Mother María Isabel Guiroy, OSB
Prioress of the monastery of Notre-Dame de Paraná (Argentine)
Mother Cándida María Cymbalista
21st February 1925 – 7th May 2003
Mother Cándida was born on 21st February, 1925, at Nagogoyá, in the province of Entre Ríos on the Argentine coast. Her family, which was of German-Polish origin, had been profoundly moved by the sad events at the beginning of the twentieth century, World War I, the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Revolution.
Her mother, Olga Herberg, although born in the Polish village of Lodz, at that time under the control of Russia, was German. When the war of 1914 began and three years later the Bolshevik Revolution, her father Miguel (grand-father of Mother Candida) was deported to Siberia. Her father, José Francisco Cymbalista, of Polish origin, took part in World War I as a young officer on the Austro-Hungarian army.
In 1920 her parents got to know each other in the war cemetery and soon after were married, but in the Lutheran church, so that the family of José cut him off. In 1921 they had their first child, Alescha, and in 1924 they decided to sail for the Argentine, following the steps of Olga’s father, who, once freed from Siberia, emigrated to that country and set himself up in the province of Chaco in the North-East of the country, deep in the forest, to begin a new life.
In 1925 her parents decided to go to Nogoyá so that their second child, Candida Maria should be born in a safer place. Forty days after her birth, and baptism on Palm Sunday, they returned to Chaco. She herself recounts:
‘An Indian woman took care of me, and my mother used to say that she was a good and wise woman. I have no memory of that time or of the place, though I would love to know more. The Indian woman who looked after me told my mother to take me away from that place, or the climate, which I could not resist, would kill me. We stayed there, in the forest, till I was three years old, and that is why I do not remember it. I remember only what my mother, father or brother told me on various occasions. There was a tacit agreement not to ask anything about any of them. The only things which was not forbidden was stories about the war and the trenches, which my father would tell from time to time to me and my brother for an hour or two.’
Her mother was for her
‘a great window through which I acquired the liberty which coexisted with the commandments, to look at the horizon, make progress, suffer, strive ceaselessly, love music, the soughing of the trees, the movement of the river, to look at the stars, to hate war and violence, to be happy amid poverty and sickness. Through her I learnt to see the world and people, events important and less important. I learnt to look at my neighbour by the face, rather than by social or material circumstances. I learnt to read the newspaper, to read history, to read my neighbour, to read persons; this is what I saw in that large window.’
By contrast her father was
‘a closed and mysterious window, but through it I saw heaven. I aspired to faith, a Polish-style faith, strong and simple. It is as though this window opens at night and one saw only God, and little by little the darkness filled with light: Dominus illuminatio mea. There was no sun, nor moon, nor stars; the only light was the Lamb, as the Apocalypse says. In that dim and nocturnal window I discovered the Church. He was happy, silent and his prayer was full of adoration. All this entered my heart as if by contagion. My God, how he adored on his knees for long moments and after the Mass. And at his side I breathed God.’
As a great old professor, whom she cherished in her youth, said,‘She had a German head and a Polish heart. She united vigour and tenderness, discipline and liberty, solemnity and simplicity, reality and poetry, she was altogether profoundly human and evangelical with a clear perception of the essential.’
In 1928 the family moved definitively to the town of Paraná on the banks of the river of the same name, capital of the province of Entre Ríos, where Mother Candida spent all her childhood and youth, receiving her primary and secondary education, and obtaining her diploma as professor of philosophy and educational science. Immediately after her education and after the death of her father, she began to work as a teacher. For nine years she fulfilled her profession with the heart of a teacher which characterised her all her life. For her, her students
‘were my life. I was young, and they still younger, and every window was a morning sun, a mixture of purity and colour. I gave them everything, sometimes a cataract of ideas and knowledge which was still new wine to me. At other times it was an intimate communication, musical, an existential dialogue. I remember the 28th December, 1953, my last contact with them, the whole morning to get them through exams. I embraced them interiorly, covered them with blood and tears. I do not exaggerate. The students were a part of my present to God, and leaving them was leaving myself, a sacrifice of Abraham. They never knew that because of them, among others, I am where I am. I left them so that they would meet God in a deep Alliance, “deep calls to deep”.’
Since her youth a profound sense of the adoration of God and her love for the Church were shown in her intelligent adherence to the Magisterium, in a profound love of the Virgin Mary and the liturgy, and her firm commitment as member and director of the Catholic Action of the Argentine at Paraná, according to the witness of a fellow disciple:
‘It was a glorious epoch which will never be repeated in history. Mother Candida had a superior intelligence, I would say genius, and a great capacity as a teacher. With her firm and coherent teaching she was like a prophet: she saw clearly, she predicted events, explained them and foretold what would happen. It was like the black horse in Plato who looks and looks and will not stop till it has found. She was courageous, and was often misunderstood.’
In about 1947/8, before an altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary, in her parish of St Michael, she privately consecrated herself to the Virgin. On 15th August 1949 in the Benedictine abbey of Niño Dios, and important spiritual centre of the province of Entre Ríos which she visited zealously, before the altar of St Thérèse,
‘after a long preparation I offered myself as a hostiam laudis. God had a plan to realise this offering. The next year, the Holy Year of 1950, on the 16th July I got to know the Abbey of St Scholastica (Victoria, Buenos Aires), and I decided to enter as soon as possible. That was the definitive moment of my monastic vocation.’
Since her mother was opposed to her entering, Mother Candida had to leave her family almost without leave-taking, pretending to be going, like so many others, to Buenos Aires. In the company of a few friends on the morning of 3rd January, 1954, she embarked first on a ferry to cross the river to Santa Fe, where she took the bus to Buenos Aires.
‘I climbed into the bus and when it left I wept; my interior river overflowed. I was leaving my world behind like a broken glass at the feet of Jesus. On 11th January I entered with my shadow, my nothingness. My person stayed outside, but five years later on 10th February I was able to offer my nothingness to God with unlimited joy.’
At the Abbey of St Scholastica Mother Candida was prioress and mistress of novices for a number of years. Thanks to her solid foundation in the philosophia perennis of Thomism and to her open spirit, firmly grounded in the Magisterium of the Church, her advice was the key at the moment of taking up Vatican II, and discerning the changes which occurred in the difficult years after the Council, when many religious communities entered a period of crisis through a biased and mistaken reading of the Council documents.
At the same time she worked with the Nunciature on certain tasks, including the editing of Constitutions for certain religious Congregations. One of her constants was her love for the consecrated life, which translated itself into many problems facing religious and priests, who came to her for advice. Her participation was fundamental in the formation of the Conference of monastic communities of the Southern Cone (SURCO) and then the formation of the Benedictine Congregation of the Holy Cross of the Southern Cone.
In 1967 the meetings of superiors of the Benedictine and Trappist monasteries of the countries which constitute what is called the ‘Southern Cone’, Argentine, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay – which were linked in the origin to the mother-houses of different countries and congregations – to attempt to respond to the recommendation made by Vatican II in the decree Perfectae Caritatis #22 to form federations and unions. At that time few understood the importance of ‘monastic ecumenism’. There were also certain hesitations and fears on the subject, partly justified by the fragility of most of the foundations or by the limitations of their superiors.
At that time Mother Candida held the office of prioress of the Abbey of St Scholastica, which was the most numerous and solid of all the communities in the Southern Cone. Well aware of the weakness of the masculine communities, her attitude to faith and her confidence in the work of the Holy Spirit in the whole Church – reading the signs of the times – allied to that of Dom Agustin Roberts, prior of the Trappists of Azul, were decisive in finally achieving the union of all the monasteries of the Southern Cone.
For seventeen years she directed the review of monastic spirituality and history Cuadernos Monásticos. The periodical, created in 1966 on the initiative of several monks, never really got off the ground till 1969, when the leadership and the whole enterprise were entrusted to Mother Candida. She gave it life and nourished it for several years with many articles, contributing her knowledge and human and spiritual experience in favour of an authentic and evangelical renewal, not merely of monastic life but of the whole of the consecrated life.
In 1977 the abbess of St Scholastica, Mother Maria Leticia Riquelme, and Mother Candida, the prioress, decided on the foundations of San Luis (1977), Rafaela (1978) and Córdoba (San Antonio de Arredondo, 1979). For her, who was convinced of the need for urban monasteries which she considered ‘a sign, a tent in the midst of a city’, it was strange to be the founder of a rural monastery.
In the course of the Mass of the festival of the Epiphany in 1978 she had a clear intuition,‘Suddenly I was seized by the phrase, “The Magi saw him and conceived a great joy.” It was clearly presented to me. It was the feast-day of the new monastery at Córdoba, and then in the Office of Sext I had the sudden confirmation that I would go to Córdoba, that I ought to go there, that, although everything was so uncertain, so difficult, so rustic, the whole message was, “Leave your country and go to the land that I shall show you”, with confidence in God.’
In fact she arrived at Córdoba with the founding group on 19th March, 1979, as prioress. These were difficult years, when Mother Candida put all her heart, her energy and hope into running a community in the progressive direction towards the purpose originally fixed, to be a monastery, ‘holy, holy, evangelical and Marial’ regulated according to the Rule of St Benedict, with great insistence on the liturgy, fraternal life and hospitality.
In 1987, San Antonio de Arredondo (Córdoba) being still a recent foundation, Mother Candida accepted the request of the Archbishop of Paraná to make a foundation in his native region, the monastery Aldea María, Luisa. Two years later, on 29th December 1989, the monastery of San Antonio de Arredondo was raised to the status of an abbey, and Mother Candida was elected the first abbess.
Her talents knew no bounds. She loved to study, to analyse the documents of the Magisterium, examine the signs of the times, and the ways of God in life and the history of peoples and persons, a heritage from her mother. Right up to her final days she never ceased to receive people who came to consult her, to give retreats and conferences to lay people and to religious communities. In fact when she died she was working on a conference on St Hildegard, requested for a congress at the Catholic University of Buenos Aires.
Having retired from the abbatial ministry on 6th August, 1999, she said that she wanted ‘to be a simply nun. I am entering upon what I call the “noviciate of heaven”, and I will try to live out my two mottos, that of my profession, Adveniat regnum tuum, and that of my abbacy, In Christo Jesu per evangelium.’ On 7th May, 2003, aged 78, with her immunology system impaired, she had a rapid reaction to a germ which brings rapid death. She, who was preparing for death not because of any illness but simply because of her age, took her leave of a few nuns who in the previous week had participated in her monastery in a reunion of SURCO, saying to them, ‘Be sure to come to my funeral and put flowers on my grave.’
The night before her death, having received the sacrament of the anointing of the sick and the Euccharist, she said, ‘I am at peace’. She had always wanted and asked God for a death without agony and in a state of grace. The Lord gave her both. Dom Mauro Matthei, OSB, monk of the monastery of the Holy Trinity de las Condas (Chile), said,
‘Mother Candida had received the gift and the secret of spiritual fruitfulness, personally by her thought and her love, and at the institutional level by the wealth of her participation in the foundations of her abbey and her capacity in the formation of many religious vocations which had been entrusted to her. … A sense of the Church, a rounded doctrine and a spiritual fruitfulness are not occasional and separated factors; they spring from a single root and head for the same goal. This is what we can learn and reflect on in the life of this great nun who has just left us’ (cf. full text in Cuadernos Monásticos 146 – Año 2003)
We conclude this chronicle with the note which Mother Candida wrote on 26th November, 2000:
‘Today, the solemnity of Christ the King, is a festival very dear to me, and I have always been attached to it. I was baptised on Palm Sunday, which is the original feast of Christ the King. Then service in Action Catholique, which is today celebrating its seventy years. My vocation has clearly been motivated by mission to extend the Kingdom, and this is why I chose for the motto of my first profession Adveniat Regnum Tuum, and the design represented Christ as High Priest, standing over the world. The Kingship of Jesus Christ is my activity and my prayer. My life on earth has no other objective.’