A new order


After a long period of spiritual discernment Mother Agnes Mariam asked her superiors of the Carmel monastery of Harissa in Lebanon where she was living since 1971 the permission to leave the cloistered life to discover and serve her local Church (the Church of Antioch) in order to begin a monastic foundation with the aim to return to the spiritual sources of oriental monasticism as a powerful means of Christian testimony to face the huge challenge of Christian survival today in the Middle East. She received the blessing of the Holy Spirit from her superiors and left the walls of the Carmel monastery after 21 years of cloistered life. It’s the year 1991-1992. She then went to France to study in Paris to perfect herself in the history of ancient monasticism and in Hebrew and Syriac. There she met Sister Claire-Marie (see photo on the top of the page), who herself came from a Carmelite monastery in France and who was seeking a vocation in the Orient. They joined forces towards the same project. Divine providence opened for them the way step by step:

                                                       

28th of August 1993 until October of the same year

At that time Mother Agnes Mariam was doing in-depth research of her local Church [Church of Antioch], without neglecting the humanitarian aid, in which she has always been involved, even when she was cloistered. Then she was invited by the superior of a Maronite monastic community to assist her. She and Sister Claire-Marie settled in that monastery, located on the “Metn” mountain in Lebanon.  


October 1993-14th of July 1994

In August she went to Syria and visited the monastery of Mar Mussa [1] restored by Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, a Syriac Jesuit priest she knew since the eighties and whose foundational work in Syria greatly influenced her. Leaving the monastery to go to Homs, Father Paolo’s companion, Brother Jacques Mrad asked her to join him to Homs. On their way, they passed by Qara, a beautiful village boarding the highway.  Brother Jacques proposed her to visit an old ruin situated at the west skirt of the town: a monastery dating from the 6th century and attributed to Saint James the Persian. She walked around amidst rubble, stones, fallen arches and doorways, all built around a Roman tower (see photo here). She was inexpressibly moved by the majesty of the place, the density of the silence which was bearing such a great history of holiness and trials. She inquired about the place and was told by brother Jacques that it belonged to the Greek Catholic diocese of Homs. And Brother Jacques was precisely going there - so they went to visit the Bishop that very day.


Mgr. Abraham Nehmé was deeply touched when he heard Mother Agnes-Mariam’s wish to rebuild the ruins and exclaimed: “For ten years I’ve been looking desperately for someone to take interest in that monastery”. They reached a verbal agreement. In February a written contract was signed. Then, on the 14th of July 1994 restoration works began. Mgr. Nehmé asked 7 of his seminarians to help for one month during their summer vacation. With them and with the help of some daily workers and some local children the building site began under the direction of a civil engineer who assisted Mother Agnes-Mariam. All these events and many others demonstrated the hand of God in this new foundation.  

 

14th of July 1994 – 15th of September 1995

Mother Agnes-Mariam continued to stay in Lebanon and kept watch over the building site by travelling back and forth to Syria. At the same time she was establishing with three Universities in France, Belgium and Lebanon the “Institute of Antioch” for the conservation and restoration of the cultural and religious heritage of the Churches of Antioch. In that period, she and Sister Claire-Marie moved from the monastery of the Maronite sisters to the Monastery of the Resurrection at Faraya with a lay community who wanted to serve there and who asked her spiritual accompaniment. There, Mother Agnes-Mariam was involved in a lot of spiritual activities where she guided a lot groups and individuals. She also pursued  the implementation of the Institute of Antioch. 

In the middle of September 1995, Mother Agnes Mariam and sister Claire-Marie organized iconography classes in Faraya. Carmel Dawalibi, a young Lebanese woman, participated and later on joined Mother Agnes Mariam and Sister Claire-Marie in the foundation and received the name of Sr Carmel of St John the Baptist (see photo here). She will grow to be the faithful right hand and nurse of Mother Agnes Mariam. 

  

15th of September 1995-1997

These years were characterized by an intense activity of the foundational group: visits or stays in Syria, travels in Turkey to get to know the ancient Christians, who had/have become persecuted minorities, activities and sessions in the “Institute of Antioch”, which was retitled “House of Antioch” in 1996 and became a non-academic institution that provided much spiritual and material relief to numerous people in difficulty (especially handicapped, IDP Christians seeking to return to their villages, and people in Iraq who were besieged).


In 1995 the foundational group settled in Qara, in the parish’s house, bringing many groups and individuals from Lebanon and abroad to visit the monastery and the village. In 1996 a serious car accident brought Mother Agnes-Mariam back to Lebanon where she founded with Sister Carmel “the House of the Son of Man” in which they received the most marginalized people of society: drug addicts, teen prostitutes, people involved with occultism, ... 

 

1997-2000

In those years, without drawing in on her preparations of the foundation in Syria and the activities of the “House of Antioch”, she organized along with her team during four consecutive years the Son of Man Festival in Beirut that was destined to prepare and celebrate the great jubilee of the year 2000 [2]. These Christian music festivals resulted to be the biggest of their kind ever. They were largely diffused in the local media and gathered each time more than 10 000 people. The entrance was free and the Festival included many activities with the participation of oriental and occidental Christian bands. 

 

The year 2000

On the 13th of May 2000, despite the fact that Sister Carmel’s mother was living in her final days (she died the 17th of May, in the odor of sanctity), monastic life effectively began in the monastery of Saint James which was now sufficiently restored.  And on the 14th of September, on the feast of the Cross, in the jubilee year, the bishop published a decree for the erection of the monastery constituting it “sui iuris eparchalis” in the tradition of the oriental monasteries [= under the authority of the bishop]. At the same time he decreed the birth of a new diocesan order, “the Unity of Antioch”, of which the mother-house would be this monastery.

 

2000-2005


During that time the community started to get a structure and a small masculine branch was born with the coming of three brothers. The works of restoration were coming to an end and in the old church several reconstruction works were organized to renovate the frescoes dating from the 11th century.  

2005-2009


The community was getting bigger and really international with the coming of Myri from Portugal (she will be followed by other international vocations after 2009). At the same time the community opened itself to a diversified hospitality: people started coming to the monastery without having a religious vocation per se, but who needed help on a spiritual and a human level. Thus, these ‘residents [3]’ stayed with us for short or long periods, sometimes for several years; they came from Syria as well as from Lebanon or from other parts of the world.


In 2007 we started with the construction of our new building. It has three floors, about 60 rooms, a very large church/conference hall and a restaurant. Until this day construction work is not finished. Today we use the big church as a place to stock the food and health packages we give to victims of the war. (Here you can see the main entrance of the new building and how we use the big church/conference hall to stack humanitarian aid). 


2009 …

At this time the community was more or less constituted in its present form. In 2010 a charismatic evangelical Syrian community began to share with us a similar spiritual experience. They often came for spiritual retreats. More and more visitors were coming to visit the monastery, attaining peaks of hundreds of daily visitors during the summer months. In 2008 and 2009 a religious music festival was organized by the community in the monastery with the cooperation of the diocese of Homs.


The community was thus prepared by her spiritual development, by her visible structure, by her exercise in hospitality to affront the difficult times that were ahead. At the end of 2010 we heard about tensions and crises in neighboring countries: Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and in March 2011 the Syrian crises began... 

 


[1] A holy Ethiopian hermit, Moses, a king’s son, who first became monk in Egypt and in Palestine, arrived in our monastery around 628 A.D. He left the Monastery to found a religious foundation 30 km to the East of us , which would later on receive the name of Saint Moses the Ethiopian or 'Mar Mussa' (P. Paolo dal’Oglio, Il restauro del monasterio di San Mose l’Abissino, Nebek, Siria, p. 11)