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Catch God at Work

Posted: October 17, 2014

I recently had the privilege of traveling to Cobán, Guatemala for the 50th Anniversary Celebration of Resurrection Priory. We met many of the founding monks of the Monastery and San Marcos Church. It was a glimpse of God at work. Hopes and dreams were realized at Resurrection Priory. We also learned about the early struggles. But, the monks persevered! Their passion, commitment and faith have created a lasting legacy!

Benedictine monks, friends, politicians and more than 50 seminarians from the US and Guatemala traveled to Cobán for the celebrations! There were beautiful Masses, parties, speeches, theatrical productions and meals!

Resurrection Priory was founded 50 years ago by members of Blue Cloud Abbey in South Dakota. Their vision was to build a thriving Benedictine Monastery in Guatemala. Their goal was to teach young men from Guatemala to become brothers and priests and eventually, turn over the leadership of the Monastery.

Twenty years after they built the Monastery, the brothers built San Marcos Church. It is located around the corner from the Monastery. In the early days, Masses were held at the Monastery. The brothers also acquired property and started a farm to help the Monastery become self-sustaining. Both are flourishing communities today.

The young men who embarked on this project were in their late twenties and thirties. They spent years learning and translating the indigenous language, Q’eqchi. There is no universal language in Guatemala. There are 23 languages. Spanish is spoken in the major cities.

The brothers learned about the local people, and studied their history and customs. They built lasting friendships. Their work was widely admired. And, they overcame many hardships and obstacles.

Throughout their years in Guatemala, Resurrection Priory had the support of Blue Cloud Abbey. The brothers also built a strong, close-knit community at the Monastery. Fr. Basil was elected by the brothers to serve as the Abbot of Resurrection Monastery. His kindness, compassion and generosity became legendary in Cobán.
Fr. Basil was a passionate health promoter and was one of the early partners on St. Patrick’s water project. He knew that one of the greatest challenges for poor people living in remote areas of Guatemala was access to clean water.

Over time, Fr. Basil’s reputation grew. In the eyes of many, he is considered a saint. The Benedictine value of hospitality was a hallmark of the Monastery. People in need stopped by the Monastery day and night for food, clothes and basic necessities. He always provided a meal and a place to stay. Fr. Basil was also generous with second chances.

When Fr. Basil died a few years ago, Abbot Dennis traveled from Blue Cloud Abbey to attend the funeral. He said thousands of people lined the streets to watch Fr. Basil’s coffin carried through the streets of Cobán. He said there was a torrential storm, but it did not deter the crowds.

The funeral procession stretched for several miles. Mourners walked from the Monastery to the cemetery. He said hundreds of people took turns carrying the coffin. Abbot Dennis said he had never seen anything like it! When we were in Cobán, we went to Fr. Basil’s gravesite and Abbot Dennis said a special blessing for him. It sits high on a hill overlooking the city, in the shadows of an old church.

The Benedictine brothers encountered hardships and obstacles during their time in Guatemala, including a violent 30 year civil war. Many religious orders withdrew, because it was so dangerous, but the Benedictines remained and continued their work.

They loved the people and their beautiful culture. During their time in Cobán, the brothers shared the Gospel and built hope. And, they collaborated with local leadership to improve the lives of those they served by reducing poverty, increasing literacy, and creating access to basic health care.

Fifty years later, their dream of training young men from Coban to take over the leadership of the Monastery and to build a vibrant Benedictine community has happened… 

Young men from the aldeas (villages) and surrounding community have become monks and priests. Fr. Pedro is now the Abbot of Resurrection Monastery. He grew up in one of the mountain villages and now ministers to them. Next spring, five seminarians from Guatemala City will join them.

Blue Cloud Abbey has not fared as well… Sadly, two years ago, Blue Cloud Abbey was faced with a devastating decision. They could either try to hang on or close the Monastery and split up. They had not been able to recruit enough young men from the US to continue their work in South Dakota. The vast majority of monks had retired, died or were too old to continue the work. There were a few young men left, but there weren’t enough of them to sustain the Abbey!

Abbot Dennis said after much discussion, they made a tough decision. They agreed to split up and find new posts. They buried the holy artifacts on the grounds of the Abbey. Next they sold the Abbey for a retreat house. The monks who were healthy enough to keep working moved to different Monasteries. Abbot Dennis retired to Indiana. Brother Paul relocated to a church south of Cobán which is where he works today. The rest went to other locations in the US.

Brother Paul joined people from around the US and Guatemala who traveled to Cobán to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Monastery. He said the celebration brought back many memories of their years in Cobán. He was also glad to have a chance to reconnect with many old friends…

This is how I ended up having a chance encounter with Brother Paul. We were in the kitchen talking before one of the meals. He was asked me about St. Patrick’s and I asked about his work at the Black Christ pilgrimage site. He said that I should “Watch for God at work”…

I was amazed by what he said, and wanted to ask him more questions. But, as luck would have it, someone wanted to take his picture. It was the only encounter I had with him during the weekend. Several times I tried to find him to ask him some more questions, but he was always surrounded by a group of old friends and well-wishers.

During the next couple of days, I kept thinking about his words… I knew they were important. When we were at the airport checking in, a woman at the counter asked Fr. Tim if he and his colleagues would like to sit in the exit row. He waved me over to the counter. When I heard that I might be able to stretch my legs out on the flight to Atlanta, I gladly accepted!

Our two colleagues had already checked-in. When we inquired if she could re-book our friends, we explained that one of them was wearing a boot on her foot to repair an injury. The woman said it was against regulations, because she wouldn’t be able to aid in rescue operations if they would arise. We both hoped that we wouldn’t be called upon to save anyone!

When we boarded the plane, we struck up a conversation with one of the flight attendants. He translated all of the instructions in perfect Spanish. And, he was very friendly and outgoing. We asked him where he was from and he asked us why we were in Guatemala! We told him about the celebration and our water project.

A little while later, he sat down in the jump seat across from us. He disclosed that he was raised as a Catholic, but was struggling with his spiritual life. Fr. Tim and I encouraged him to come back to the Catholic Church! It was obvious that he was deeply wounded and sad. 
We talked to him throughout the flight. When we were getting ready to leave, he asked us to pray for him. I was deeply moved. In that moment, I knew this is what Brother Paul was talking about.

As I reflected on the trip, I knew there were so many signs of God at work. Even though Blue Cloud Abbey has closed, their spirit and love will live on in a different part of the world. The hospitality, joy and friendship that was built over 50 years ago, continues to bless the people of Cobán and all of the people who have a chance to visit the Monastery.

I know that St. Patrick’s water project will bless the people in the aldeas. Good work always blesses those involved and those who are touched by it. We are grateful to the early pilgrims of St. Patrick’s who built the project!

We are delighted that we will be reciprocating hospitality to Fr. Pedro! He will join us at the Gala for Brighter Tomorrows on December 6, 2014 in the Mahon Center. The Gala is one of the ways that we generate funds to support the Cobán Water Project. We will also raise funds for Risen Christ School and St. Patrick’s Ministries. We are grateful to the generous family from St. Patrick’s that is sponsoring his trip!

Watch for more details about the Gala! Tickets will go on sale in the next couple of weeks! If you would like more information about Cobán or the Gala, please contact the Maura in the Office of Social Justice.

We are grateful to the many pilgrims, donors, youth, staff and leaders who have made this work possible! It is easy to catch, “Glimpses of God” at work in Cobán!