Journey to Argentina, October, 2019
Dom Jean-Pierre Longeat, OSB
President of AIM
Monday 23rd September
Heading for Argentina, for the meeting of EMLA, the gathering of the superiors of monasteries of the Benedictine family of the whole of Latin America. Argentina has more than a dozen monasteries of the Benedictine family: three were founded by the Abbey of Saint Escolastica in Buenos Aires (Cordoba, San Luis, Rafaela); the community of Cordoba itself founded the monastery of Parana. Among the monasteries of men there is Lujan and Los Toldos and Nino Dios (which has founded another community in Argentina, El Siambon); two Trappist monasteries in the area, one of monks (Azul), one of nuns (Hinojo); two communities of Tutzing at Buenos Aires and Los Toldos, and one community of Benedictine nuns at Santiago del Estero. This is a rich history, which began in the nineteenth century. During my journey I had the opportunity to visit seven of these monasteries.
At the airport of Buenos Aires two sisters of Santa Escolastica were there to welcome me, and we set off for their monastery, an hour’s drive by car. After I had settled into the guesthouse I asked to celebrate Mass before lunch. This I did in the crypt, and to my great surprise a number of sisters joined me for this unplanned celebration. I celebrated in French, but the librarian had produced books so that the sisters could follow and respond in that language.
During the afternoon I made an expedition to a branch of the ocean, which is only fifteen minutes away. On my return we had a meeting of the community, in a circle in a vast room. After listening again to the gospel of the day we exchanged all kinds of questions about our lives. It was a warm atmosphere, which gave a good impression of this Argentinian visit.
Tuesday 24th September
I was up at 4am. Vigils are at 5.15, Lauds at 7.30 and Mass at 8.30. The morning was spent in a visit of the monastery. Tucked into the suburbs of Buenos Aires, not far from the banks of the River Plata, this community of Benedictine nuns aims by its prayer and contemplation and its work to be a lighthouse for all the inhabitants of the city.
It is said that for many years Dom Andrés Azcárate, a monk of Silos in Spain, and founder-prior of the Abbey of San Benito in Buenos Aires, wanted to found a monastery of nuns in Argentina. Many young Argentinians, attracted by the Benedictine life, encouraged him in his efforts. The Prior, knowing well the Spanish abbeys and the fervour of their observance, then sent the first candidates to Estella (Navarre) to begin their monastic life and their initial training. The civil war in Spain interrupted these attempts. In 1937 the Prior approached the Abbey of Santa Maria de São Paulo in Brazil, whose founder and abbess was Mother Gertrudis Cecilia da Silva Prado, to take up this work of formation. This abbey belonged to the Brazlian Benedictine Congregation, but its first sisters had been formed at the Abbey of Our Lady of Consolation at Stanbrook in England, which began the foundation in 1911. The Abbey of Santa Maria, following Stanbrook, observed the customs of the Benedictine life established by Dom Guéranger for the sisters of Saint Cecilia of Solesmes.
At Santa Maria on 15th October, 1938, the Prior asked Mother Abbess and the community to admit the first Argentinian girls for the foundation of Santa Escolástica. Mother Abbess accepted this request and opened wide the doors of their abbey to the seven candidates. On 8th December of the same year, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, the first stone of the building was laid. While the world was fighting terrible wars a new Benedictine monastery was founded in Argentina, bearing the motto ‘PAX’. The abbey was to be placed under the protection of the Queen of Peace. On 7th September, 1940, the profession of the first novice took place at Santa Maria, and on 21st November that of six other Argentinians. Meanwhile, the number of Argentinians gathered in the noviciate grew and all were very fervent. Today the community is composed of some thirty nuns. Their activities consist in a workshop for vestments, another for artistic objects, a bindery, and a printery for cards and postcards, a chocolate-workshop and a guesthouse. The liturgy is both in Spanish and in Gregorian chant. The buildings of the monastery are spacious and the property extends over eight acres in the middle of the town of Victoria.
In the afternoon Mother Abbess appointed two sisters to accompany me to the bank of the River Luján in the town of Tigre. We walked a little along the river and had a long discussion about the situation of the country and the Church. Secularisation is galloping, the bases of faith are questioned, while popular devotion is very lively. In any case, the transmission of the faith, in Argentina as in the rest of the world, is coming to experience an especially difficult phase. This is bound to have an effect on religious life. The community of Santa Escolástica, lively and dynamic as it is, has received no novices for eight years.
Wednesday 25th September
Next day went to the old abbey of San Benito in the centre of Buenos Aires. As I have already said, this foundation came from the Abbey of Silos in 1914, and lasted until 1973 at which date the monks transferred to Luján. We were welcomed by Dom Pedro, a monk of Luján, who is holding the fort to keep the monastery as a pied-à-terre for the monks of his monastery, since it still owns the place and they are trying to rent it: several organisations have succeeded one another since the 1970s.
Immediately striking is the disproportion of the building, which could be used for a very big project. In fact Dom Andrés, the founder-prior caused to be built in stages an abbey which could hold some hundred monks, but the foundation never really succeeded. At the time of its greatest glory there could have been up to fifty monks from Spain, but they were essentially recruited among the oblates of Silos. A tour of the buildings, empty of inhabitants, was eloquent. Furthermore, the building was never completed: the cloister has arcades on two sides rising into the void, and even the towers of the church are unfinished. One can imagine the efforts spent on this gigantic project.
For lunch we went to the Benedictine sisters nearby. They are sisters of the missionary Congregation of Tutzing, and are five in number. All full of energy, they carry out several tasks, such as running a hostel for girls who have various difficulties with immigration, especially from Venezuela. They also look after young people in this quarter, as well as receiving guests – in addition, of course, to the regular life. As is normal among the Tutzing sisters, the community is very international: the Prioress is Brazilian, two of the sisters are Argentinian, one Korean and one from Namibia. The atmosphere is very open and relaxed. There are two Tutzing communities in Argentina.
In the early afternoon we left with Dom Pedro for the monastery of Luján, where I was to stay for the whole of Thursday. On the way we made a detour by the cathedral of Buenos Aires to pray in communion with Pope Francis, who had been archbishop there for some time. We crossed the city of Buenos Aires, which numbers three million inhabitants, stretched to fourteen million by the surroundings. After an hour and a half of travel we arrived at the monastery and were welcomed by Abbot Jorge, recently blessed (14th September, 2019) after a time as Prior Administrator. After dinner I met the community during their recreation. The monks number about fifteen and represent several generations, the youngest being more than 30 and the oldest 92 and 93.
Thursday 26th September
After breakfast, Lauds and Mass we left with the abbot to visit the basilica of Luján , a few km from the monastery. The little plaster statue, some 38 cm high, known today as the Virgin of Luján, dates from 1630. A local landowner wanted to build a chapel on his land consecrated to the Virgin Mary. He asked a friend who lived at Pernambuc in Brazil to send him a statue of the Virgin, and he sent two, one of Our Lady of Compassion (la Consolata) and the other of the Immaculate Conception.
At this time the roads were dirt-roads, and while the cart carrying the statues was travelling into the country north of the city from the port, night fell and the cart had to stop on the banks of the River Luján. Next morning at the moment of starting the oxen refused to budge. The carters removed one of the statues, but the cart still would not move. They reloaded the statue and unloaded the other, and the cart moved normally. Then they realised that it was the statue of the Immaculate Conception which was preventing the cart from moving. They concluded that it must be a miracle: the Virgin wanted to stay there. The coloured man Manuel was, it was said, a warm and simple person, to whom the mission of looking after the statue was confided because there was, as his master said, no one else. The statue remained in a hermitage, 25km from the present basilica, for 41 years. In 1671 it was moved into an oratory, the gift of Doña Ana de Matos, and after a certain time the work of construction of the first sanctuary began. It was in this chapel that the first pilgrimages and the first miracles happened. And the guardian of Notre Dame, charged with looking after the pilgrims remained Manuel for the rest of his life. He died with a reputation for holiness, and was buried behind the chapel, which stood till 1740.
At the end of the nineteenth century, after the pontifical crowning of the little statue and the first official pilgrimage from Buenos Aires, in gratitude for the graces given during the epidemic of yellow fever, the construction of the cathedral was begun, and it is today one of the most important centres of pilgrimage in Latin America. It was build at the initiative of a French priest, Fr Salvaire.
After the basilica we visited the crypt, where reproductions have been brought together of statues of the Virgin from many countries all over the world. I had never appreciated the extent to which the appropriation of the image of the Virgin permits each national or regional culture to identify with the reality of this first disciple of Jesus, with the result that she thus becomes the mother of all those who follow her Son. It is a way of making the faith more accesible.
On our return we stopped at an ancient house on the land of the monastery (the property extends over six hundred acres, mirroring the large farms of Argentina!). This house has been transformed into a centre of agricultural formation for the girls of the district, run by a foundation dedicated to this kind of project. At the moment there are forty students, spread over two years of formation. At the spiritual level the establishment is the responsibility of Opus Dei, and a chapel is in course of construction on the site. The staff is, of course, careful not to teach anything which would run contrary to the directives of the civil authorities, especially on matters of family and social ethics or bioethics.
In the afternoon the abbot took me to visit the economic activity of the monastery: the shop is about one km from the monastic buildings and is run by a family employed by the monks. The care of the cattle (90 milk-cows) is also in the hands of employees, and the jam-factory in which both monks and lay people work. I visited also the surroundings, and in particular a former spinning-mill set up by a family from Belgium in the last century. Its founder had social ideals inspired by the social teaching of the Church. Besides the factory, he created a group of activities to help the population rise out of poverty, a school group, leisure activities, a covered pool, etc. His children inherited the work but were unable to continue it, and it finally failed. The school remains, but the other activities have definitively stopped. The monastery contributed generously to help those who found themselves out of work at the closure of the factory.
At the end of the afternoon we took some time to read together the gospel of the day, and share the insights from it. For this we sat beside a steam belonging to the disused spinning-mill, where the local people love to come and relax. All through the day the abbot spoke willingly about the situation of the country. It is traversing a deep political crisis. Poverty is gaining ground and the political situation is particularly tense. Many members of the Church of Argentina are working hard for the poor, and the bishops often speak about this crisis.
In the evening there was another meeting with the community. We exchanged some presents, for the next day I was to leave for other communities in anticipation of the session of EMLA in the next few days.
To be completed.