By Fr. Livius Paoli, O.S.B.
St. Benedict of Oxford is the present mother house of the Benedictines of Detroit, the corporate name of the American priory of the Sylvestrine Congregation of the Order of St. Benedict.
It is situated on the northeast corner of Oakland County, about thirty miles due north from Detroit, Michigan. At 1300 hundred feet above sea level, it is the highest point in the southern half of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Looking south from the top of the hill one can see as far as the Detroit Metropolis on a clear day. The place has all the mystique and the lore of monks seeking height and solitude for their monastic home.
The Order of St. Benedict of Montefano, now called the Sylvestrine Congregation, O.S.B. was founded in 1231 in Italy by St. Sylvester Guzzolini, a priest from Osimo in central Italy. To a renewed and rigorous observance of the Rule of St. Benedict for Monks, Sylvester added two, at the time novel, pieces of legislation: he instituted a central governance for the several monastic communities he started and introduced for his monks external apostolate in the service of the people of God by the preaching of the Word and pastoral ministry. In the middle of the last century the monks undertook the evangelization of much of the island of Ceylon now called Sri Lanka.
It was that missionary spirit that brought them to America. In 1910 two
monks at the invitation of the bishop of Wichita settled among the coal
miners of southeastern Kansas and for eighteen years
they ministered to
their spiritual needs with great zeal and remarkable success. Their
important aim, however, in coming to America was to establish the Order
in the Land of Opportunity. They soon realized that that opportunity
passing by in their present situation, as the coal mining industry in
was fading and the region of their missionary activities was becoming
with ghost towns.
They sought after and searched for a promising site for the home of their Order. In 1928, Bishop Gallagher of Detroit welcomed them into the diocese. Either on account of their missionary spirit or for other practical reasons, they began their life in Detroit by assuming the direction of three parishes in the city. One, however, was a new parish with land and the opportunity for the establishment of the Order’s headquarters. The parish was started under the name of St. Scholastica in northwest Detroit. The Great Depression, however, thwarted for a time the fulfillment of the monks’ plans and dreams for their Order.
It was in 1938 that the Monastery of St. Sylvester was built on the property adjacent to St. Scholastica Parish. The first phase of the monastery was blessed on November 27, 1938 and became the community’s headquarters and the novitiate.
Detroit, the arsenal of democracy, became a boom city with its main growth northwest. Soon the monks became increasingly aware that their land in northwest Detroit envisioned as the permanent home of the American community was no longer attractive or even defensible according to the way of thinking about such things prevalent in the triumphal fifties. The city was not only closing in on them, but was actually depriving them of whatever privacy twelve acres of land can afford to a religious community in a bustling metropolis nicknamed “The Motor City.”
For years the monks were on the alert to find an ideal place for a new mother house for the Order. They were choosy, careful and determined as any house-hunting family. They believe they found it in the rolling land of northeast Oakland County celebrated for the beauty of its landscapes and the richness of its human and material resources.
With the consent of the archbishop of Detroit they purchased the land and took possession of it on November 15, 1959 as their house of novitiate. The property came with a modern family home. The house, doubled in size with the addition of spaces suited for monastic living, served the community until it was doubled again in the late seventies.
The rather fancy horse stable was first converted into living quarters for the young professed monks. Later this same structure became the first house of the new monastery activity: Youth Retreat House — Subiaco.
The monks dedicated their new home to St. Benedict and named it St. Benedict of Oxford to distinguish it from the myriad of places in the world bearing the name of Benedict, ("of Oxford" because their mailing address is the city of Oxford some three miles west of their home).
St. Benedict of Oxford is the Major Priory of the Sylvestrine Benedictines in America. It was officially designated as the Order headquarters in America in 1978.