60th ANNIVERSARY OF FOUNDATION
ABBEY OF OUR LADY OF THE GENESEE
1951 - 2011
OUR LADY OF THE GENESEE AND THE FOUNDATION OF NOVO MUNDO IN BRAZIL
Fr. John Eudes Bamberger, OCSO, retired Abbot of Genesee and founding Abbot of Novo Mundo
The Abbey of the Genesee had completed building the monastic church in October 1975 and on the 24th of that same month it was consecrated. This event took place twenty-four years after having implanted Cistercian life on the banks of the Genesee River. Was this symbolic of the completion of the early stage of our growth as a community, leaving us situated to consider the needs of the Church in more distant lands? In any case, it was in May of the following year when the possibility of making a foundation in Brazil was presented to the community, at the time of a visit from Dom Augustine Roberts of Azul monastery in Argentina. After he had told me that he believed that Fr. Francisco, a monk of Azul and former superior in Chile, would be available as a member of the founding group, I came to the opinion that, with his participation our community could undertake to send a small contingent of experienced monks to Brazil to attempt to re-establish our Order in that country which has the largest number of Catholics in the world.
Because of the threat to religious life by political forces strongly anti-Catholic, there had been a foundation made there in 1905 by the Belgian monastery of Orval, partly with the idea that such a foundation could serve as a refuge if, as seemed likely, religious life would be suppressed in France and Belgium in 1905. This foundation, having discovered that the country was not prepared for Trappist life, had been closed. The last monks returned to Orval in 1933. Trappistine nuns also had made a foundation in Novo Friburgo Diocese during that some period, and had also returned to their motherhouse of Chambarand, France. The Genesee community was supportive of the possibility of a daughter house in Brazil, having been presented with that possibility.
I was able to consult with Father Mathias Schmidt, superior of a Benedictine Priory founded in Goias, Brazil by American monks from Kansas upon learning he was in this country for a visit. He was warmly favorable to a Trappist foundation in that country, which is larger than continental USA. He made helpful suggestions as to the more promising areas for such a monastery.
When I contacted the Archbishop of Curitiba, Pedro Fedalto, I received a welcoming invitation to found in that diocese. He replied that the very day he received my letter he had been given an offer from Fr. A. J. Mueller, a missionary priest from Holland working in that Diocese, to donate to some religious community a 250 acre farm, with a house and barn, for a modest sum to compensate a co-owner of the property. The farm is situated near Lapa in the Curitiba Diocese. So I made an exploratory visit to that country in 1977. The prospects seemed favorable and after discussions made the necessary arrangements, involving considerable details of a practical kind.
Not least was naming the men who would be willing and able to undertake all the responsibilities of establishing a monastic presence with its material, educational, and spiritual demands in a foreign country whose language is little known in the United States. Traditionally in our Order 13 monks were needed to make a foundation, however, recent changes in our Constitutions had made possible a more flexible number. Only four were to form the original community at Lapa. Genesee could afford to supply only a small group. In addition to Fr. Francisco Dietzler of Azul, who had accepted to serve as superior, the three experienced Genesee monks: Dom Jerome Burke, Brother Barnabas and Brother Cyprian. After a rather brief period to prepare themselves by studying the Portugese language and some discussions concerning their way of proceeding, Fr. Francis and Fr. Jerome left in October, 1978 to begin life at the Lapa foundation. From the first day, when Fr. Jerome was alone for some weeks – Fr. Francis was engaged with various matters that engaged him elsewhere – the liturgical office was said in full in Portugese.
All four monks were capable in various practical matters so that the buildings were soon adapted for monastic use by Fr. Jerome and Br. Cyprian and the farmland planted in buckwheat by Br. Cyprian. Before long the regular Trappist life was being lived again in this huge country. A Benedictine priest, Fr. Emmanuel, joined the group as a postulant. As time advanced it became clear that further personnel were needed. Genesee was able to send Br. Gregory and Br. Justin both of whom left the motherhouse for Lapa in August, 1979. The name Cister Lapeano was chosen as the name for this young foundation.
On January 20, 1980 The Concilium Generale, in response to our request, unanimously gave official approval of the community at Lapa as a Foundation and permission to open a regular novitiate. In the course of this year, with the increased numbers in the community, there arose a desire for a more solitary and spacious property. Some exploration brought to light the availability of a property consisting of farmland and woods situated in the same diocese, some fifteen miles or so from Cister Lapeana. Owned by a Korean businessman, the price of this 820 acre holding was relatively low due, in good part, to its rather solitary location. The community agreed on the move and, at a visitation I arranged the purchase with the owner, paying the full price in cash from funds set aside for the foundation. The property was known under the title Novo Mundo, and it was decided to retrain that name. Since the land was not far from Lapa, work on preparing the site including the kilometer long entry road, could be undertaken by the monks. A team of local workers was hired to clear land that was heavily overgrown with underbrush.
On December 17th, 1980, in the course of a visitation, the site for constructing a permanent monastery was agreed upon and the first mass was celebrated in open air on the site. Arrangements were made with local workers to install an electric line from the highway to the site of the future buildings, about a kilometer long. We agreed upon the placement for the monastery buildings and in the open air said the first mass on the site.
Arrangements were made with an architect and with a contractor in Rio Negro for construction, estimated to be completed in six to seven months. Work on the Church began only after the monks moved into the new buildings. Before leaving Lapa, a near disaster struck when two armed men attacked and robbed the monastery on August 28, 1981. Fr. Francisco, who sought to disarm one of the men, was stabbed in the neck and liver. At surgery, the bleeding was staunched, and life saved. In time, he returned to full health and continued effectively as superior, while the newly acquired property was being developed. An apple orchard was planted, as was an extensive pine forest.
The Church was constructed, using an attractive stone quarried in the local area, and wood for choir stalls from monastery land, the monks very actively contributing to the building. On February 22, 1984 the completed monastic church was dedicated, Archbishop Pedro presiding in the presence of numerous priests and friends of the community. This event marked a new stage in the growth of the community; it gave a sense of solidity to the presence of Cistercian life, well integrated in the diocese.
As the community grew and the land and economy developed, not without considerable struggle gradually there was a growth in numbers as young Brazilians entered the monastery. In June, 1988 the Concilium Generale approved the request to establish the Foundation as a Priory and on August 23rd it was elevated to that canonical status in a ceremony in which eight monks changed stability. An election was held the same day and Fr. Edouardo of Azul was chosen. It required some negotiation and dialogue with the abbot and community of Azul before Fr. Edouardo, with the approval of his abbot, accepted the election. On August 30, when he was promptly installed as Prior.
The community responded fervently to his personable and competent leadership and growth in numbers and in economy was marked. Brother Jose as cellarer contributed much to development of the farm and material organization. He collaborated closely with Dom Edouardo, who, himself, was experienced in practical management and in finance. But in October, 1990, the community of Azul in the election following the loss of Dom Bernardo, their abbot, who was elected Abbot General, postulated Dom Eduardo as his successor at Azul.
Although the Novo Mundo monks in a consultative vote strongly recommended that he remain as Prior, he chose to return to his community at Azul. In the election necessitated by this event, on November 2nd, Fr. Felix Donahue, a monk of Gethsemani abbey, was elected Prior. This too required some negotiation and made special demands upon him since he was filling important roles in the monastery; moreover, he had no knowledge of Portugese language and culture. However, after some further reflection, he accepted the election.
During his six years as Prior further growth of the community gradually led to a stronger presence of native Brazilians. The economy too provided an increasingly solid income as the farm produced well. A fifty acre piece of land that is bordered by a small stream that supplied water for irrigation was purchased. Later, this land provided the site for two large barns to house chickens in an arrangement with a local cooperative that exports large numbers of the birds to Saudi Arabia.
At the end of his term as Prior, Fr. Bernard Bonowitz, the novice master at Spencer, was elected and installed as Prior on July 15, 1996. He soon enrolled in a language school in Sao Paulo and after a short time was able to preach and teach, proving to be an able communicator in Portugese. After some years, as the number of Brazilian professed monks increased he arranged for construction of a sizeable, attractive building to house cells for the monks, a chapel, and also a classroom. After his first term as Prior, Dom Bernardo was re-elected and continues to serve actively not only in his community but also as President of the Religious Association of Benedictines and Common Observance Cistercians in Brazil. At the General Chapter he was named to the office of Moderator of the Chapter. The experience he continues to gain in these functions contributes to the life and formation of the community of Novo Mundo now that counts some twenty-seven or so members. Some years ago as Prior of Novo Mundo accepted to serve as delegated Father Immediate of the Angola community, where Portugese is also the language. Four of the young Angolese monks are to receive an extensive period of formation while living in the Brazilian community. In addition, Novo Mundo has agreed to serve as the Father Immediate of a Trappistine convent in the process of being founded in Brazil by the sisters at Quilvo, Chile in close cooperation with Dom Bernard and the Novo Mundo community.
Over the years, cordial and helpful contacts have been maintained with Genesee in the best traditions of our Cistercian Order. A pledge of our continuing union in the Spirit is the presence in the Novo Mundo cemetery of the graves of the four monks who were so long such fervent and skilled members of Genesee: Dom Jerome, Brothers Cyprian and Barnabas, and Father Stephen, each of whom contributed so generously to the establishment of this Brazilian community of Novo Mundo.
SUPPLEMENT BRINGING REPORT UP TO DATE
In response to enquiries I have just received from Dom Bernardo and Fr. Francisco supplementary details concerning the early history and more recent developments at the Novo Mundo monastery. This information contributes to render a fuller account of the community in its early years and serves to record certain events of continuing interest.
March 4, 1982 was the date when the small community at Lapa move to the newly acquired property at Campo do Tenente. On the next day, the first mass in the newly occupied monastery. Work continued on the new Church and some 5,000 apple trees were planted, providing a source of income as well as making demands for considerable manual labor. The monastery church, having been completed some time before, was dedicated by Archbishop Pedro Fedalto February 21, 1984, and was the site of the first profession of solemn vows on November 13, 1985, made by the first Brazilian, Fr. Emmanuel Retumba.
Three years later, on August 23, 1988, the monastery, now consisting of 14 monks, was elevated to the rank of simple Priory, and Fr. Eduardo Gowland was elected the first Prior, as noted earlier. In 1989 a bakery was built and began producing fruit cakes and cookies as an industry for supporting the community. It was the following year when Fr. Felix Donahue was elected Prior on November 2, 1990. During his six years in office Br. Jose Bischofberger and Father Lazaro Pires dos Santos made solemn profession. Fr.
Bernard Bonowitz, succeeded Dom Felix as Prior in 1996. He presided over the community as Prior for three years. During this time Novo Mundo had grown in numbers, consisting of seventeen monks, with nine in solemn vows, seven of whom were priests, when it was raised to the status of a Major Prior in the General Chapter of 1999. Dom Bernard, was elected for an indefinite term.
During Dom Bernardo's term of office as Prior the economy proved stable both in the farming and bakery operations and new members entered and persevered so that the General Chapter of 2008 raised the Priory to the rank of Abbey and Dom Bernardo received the Abbatial Blessing November 11, 2008. Dom Ladislaus Biernaski, bishop of the newly created diocese of Sao Jose dos Pinhais presided and conferred the abbatial blessing. Dom Bernardo is at present serving as the delegate of the Father Immediate in regard to the new foundation of Trappistines, Our Lady of Boa Vista in Santa Catarina, and the General Chapter of 2011 has just approved him to be the Father Immediate when Boa Vista becomes an autonomous monastery. At present there are 16 solemn professed members of Novo Mundo,3 simple professed, 3 novices, and 3 postulants. Also present are 6 Angolans who are living at Novo Mundo until the monstery of Bela Vista in Angola is re-founded.
Rev. Fr. John Eudes, ocso
November 21, 2011
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