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The Silent Survivor

by Rev. Howard Curtis, O.C.S.U.
photos by Maria Homberg


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An oasis of silence in the midst of a war scarred region, the monastery of Latroun has achieved a unique place in the Holy Land. Known as the “silent monks of Latroun” for their peace, prayer and solitude they form the only Catholic contemplative community of men in the region.

Located in the Holy Land between Jaffa and Jerusalem, the community was founded in 1890 when 18 French Trappist monks bought 400 acres of land from an Arab Christian family that owned an inn. The monks soon mastered the art of building with abundant native stone. They drained the swampy lowlands and planted olive trees and vineyards. Today their main source of income is from the sale of wine and olive oil.

The ruins of a Crusader castle built at the end of the 12th century are located on the monastery’s grounds. Richard the Lionhearted is believed to have spent Christmas there in 1194. The castle was known as the Castle of the Crusaders or Toron des Chevaliers. In the 15th century local guides misinterpreted the name and called it the home of the good thief (latro) and it became known as the Castrum Boni Latronis, the Castle of the Good Thief.

The monastery prospered until the beginning of World War I when Turkish troops, allies of Germany, drove the French monks out. The library was destroyed and its collection used to fuel the kitchen stove. Superiors of the order assumed the monastery would never reopen. However, in 1917 when the British took over Palestine, the monks returned under the guidance of a French monk, Pere Paul Couvreur.

Again, the monastery flourished. Young men from Europe as well as Armenians, Chaldeans and Maronites from the Near East joined the community. In 1925 the monks undertook a 30-year project to build a permanent monastery and in 1937 they elected Pere Paul Couvreur as their first abbot.

The effects of World War II were felt as the monastery experienced a lack of vocations from Europe. Soon after the end of World War II the Israeli war of independence placed Latroun in difficult circumstances. One of the costliest battles of the war was fought at Latroun, but was indecisive. From 1948 until 1967 Latroun was isolated in a no man’s land administered by the United Nations. According to the rules of war, the land is to be unoccupied in such demilitarized zones, but through the intervention of the French government the monks were permitted to stay. Throughout this period the officers of the UN Truce Commission lived in the guest house. The Trappists earned the respect and good will of both the Jordanian and the Israelis during this tense period. Latroun has been peaceful since the Six Day War ended.

Today, the monks lease the stables of the old castle to a group of young German Lutheran Monks who are restoring them to use as their monastery.

Old monks are a monastery’s greatest treasure and Latroun is richly blessed in this way. The lack of young monks can be a monastery’s greatest trial. Latroun also knows this anxiety.

The war in Lebanon, the decline in vocations in Europe and the heavy emigration of the native Christians from the Holy Land all contribute to the dearth of young men at Latroun. In their blessings and in their trials the Trappists of Latroun wait patiently for Divine Providence to provide for their future.

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Fr. Curtis lived at Latroun for a number of years.



Tags: Holy Land War Catholic Monastery