Benedictine Order celebrates 175 years in Sri Lanka | Daily News

Benedictine Order celebrates 175 years in Sri Lanka

Monte Fano House
Monte Fano House

In Psalm 16.8, it says: “I have set the Lord always before me, because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” This is the commitment required to serve Almighty God. During the vintage era of Ceylon, an Abbey had once existed in the green mountains of Kandy.

With time the Abbey gently faded away into Ceylon’s history. Today a smaller monastery still exists in the quaint village of Ampitiya, Kandy. We took the train to the citadel city to appreciate the ministry of a religious community that has served this nation for 175 years. Monastic spirituality implies a single-hearted seeking of God.

Ampitiya is four kilometres from the main town. A right turn from the main road takes you along a winding road, and the façade of Monte Fano House slowly came into view, with a cross on the rooftop. We were greeted by a young monk Rev. Fr. Shreen Lowe. While exchanging greetings these humble Benedictine brothers shared their hospitality, serving tea and a bowl filled with purple grapes, from their own vineyard. St. Sylvester’s Monastery or Monte Fano as it is commonly known is a massive rectangular building depicting typical colonial architecture.

The founder of this Catholic Order was an Italian named Sylvester Guzzolini. He accepted the rule of Saint Benedict and chose to wear a blue robe. He began a community with his followers by the brook of Vembercilli, near Fabriano. In 1231, he established a monastery called Monte Fano (which later became the name of the mission house in Ceylon). There were a few more Sylvestro-Benedictine abbeys in Rome. Yet for 600 years these pious monks remained in their monasteries in Italy. It was in 1845 that a 32-year-old priest Rev. Fr. Joseph Bravi decided to sail to Ceylon to preach the gospel. After enduring a perilous five-month voyage he landed in Ceylon. He first worked in Negombo for a few months before relocating to Pettah. During this time he pioneered the building of the church of St. Philip Neri. This church still serves the office workers in the Fort area.

After 15 years of service on the island, this bold priest died en route a sea voyage to Rome. His tenure is known as the golden era of the Southern Vicariate. But the foundation he had laid was enriched by other Benedictine monks who came to Ceylon. These pioneer missionaries were Rev. Fr. Hilarion Sillani, Rev. Fr. Leo Cingolani, Rev. Fr. Clement Pagnani (first Bishop of the diocese of Kandy), Rev.Fr. Augustine Pancrazi and Rev. Fr. Bonifilus Galassi, the founder of Monte Fano in Kandy. During the 28 years Episcopate of Bishop Clement Pagnani, he built many churches and uplifted the Diocese of Kandy.

In 1854, the Sylvestro-Benedictine monks established St. Anthony’s College in Kandy. In 1865, they founded St. Benedict’s College in Kotahena (Colombo 13) and established St. Sylvester’s College Kandy in 1940. The Benedictine missionary community has faithfully served Sri Lanka for 175 years. Their contribution to education must be appreciated. The devoted monks also built many magnificent churches including St. Mary’s Cathedral Negombo, St. James Church Mutwal and St. Lucia’s Cathedral in Kotahena. This is one of the most beautiful Cathedrals in Asia.

Footsteps of Faith

The library records indicate that the Sylvestro-Benedictine monks had built an abbey in Kandy in 1874 with permission from Rome. It was named St. Anthony’s Monastery. The first batch of Sri Lankan novices was taken in for religious transformation. In 1875, under the leadership of Abbot Rev. Fr. Leo Cingolani OSB, the monastery was duly elevated to the status of an Abbey. As the years went by, Rev. Fr. Bede Beekmeyer, became the first Sri Lankan Benedictine monk to be consecrated Bishop of Kandy at a young age. In November 1927, the monks decided to purchase the Yatawara Walauwa from Loku Bandara Yatawara Dissawe, and restructured the building into a monastery naming it Monte Fano House.

By noon we adjourned for lunch. It was surprising to note that every ingredient of the rice and curry meal was grown on the lush 11-acre cultivation behind the monastery. The Benedictine monks live by their motto – Ora et Labora, (Latin) meaning prayer and work - so they cultivate their own paddy, fruits and vegetables supplemented by a dairy farm. After lunch, we visited the chapel. I was introduced to Rev. Fr. Suren Peter, who explained, “Our spirituality is important in monastic life. We maintain discipline. In the outside world, there is a rush for material needs and self-satisfaction. We must remember that God is watching over us. There is no secrecy in hidden sin, God sees it. At the entrance to our house we have the letters IOGD engraved. This means ‘Everything for the Glory of God’- this is how we serve him. You would see an emblem - a crown of thorns on the wall with the Latin words Pax Benedictina – which means peace within the thorns. We believe that in the hardest struggles of life God will give you his peace.”

Religious transformation

The monks take the vows of obedience, poverty, chastity, conversion of manners and stability. The present Conventual Prior (chief monk) is Rev. Fr. Shamindra Jayawardena, the youngest friar in the history of the Sri Lankan Benedictine monks. Rev. Fr. Shamindra explained: “For decades, Monte Fano has been our motherhouse. I came here as a young boy, leaving my family to take up religious vows. God by his grace has appointed me as Prior since 2013. The monastic life is different from the life of a diocesan priest who serves a church parish. We live in a community. We share everything. All that we possess belongs to the monastery.”

“To join our order, a young man must hear the voice of God - it is always a whisper, God does not sound a trumpet and summon you to serve him. Once you discern his call you can come to Monte Fano and spend a few days with us, and see how we coexist as brothers. We encourage you to pray and confirm God’s call - this is a holy vocation. Our young aspirants join after completing their A/Ls. Some join us after working in the corporate sector. At stage one they learn English. They prepare to sit the NSE - National Seminary Exam. We have a simple ceremony and make them Postulants. The Postulants learn catechism and church history. Next, we send them to our Novitiate the St. Benedict’s Monastery in Haputale, commonly known as Adisham.”

We know that Adisham Monastery is famous for its jams and cordials. In the mist-covered hills of St. Benedict’s Monastery, the novices enter spiritual formation for one year under the guidance of a Novice Master. They make their Simple Profession. On returning to Kandy, they study at the National Seminary for seven years - four years of theology and three years of philosophy. They graduate with two degrees and make their final solemn vows. It is a challenging period of adapting to a religious community. The work of the Sylvestro-Benedictine monks is best captured in the Latin phrase - Per Crucem Ad Lucem which means “through the cross to the light”. What we are is God’s gift to us, what we become is our gift to God.


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