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A Publication of

From Number 191 - Summer 2002

Dogs in the Cloister

A Benedictine monk shares the story of his Peruvian dogs
and the joy they brought him

By Abbot Paul Stonham OSB

Before I was elected Abbot of Belmont in December 2000, I spent 20 wonderful years in Peru at our Benedictine foundation, the Monastery of the Incarnation.  During all that time my constant and most faithful companions were dogs, Peruvian dogs.

I was given Bernardo in December 1981 by Sr Mary of the Sisters of Notre Dame.  He was just a month short of his 13th birthday when he died in 1994. He was rather like a Belgian sheepdog, large and beautiful, golden haired and very friendly.  When in August 1986 I moved from the parish of Tambogrande, where he was already a legend, out into the countryside to our new monastic home, he became co-founder with me of the monastery.  Indeed, he shared in every moment and aspect of the monastic day.  We prayed together, worked together, went out on the mission together high up into the Andes or across the Sechura desert, ate together and rested together.

Although he loved wide open spaces and enjoyed chasing snakes and iguanas, or looked forward to a ride in the truck and a visit to the beach for a swim, what he most liked was simply to sit at my side on the balcony as I silently read the Bible or to lie on the chapel floor as I said my Office or celebrated Mass. One particularly happy memory is how, when we visited isolated mountain villages, he would allow the little children to ride on his back as though he were a horse.  He loved children and they loved him.

When he died it was as though I had lost everything and, in a sense, there all alone in the Peruvian bush, I had, for - apart from God - he was everything to me, my faithful and beloved companion.  That parting was so painful that I decided never to have another dog.  The bond is too strong, the love too deep, the separation too heartbreaking.

However, ten days after his death, I received a message from a friend in Lima. ‘Go to the airport in Piura.  (This is our nearest city, 80 miles away.)  Meet the evening plane.  There’s a gift for you.’

The plane landed.  The hostess came into the small departure lounge and asked if I was Padre Pablo.  I nodded and she said, ‘There’s a bird cage for you from the Senorita Barbara.’  She went back to the plane and soon returned carrying the cage.  An Amazonian parrot, I thought.  But when I looked inside there were two small puppies of unknown pedigree.  They turned out to be brother and sister, offspring of an Alsatian dog and a Collie (Lassie type) mother.  I had no choice.  By this time the plane was revving up its engines ready for take-off. The pups were now mine.  I had to adopt them.  So I called them Abelardo and Eloisa, Abelard and Heloise.

Bringing up twins was a new experience for me.  How different their characters, how loving their natures.  It was as if they could sense that I was mourning Bernardo.  Incidentally, it was the Archbishop who came from Piura to bless Bernardo’s headstone and say a prayer of thanksgiving for his life and friendship.  I soon learned that dogs, being pack animals, have much more fun and are more contented when they have company.  And it was fascinating to see how Genoveva, our Siamese, immediately took control of the situation and taught them the rules of the house.  To this day they are most deferential and obedient to her.

Needless to say, it wasn’t long before they got the hang of the monastic routine and were responding eagerly to the bells that called the monks to prayer, work and meals.  With what enthusiasm they would race into the church for the Liturgy of the Hours.  Abelardo’s favourite spot for Vigils at 5a.m. was under Our Lady’s statue close to me, whereas Eloisa preferred to be in the choir, in her stall among the brethren.  For later offices and for Mass Ablardo would lie under the altar with just a paw or an ear peeking out from under the frontal.  Dogs are never happier than when their owners are at prayer.  Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and long periods of silent prayer were special favourites.

It broke my heart when I was elected Abbot and had to return to Belmont, leaving them behind.  Of course, they are looked after with great care and loved dearly by our young Peruvian monks.  They are probably the best cared for dogs in Peru and it would have been cruel to have attempted putting them into quarantine in order to bring them in to the UK.  I like to think that they miss me far less than I miss them and we do get to see each other from time to time when I return to Peru to visit the brethren.  I only wish that all dogs in Peru were as happy and as healthy as mine.

Return to The Ark No. 191 - Summer 2002

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