Off a Bumpy Rural Road about 15 miles from Arcabuco, Colombia, a small sign points to the monastery of the Messengers of Peace. Further down the gravel road is the entrance gate of the monastery with a larger marker and a mosaic of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
It opens to part of a lush valley of rolling hills surrounded by mountains, a pristine piece of nature with a few scattered buildings.
Set away from the rest of the buildings and at the front of the property is a new chapel of Spanish architecture and a gravel parking lot. Alongside a plaza is a building with a medical clinic and what will be a store selling handmade religious items by members of the Messengers of Peace.
Down the road are several small buildings and one modest two-story structure. There’s a sports court, grottos, Stations of the Cross and a couple large crosses on the grounds.
Msgr. Luis Mesa, founder, explains that “this whole thing is a dream.”
He points to Archbishop Robert J. Carlson, co-founder, and with a chuckle says, “I blame him for a lot of this” — a religious community of brothers and priests dedicated to praying for peace.
In 1994, Msgr. Mesa was finishing work on a house in Colombia, and his plans were to leave California and retire there. His business took him all over the world, and his children, whom he raised as a single parent after his marriage was annulled, were out of the house, one daughter married and the other attending school at the University of California-Davis.
Because of those factors, he knew his life was in for a change, he recalls, but he didn’t know what was ahead. “My prayer was that all the doors that I shouldn’t go through be closed and the one that I should go through be open. And then I met archbishop and showed him a picture of the house in Colombia I had just finished. I had everything planned.”
Archbishop Carlson, at the time the bishop of Sioux Falls, S.D., where Father Mesa’s sister and mother lived, looked at him and told him, “I don’t think you should do what you have planned, you should come to Sioux Falls and help me,” Msgr. Mesa recalled.
Eventually, the archbishop asked him to enter the seminary in Sioux Falls but to keep his place in Colombia because it might have a use.
After being ordained and working for a time in Sioux Falls, Msgr. Mesa returned to Colombia in 2005 to work with the poor and help in some of the parishes.
God found a use for him and allowed him to work for Him, he said.
During his morning prayer one day after Mass, Archbishop Carlson grasped onto the thought of starting a religious community in Colombia — where insurgent groups were active at the time along with kidnappings — to pray for peace there and in the world, and to work with the poor. Msgr. Mesa, who has since been incardinated as a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, had similar thoughts from his prayer.
With proper permissions, they began work on forming a new religious community in 2006 in Villa de Leyva in a house that was owned by Msgr. Mesa. Some young men came to discern a calling, then left. Other religious communities learned about the new community and referred other men who they felt would be a good fit.
One of those men is Father Juan Ignacio de la Cruz, who was ordained in 2011. He explained that he grew up in a violent area, and his older brother was murdered. “It’s a great experience to be a priest here, live here, do a spiritual life here, to be close to God, to have a heart full of peace and joy,” he said.
Eventually, Msgr. Mesa began looking for land and found the right spot. “We were struck by it. The family that owned it raised cattle and came here for weekend breaks out of Bogota. Some very generous people contributed so we had the funds to purchase it,” Archbishop Carlson said.
Plans initially called for a large monastery, but the brothers suggested that “if you build that, the poor won’t come” because they wouldn’t be comfortable there.
What developed was a village-like monastery with separate, small buildings and a church that spills over with people on occasion. People have given the monastery chickens, sheep, a horse and more. “There’s plenty of work to do here,” the archbishop said. Besides caring for gardens, an orchard and farm animals, the brothers teach catechesis to young people and give talks around the country on prayer and other topics.
A reputation developed, with other religious communities calling them “that group up the mountain who like to pray.” Archbishop Carlson visits twice a year, usually around the feast of Mount Carmel and in the winter on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patronal feast, to celebrate Mass at the reception of vows into the community and reception into the novitiate. It’s an emotional service when the men receive their religious name and take the habit.
Men interested in the community make several visits as aspirants. They begin a postulancy on March 19, the feast of St. Joseph, then enter the novitiate on Dec. 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. They become novices for at least a year, sometimes longer before taking simple vows for three or six years before taking final vows. Some of the men may go on to ordination as transitional deacons and then to the priesthood.
“Some desire to remain brothers, others we’ll send to the seminary,” Archbishop Carlson said. One man is in the seminary now and when he is ordained a deacon, he’ll be the fourth ordained by Archbishop Carlson for the community. Most of the men won’t become priests.
While there’s plenty of hard work and times of recreation and laughter, the purpose of praying for peace is never far from mind. Every Thursday is a day of quiet adoration. Prayer and Mass is a part of every day. They even pray in the van on trips to nearby towns. The community’s charism, Msgr. Mesa said, is “prayer, work and spiritual direction.”
The spirit of camaraderie and caring among the men is obvious, from prayers early in the morning through work and time for sports during the day and to communal time at night when they sing songs and tell stories. When they play soccer, for example, they’re competitive with skilled footwork and also loose such as when they laugh after kicking a pop-up over the goalie.
“I do everything with passion because when I play, it’s for God too,” said Brother Jeffers de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.
Archbishop Carlson knows each of the men, their talents, characteristics and their quirks. For example, he called Brother Jose “the Jimmy Fallon of the community. He can make everyone laugh. If I had his energy, I’d probably be the fastest-moving bishop in the whole United States.”
The St. Louis Archbishop also entertains the brothers, who laugh at his antics. He’s well known for the fun he has collecting eggs from the chicken coop, about 150 in the morning and another 20-30 eggs in the afternoon. Many of the eggs are given to poor people in the area.
Besides the prayerful, peaceful environment, Archbishop Carlson, who knows Spanish sparingly, enjoys visiting with the Colombian people.
In a homily at the monastery, Archbishop Carlson referred to the Gospel and said, “the Lord will reward us with the gift of joy. It allows us to bring Christ to all who cross our path.”
That joy and the mission of bringing Christ to others is evident each day. It was evident when Msgr. Mesa blessed couples after a Mass on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Joy reined when a few of the men went to the market and chatted with residents of Arcabuco. And it was present as they prepared breakfast each morning.
But most of all, it shined during evenings when everyone gathered to relax. After guitar-strumming and group singing around a fireplace, Archbishop Carlson told the men that it was a blessing for him to be present. He asked them to be open to God’s love: “I’m glad you’re here. You have a strong spirit, and I’ve witnessed your particular gifts.”
He urged them to stay close to the Blessed Sacrament and ask the Sacred Heart to intercede for them.
Life, he said, “must be filled with joy, which is one of the great things about coming here.”
For those who have a busy life, Archbishop Carlson included, it’s easy to see that the monastery is a place where God is present.
When the Messengers of Peace formed in the 2000s, Colombia was still involved in a decades-long conflict between government forces, paramilitary groups, and anti-government insurgent groups, principally the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), heavily funded by the drug trade.
“I’ve always felt it was important to pray for peace,” Archbishop Robert J. Carlson said. While meditating in prayer separately, he and Msgr. Luis Mesa were invited by the Lord to pray for peace in Colombia and the world, an instance that led them to found the Messengers of Peace.
More than 31,000 former United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitaries demobilized by the end of 2006, and the AUC as a formal organization ceased to operate. In the wake of the paramilitary demobilization, illegal armed groups arose, whose members include some former paramilitary soldiers. After four years of formal peace negotiations, the Colombian government signed a final peace accord with the FARC in November 2016, which was subsequently ratified by the Colombian Congress.
The accord called for members of the FARC to demobilize, disarm and reincorporate into society and politics. Today, despite decades of internal conflict and drug-related security challenges, Colombia maintains relatively strong democratic institutions characterized by peaceful, transparent elections and the protection of civil liberties.
While Colombia has a peace agreement, there’s still need for prayer, Archbishop Carlson said, because “the world is still a fairly mean place.”
The Messengers of Peace founded and support a home in Villa de Leyva for girls who have suffered trauma or abuse. The Daughters of Mary Immaculate and Co-Redemptrix care for the girls and help them recover their dignity and develop leadership skills. A psychologist, nutritionist and counselors assist as well.
Archbishop Carlson added his touch — two golden retrievers who also offer unconditional love.
Talita Kum receives funding from the Pan y Amor program of the Archdiocese of St. Louis Mission Office. Talita Kum also supports nine similar residences for children in Bolivia, Kenya and Uganda, providing for both the physical and spiritual needs of children. For more information, visit https://bit.ly/2RFSH3C or contact the Archdiocesan Mission Office, 314-792-7655