By Kaelanne Jordan
The 106-year-old iron bridge at Mount St Benedict is in a state of disrepair and has become increasingly dangerous to traverse. It was erected as part of the grand water scheme to have access to the pipes embedded into the mountain at the side and to have free access to the water supply source in the hills.
It is incumbent on the monks to restore the bridge so that the water scheme will remain in place. This water scheme has served the pilgrims, the adjoining communities, the swimming pool and other recreational facilities, the monks and all who visit the Mount faithfully for 110 years.
“The monks are in dire need of your financial and moral support as we seek to restore this historic bridge,” Abbot John Pereira OSB told Catholic News.
Repair works on the bridge began towards the end of March 2022 and should take a month to complete. This repair work, Abbot explained, involves removing some of the railway lines on the bridge that became weathered over time. He mentioned soon after he became Abbot, he realised the water system was deteriorating.
“The lines, which have been placed 100 years ago were falling apart. The system needed rejuvenation. The dams that we get the water from needed excavating and broadening so we can hold more water. We went on a massive project, it lasted maybe two or three years and that cost over a million dollars.”
He continued, “And because of that project now, we can have a swimming pool without any problems. We continue to supply everybody who comes here with water 24/7… we have no complaints.”
Abbot Pereira shared that prior to this, he received complaints from tenants of no water.
“I decided to make an investigation into the water system. We invited a former engineer from WASA to come and advise us and we did our own research here. And eventually, after all that research was done, we embarked on a massive water scheme….we actually changed thousands of feet of pipes. Because of this improvement and upgrade of our water system, some of the older lines in the hills near to the bridge were abandoned. In other words, we diverted the water system.”
Those lines, Abbot Pereira mentioned, are made of iron “that you cannot get anywhere in the world or in Trinidad today”.
The great water scheme
In 1899, Dom Mayeul de Caigny was placed as Superior of a newly founded Benedictine Monastery in the north-eastern Brazilian countryside in the province of Ceara in Santa Cruz. Apparently, each year there was a serious shortage of water in this mountainous region, caused by prolonged droughts.
“The monks were thus caught unawares, with the prospect of facing a long six months with no water readily available, as the wells and the streams in the monastery area had all dried up. This meant that water had to be collected by donkeys, in small barrels, from a source several kilometers down the mountain. Even when boiled, this water tasted awful,” Abbot Pereira said.
The monks finally fell on the idea of mixing huge amounts of coffee with it to make it drinkable. The drought also affected the growing of vegetables and other crops. Throughout the winter of 1900–1901, food became scarce, with very little choice or variety.
According to Abbot Pereira, “Dom Mayeul feared for the health and morale of the younger monks. There was even talk of a pending famine. To say the least of it, the situation seemed bleak, calling for patience and ingenuity, as well as leadership.”
Nonetheless, throughout the winter of 1900–1901, the little group managed to survive, while at the same time continuing their studies in philosophy and theology, and the daily round of regular monastic prayer.
“It was an almost heroic existence. When Dom Mayeul set out to establish the Monastery of Mount St Benedict in Trinidad, he did not want to have a similar experience.”
The deciding factor in choosing the spot on which the Monastery of Mount St Benedict is now located was the presence of a stream which passed through a gorge and was part of the property being offered to him by Andrew Victoriano Gomez.
“He was assured that even in the dry season, the water never ceased to flow. He had thought of the drought that he had experienced in Ceara, Brazil, and he was determined to buy the property, which he eventually did,” Abbot Pereira said.
During the early days of 1913, the monks had to concentrate on several important matters, one of them being how to guarantee a constant supply of good fresh water. Despite access to the stream of water in the hills, there were as yet no pipes to function as conduits for the water. The monks had to go down to the ravine to fetch water “and it was no easy job to carry it along the rugged terrain of the estate.”
Br Joseph Kleinmann arranged for the purchase of a few thousand feet of pipes, which he laid down at strategic points and thus brought the water from the ravine to the monastery.
This feat of engineering caught the interest of a Port of Spain Gazette reporter, who wrote on May 25, 1913: “By a well laid out scheme, water was brought up with fairly heavy force from the river some hundreds of feet below, in a pipe laid in a somewhat circuitous route, some 1500 feet, very often the forks of the trees being utilised to support the pipe. Water of excellent quality and delightfully cool can thus be obtained throughout the day, at the rate of five gallons per minute.”
February 1913 saw the arrival of reinforcements, with three clerics and two lay brothers, bringing the total number of the community to eleven. One of the lay brothers, Everard Mokveld, the future Br Gabriel, proved to be a most valuable asset to the young community. In time, he became a master-builder and architect, and along with Br Kleinmann, was the force behind most of the building programmes at Mount St Benedict in the coming years.
This great water scheme was further developed in the year 1915. The pipeline, which Br Kleinmann had laid in the beginning of 1913, was fastened for the great part by roots of trees, which provided a very primitive support.
For the new water scheme, “it was absolutely required to have independent supports and of greater durability”. For this purpose, second-hand rails were bought at three pounds sterling per ton. The pipes themselves were imported from the USA.
The work of embedding the pipes involved some blasting of the rock, which was usually done at midday, when the community was at lunch. It happened one day that the community was assembled in the refectory, and Br Willibrord had gone out to sound the bugle on his piston.
It was a “lusty call to arms”, and soon heavy explosions rebounded through the ravine with rolling echoes. The Abbot at the head table looked rather anxious (or annoyed), but the other monks thoroughly enjoyed the treat.
It was January 27, 1915, the birthday of Kaiser William II. The main pipe reached the monastery on June 1, 1916 (Early History of Mount St Benedict by Dom Odo van der Heydt).
On November 16, 1916, the iron bridge crossing the ravine at the back of the monastery was completed and blessed.