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News - 15 .31.01.2007

Colombia again



Damaso Zuazua, ocd - Secretary for the Missions


In Antioquia of the “paisas”


 It is a civil district or province. One that is industrious and productive. They say that the Antiochian people can produce gold from stone. Antiochia is the economic brain of the nation. The people are very able business wise. The “paisas” are gifted speakers, talkative and articolate. They explain things by using proverbs and maxims. They are precise and don’t waste words.


 Antioquia is a land of mountain streams, river banks covered with foliage, with well cultivated fields and fine trees that offer shade to the many tourists, who are encouraged to walk along the specially maintained walkways. In the midst of all this is an enormous 200 meter high black coloured, granite rock, 770 meters in diameter. Nearby is the pretty town of Guatape, which attacts many tourists, even though it is set 2, 137 meters above sea level.


 At the sides of the roads are a great number of statues and niches, all different sizes and styles, to the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mt. Carmel. Other novelties are the statues of St. Joseph as a guide for one’s journey. I have never seen anywhere else the holy patriarch venerated along the roads. No one takes them away, or profanes them. There is great respect. The piety of the Antioquians must be deep. At the same time there is a strong military presence on the streets, this to counteract terrorism. In a few words, Antioquia is a large, beautiful, dynamic, well organized, creative and inventive province.


 Its capital Medellin is the only city in Colombia which can measure up to, and even rival the capital, Bogota. Medellin is a city of three million people. Its recent “metrocable” is an outstanding engineering acheivement. This aerial tube takes passengers from the centre to the suburbs in a few minutes. I have never seen any else in the world such a clean and bright metro as I saw in Medellin.


 Carmel has quite a significant presence here, thanks to the deeply rooted devotion to our Lady of Mt. Carmel. In the suburb of Manrique there stands out an impressive neogothic church, which belongs to the Carmelites, and, being situated on the side of a hill it can be seen for miles around. This big parish has existed since 1961 and is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. Its great appeal is also the statue of Our Lord of Mercies. There is the “Casa Teresiana” (Teresian house), doing great work pastorally, established ten years ago in the shadow of the nearby Medellin-La Mansion Carmel. Its director is Fr. John Jairo, ocd. He organizes the liturgical prayer and 24 hour eucharistic adoration.


 In 1952 the Carmelite seminary of Sanson was translated to the estensive territory of Monticelo in El Poblado. Today it is the place for carmelite aspirants, with a total of 20 this year: 17 from Colombia and 3 volunteers from Ecuador. It serves also as a centre of spirituality. With newly constructed buildings they have created a residential centre “Hospederia Monticelo”, to offer spritual assistance to the tourists or people who come for conferences. At 42 kilometers from Medellin, in La Ceja – called the Vatican of Antioquia because of the many religous houses – a young Colombian carmelite, Andrew Jaramillo, has begun a programme for those wishing to experience carmelite contemplation, in communion with the bishop and with committed assistants.


 Medellin has had its own Carmel since 1791. It is the aforementioned convent from La Mansion. In the past it was responsible for the foundation of four other convents. The building is solid and elegant, and is full of young people. In Antioquia there is also the Carmel of Girardota, after its translation in 1991 from its original site in el Poblado (1900), then La Ceja (1912) (how many Carmels in the world have six young sisters in white veils?), and La Estella (1959). In all the convents I found so much enthusiasm, due to many young vocations at this time. The Colombian Association of Carmels is preparing right now for two new foundations, in Cartagena and in Garagoa.


Finally, Sonson!


 This town is situated in the heart of Antioquia, 110 kilometers from Medellin. Since my childhood, from as far back as 1945, it’s name has been familiar to me. My eldest Carmelite brother, after finishing his priestly studies in Spain, was sent to Sonson. Here he was director of the carmelite seminary. Later, in 1969, he returned as the first parish priest. His letters made a great impression on us, above all in the first period describing, as they did, a completely different world from Spain at the time of the second world war.


The road from Medellin to Sonson is full of bends; there must be more than a thousand of them. In my whole life I have never seen such charming, such attractive countryside. “Sonson te saluda” (Sonson welcomes you), is written above the entrance arch. Once upon a time it used to be the capital of the province, with its own bank, and is the birthplace of many notable people. It could have been converted into a new Villa de Leyva, if they had conserved better the past and the many colonial buildings. They have a renovated cathedral, renewed in a modern style after the destruction cause by the earthquake in 1962. There is no train, nor access to an important national highway. The mountains are its beauty and its borders. It is a city that has not grown. There are 40,000 inhabitants, the same numbers as 50 years ago. Have we come to sing the elegy of Sonson? No. Sonson has still kept much of its charm. First and foremost there are the people, the townsfolk and the local farmers, who make visitors feel very welcome. The biggest civil festival is the celebration of the maize harvest.


In this place Carmel has lost none of its vitality, as so many people pray to the Blessed Virgen of Mt. Carmel in the Carmelite church, and visit the friars. In Sonson and all around there is great devotion to our Lady of Mt. Carmel; such devotion is zealous, with much folklore and fiestas, also this is linked to patriotism, and is inspiring. Carmel has stood the test of time.


 There is a monumental cemetry in Sonon. At 2,450 meters high, it enjoys a fresh and healthy climate. The main square is open and colourful, where there are different styles of building with their colourful balconies. Among the museums the “casa de los abuelos” (house of the old) stands out. It offers a superb perspective of the past in all its many facets, with innumerable photographs, and technical instruments; those used in the home, and on the farm. The museum has a great ethnographic and archeological value.


 The Carmelite foundation struck me as having a lot of character. It is the second Carmelite foundation in Colombia, at the same time as Frontino in 1914, after the first implantation in Villa de Leyva (1911). A history of the origins describes Sonson as the most catholic and fervent city in Antioquia, where “more men go to daily mass than women…”.


 The Carmelite church is built in the Spanish neo-gothic style. It is bright and well restored after the flood in 1938 which reached the tower. The reredos is of gilded wood. The statue of our Lady of Mt. Carmel, canonically crowned in 1951, looks like the work of Font, the famous Catalonian sculpter.


 The carmelite property is located in the poorest area, called “La Calzada”. It has a well proportioned interior patio, filled with flowers. The old college for aspirants (1941), converted in 1954 into the Carmelite college, is today a centre for youngsters from the country. The place is run by the Carmelite Sisters of St. Joseph. The four youngsters who are presently there are: Jose Rene Sierra, William Bustamante, Humberto Labaro Henao, and the deacon – soon to be ordained a priest – Richard Bayona. They help in the pastoral care of the 15,000 parishoners. They begin the day, at the foot of the statue of the Virgin Mary, with a hymn from Lauds sung with fervour, together with the six Missionary sisters of St. Therese. A number of the faithful, wrapped in their “ponchos”, join with them in this morning praise.


 The pastoral work includes various kinds of social work. One of fruits of the work shared by these young people is the successful building of 32 dwellings for needy families, creating a suburb known as “El Carmen”. From the parish they look after 20 villages, some quite close others far away, access is made by car, horse or on foot. It is a huge country area to be evangelized, from children from the rural schools to the adult missions. They visit the villages systematically, on set Sundays.


 An important initiative is the “Casa Taller”, which rescues women off the street and cares for children who have been abandoned and single mothers. This parish work is organized by the Missionary Sisters of St. Therese, a Colombian congregation founded in 1929 by Mgr. Miguel Angel Builes in Santa Rosa de Osos.


 In the month of December a group of more than 100 evangelists, among them priests, male and female religious, catechists and laity, took part in the “mission” of Sonson and its suburbs, including visits to the more distant villages. Another social work of the parish is “El Ropero”, which offers clothes at low-cost prices. Bro. Humberto Labaro Henao develops his own apostolate in assisting the poor with his unique charism. Is there any difference between Saint Martin de Porres and this good Carmelite Brother?


 Seeing and considering everything, Sonson in Antioquia, Colombia, is a Latin American Carmelite missionary situation.


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