate in our Conventual Mass. Priests in all our monasteries extend their priestly assistance to the neighbouring parishes and convents. They preach spiritual retreats and recollections in distant parishes and religious communities as and when requests are accepted by the respective Superiors. Thrice every month Shantiniketan retreat centre at Makkiyad conducts week-long retreats. An average of 300 people, laity, priests and religious come to spiritual renewal in each retreat. Non-Christians too attend these retreats. De-addiction from alcohol and drugs, deliverance from other evil habits and physical ailments take place in these retreats and counselling sessions.
The Golden Jubilee
The past year, March 19, 2011 to March 19, 2012, we, the Sylvestro-Benedictines in India, were in celebration. It was the Golden Jubilee Year of our Congregation’s presence in India. Fifty years may be a very short period in the life of a religious Order, but it is a pretty long time for human persons who are actually called to make the Order alive and going with the respective lifespan God has allowed them in it. We have every reason to celebrate, since all we are and all we have here now is the Marvellous Work of the Provident God. We only can bow our heads most gratefully in adoration and praise before God who has been graciously showering Precious Gifts of Love upon us individuals as well as Community, and humbly pray for continued help for all time to come. What we celebrate is God’s glory. During the period of the past year there have been unceasing prayers of thanks and praise to God rising from every monastic community of our two Conventual Priories in India. Doubtless, other Priories elsewhere and all our friends and well-wishers have joined us in such prayer. A Jubilee Prayer composed for the occasion was recited in every community during Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
The Golden Jubilee celebrations were solemnly inaugurated by our local ordinary Rt. Rev. Dr Joseph Kalathiparambil, the Bishop of the diocese of Calicut on March 5, 2011, the actual date to begin the Jubilee, March 19 being in Lent. On March 21 Archbishop Emeritus of the diocese of Thrissur, Mar Jacob Thumkuzhy, blessed the Perpetual Adoration Chapel in Shantiniketan retreat centre. Mar George Gnaralakat, Bishop of the diocese of Mandya, ordained two of our monks as deacons at Makkiyad on October 22, 2011. The solemn celebration of the Golden Jubilee was marked by the ordination to priesthood of these deacons at the hands of Mar Jose Porunnedam, the Bishop of the diocese of Mananthavady, and by the solemn Eucharistic celebration at which Rt. Rev. Dr Cletus Pereira, OSB, the Sylvestrine Bishop of Ratnapura, Sri Lanka presided on February 18, 2012. The Jubilee celebrations concluded on March 21, 2012 with the whole of the Indian Sylvestrine Family, including the family members, relatives and friends of the Indian Sylvestrine monks, coming together for the most heartening homely celebration.
Many are the kind hearts who stood by us in the ups and downs of our every day existence during the past fifty golden years of God’s Blessings. Many came up with financial help, many, especially the poor folk in the neighbourhood, offered us their heartfelt support with physical labour. Many more beyond counting are the most generous souls, Bishops, priests, religious and laity without whom we would not have survived, much less flourished in the varied phases of our growth afforded us by divine Providence in the past years. We remember you all with deepest gratitude. We pray for you. We have with confidence counted on you in the past, we count on you now, and we count on you for the future as well.