The story of our priory in Brazil begins with the Saint Vincent community meeting of January 9, 1963. An excerpt from the minutes of that meeting reads as follows: In regard to the Priory of Santos, many capitulars were interested, and it was almost the unanimous opinion of the capitulars that this project should be undertaken as described in the last Chapter. There is an additional note that Archabbot Denis Strittmatter ended the discussion by stating that a few men would be sent to the priory during the summer of 1963.
Many monks volunteered to be part of the new community in Brazil. Archabbot Rembert Weakland, who had recently been elected to succeed Archabbot Denis, selected four of us who had volunteered and appointed me prior. The monastery, which was now a dependent priory of Saint Vincent, had been founded in 1650. The five members of the Santos community welcome our arrival four German-born priests and Brother Miguel, the only Brazilian-born member.
Now, as I reflect on my experience of thirty years in Brazil, one strong feeling predominates that seems to suffuse the factual information that comes to mind. From the beginning, the Brazilian people welcomed me as a brother and friend. And in turn, I have given my heart to the people of Brazil. I still recall those first days when we were still learning a new language and the misunderstandings that often brought hilarious results. After my first sermon in Portuguese, a teacher from the local high school patiently went over all the mistakes that I had made.
The monastery, Saint Benedict Priory, is located near Vinhedo, a city of 45,000 inhabitants. We are about an hour’s drive from Sao Paulo, a city with a population of 17 million people. Our long-term objective has been to establish an independent Brazilian Benedictine community at Vinhedo, which in turn would lead to other foundations.
We took several measures in order to build a solid monastic community that would enable us to focus our attention on meeting the religious needs of the people in the region. The priory had been operating a fair-sized winery and a farm when we arrived. In 1968 we voted to close the winery, and two years later we began to sell the farm. The proceeds from the sale of the land enabled us to construct a monastery, which was dedicated in November 1972. The Siloe Retreat Center was inaugurated in 1975; and the church, begun in 1986, was dedicated in 1991.
Our community, with Father Cristiano Aparecido Brito as prior, now numbers seventeen, all but four being Brazilian. Six of the monks are in the formative stage of studies on the graduate or undergraduate level. More than 3,000 persons come to the retreat center annually. We do a lot of counseling work, and are challenged to provide theological formation for lay leaders of base communities which are multiplying rapidly. Some of the monks teach theology at a nearby university. In order to support our religious mission we are also engaged in teaching English classes, translating, and growing vegetables for the monastery and retreat center.
Pentecostal and fundamentalist sects are proliferating in Brazil. Our community will have to assume a greater role in ecumenical dialogue, which at present is almost non-existent. During the 20-year military dictatorship, the vast majority of people became poorer. Our voice in support of the poor in their struggle will continue to be a major responsibility. The face of the Catholic Church in Brazil is slowly changing toward a “preferential option”for the poor.
We have made steady progress toward accomplishing our long-term goal of establishing a Brazilian Benedictine community. The prior and the majority of our members are now Brazilian. We are, however, not yet an independent priory; we continue to count on the support of the Saint Vincent community and our many American friends.
Leo Rothrauff, O.S.B.