Monte Fano: the Benedictine Monastery in the hills | Sunday Observer

Monte Fano: the Benedictine Monastery in the hills

15 September, 2019
Religious brotherhood
Religious brotherhood

In medieval times an Abbey was a place of rest and safety for weary travellers, who would ring the door bell knowing that a monk would take them in, be it winter or summer. During the vintage era of Ceylon an Abbey had existed in the green mountains of the glorious citadel of Kandy. With time the Abbey and her Abbot (chief monk) have gently faded away, but a religious monastery still exists in the serene village of Ampitiya, Kandy. We took the inter-city train to the hills to explore the mysteries of monastic life.

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 slowly came into view, with a cross on the rooftop. We were greeted by a young monk 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’s commonly known is a massive rectangular building depicting typical colonial architecture.

Footsteps of faith

We entered the library, and Fr. Shreen began to explain the origins of this religious order. He said, “The founder of our 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 the name of our house here in Ceylon. There were a few more Sylvestro- Benedictine abbeys in Rome. Yet for 600 years these monks remained in their monasteries in Italy. It was in 1845 that a 32-year-old priest Fr. Joseph Bravi decided to sail to Ceylon to preach the gospel. After enduring a perilous five month voyage he first worked in Negombo for a few months before going on to Pettah. During this time he pioneered the building of the church of St. Philip Neri. After 15 years of service in the island he died en route a sea voyage to Rome. But the foundation he had laid was enriched by other Benedictine monks who came to Ceylon - Fr. 

Hilarion Sillani, Fr. Leo Cingolani, Fr. Clement Pagnani (first Bishop of the diocese of Kandy), Fr. Augustine Pancrazi and Fr. Bonifilus Galassi the founder of Monte Fano in Kandy. In 1854 our brothers established St. Anthony’s College in Kandy. In 1865 we founded St. Benedicts College in Kotahena (Colombo-13) and established St. Sylvester’s College Kandy in 1940. So we have a long missionary history and will celebrate 175 years in Sri Lanka next year.”

The devoted monks built many magnificent churches including St. Mary’s Cathedral Negombo, St. James Church Mutwal and St. Lucia’s Cathedral Kotahena.

The library records indicate that the Sylvestro-Benedictine monks had built a beautiful abbey in Kandy in 1874 with permission from Rome. It was named St. Anthony’s Monastery. The first batch of novices were taken in for religious transformation. In 1875 under the leadership of Abbot Rev.Fr. Leo Cingolani OSB, the monastery was elevated to 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. Fr. Shreen added, “In November 1927 the monks decided to purchase Yatawara Walauwa from Loku Bandara Yatawara Dissawe, and restructured the building into a monastery naming it Monte Fano”.

Prayer and work

By noon we adjourned for lunch. It was amazing to note that every element 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, meaning prayer and work - so they cultivate their own paddy, fruits and vegetables supplemented by a dairy farm. After lunch we visited the chapel where a solitary monk was reading the bible. Fr. Suren Peter is the Rector of a boys’ school. He 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. In my school I am a role model to my students, as they always look up to us. 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 engraved IOGD which 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 words Pax Benedictina - i.e. peace within the thorns - in the hardest struggles of life God will give you his peace”.

Religious transformation

The wall on the long aisle leading to the office of the Conventual friar had black and white photos of former Abbots who had served faithfully. The monks take the vows of obedience, poverty, chastity, conversion of manners and stability. The present friar is Rev.Fr. Shamindra Jayawardena, the youngest friar in the history of the Sri Lankan Benedictine monks. Fr. Shamindra explained ‘For decades Monte Fano has been our mother house. I came here as a young boy from Wattala, leaving my family to take up religious vows. God by his grace has appointed me as friar 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 in Haputale known as Adisham - where we also make our jams and cordials. Here the novices enter spiritual formation for a year under 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’.

Monte Fano has a separate retreat centre with cozy rooms open to the public on payment for retreats. 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.