Monastic labourer in New Norcia vineyard returns to the Lord

18 Jun 2008

By The Record

Father Seraphim Sanz de Galdeano OSB, 1913-2008

Fr Seraphim’s end came more quickly than anticipated. In the morning of June 2, 2008 he had a severe attack of the asthma that he had suffered from for many years.
Later in the day there followed a severe heart attack that required his admission to Royal Perth Hospital.
It was there that he died the following day at 11.30pm after another heart attack.
Seraphim (Serafín) was born in Villatuerta, Navarre (Spain) on October 28, 1913, to the very devout couple Francisco Sanz de Galdeano and Valentina Mañeru Laseras.
He was the eighth of ten children, two of whom died before he was born. Two older sisters joined Religious congregations; one of them, Luisa, spent years in Venezuela nursing lepers.
His brother Ramón, three years his senior, joined the Benedictines in the monastery of El Pueyo in the early 1920s, and was killed by the Communists with the other 18 monks of the community in 1936.
It was one of Serpahim’s great hopes in his latter years to see his brother beatified with his monastic brethren along with so many other martyrs of the 1936-39 Civil War, a hope not destined to be fulfilled.
It was while visiting his brother in El Pueyo that Seraphim first ‘caught the bug’ of monastic vocation.
He was admitted there as an aspirant to do his secondary studies in 1924. The next ‘bug’ was the missionary one, which he caught when Abbot Catalan of New Norcia visited El Pueyo to call on the several youngsters there already recruited for New Norcia and in the hope of adding to their number. Seraphim fell in love with the idea of being a missionary-monk, and volunteered for New Norcia.
On finishing his time in El Pueyo, he went with three others to the monastery of Belloc in the south of France where he did his novitiate for New Norcia.
He was received as a novice on October 24, 1929, and was told by the Abbot of Belloc to keep his baptismal name of Seraphim.
He made his first profession on October 26, 1930, which that year was the feast of Christ the King.
On April 29, 1931, Dom Seraphim arrived in Fremantle with Abbot Catalan and seven others, including two young Spanish women who were coming to join the Benedictine Sisters in New Norcia. They travelled to New Norcia the same day on the back of the truck that went to meet them. Seraphim soon settled into the routine of study, prayer and work of the student-monks, doing the standard three years of philosophy and four of theology, the last of these being spent at St Patrick’s College, Manly, where several New Norcia monks had their first real and sustained exposure to Australian life and language away from the Spanish surrounds of New Norcia. He was ordained to the presbyterate by Archbishop Gilroy, Co-adjutor Archbishop of Sydney, on 30 November 1938.
A few months later, Fr Seraphim was on his way to the real missionary work he had so much looked forward to since his early years in El Pueyo. He was assigned to the Benedictine Mission at Kalumburu, where he spent from March 1939 to October 1949. His name is associated with the rescue of the passengers and crew of the state ship Koolama when it was bombed by the Japanese in 1942.  His services to Australian Army and RAAF personnel when they were located at or near the Mission from 1942 to war’s end in 1945 were much appreciated. In 1949 he was recalled to New Norcia and was stationed at Wyening ‘Mission’ most of the time before returning to Kalumburu as superior in May 1955. The next twenty-five years were years of intense and sustained activity in which he was inspired and inspired others to build the Mission into a model self-supporting community. Houses were built, trial crops planted, fruit and vegetable garden expanded considerably, cattle raising and horse breeding introduced, and water and electricity supply greatly enhanced.
But times were changing with regard to the Indigenous people of Australia, who were being encouraged in many places to break free of their dependence on Missions and Churches and seek self-determination. Fr Seraphim thought that change was being promoted and even imposed that was not in the best interests of the Aborigines.
In 1981, after the Mission had been separated from its ecclesiastical dependence on New Norcia and incorporated in the Diocese of Broome, and after the management had been handed over to the Aboriginal Corporation of Kalumburu, he went back to New Norcia to allow the new regime to find its way without his considered opposition. Back at New Norcia, now aged 68, he planted an orchard behind the monastery, and nursed it through its first several years, enlisting help from a former Kimberley associate in the Agricultural Department.
For some years he also assisted with pastoral work in New Norcia parish. He made audio tapes for his family in which he recounted his experiences in New Norcia and Kalumburu, and was rather shocked to find that these had all been transcribed and published in Spanish without his knowledge and permission.
He thereupon decided, on reaching 75, to begin writing up his life and experiences in English, a project that he added to a few times as he grew older. ‘Pen-pushing’, as he used to call it, came to seem more appropriate to his time of life, and he undertook to set down in writing much of the detailed knowledge he had acquired of the Pelà language used by the Kuini tribe of Kalumburu. He was greatly assisted by senior Kalumburu women Dolores Cheinmora or Djinmora and Mary Pandilo. Meanwhile the process for the beatification of the El Pueyo community, including his brother Ramón (Fr Ramiro), was proceeding, and hopes were held that the beatification might be held no later than 2000.
With a view to urging the process on and with a dream of reinstalling a small Benedictine community in the monastery where it all began for him, Fr Seraphim sought and was granted leave in 1998 to go to Spain to live in El Pueyo with the two elderly Claretian priests who resided there looking after the sanctuary.
His hopes and his dream proved illusory, and he returned to New Norcia in 2001.
Fr Seraphim regularly requested permission from Abbot Placid Spearritt of New Norcia to return to Kalumburu. This was finally granted after a three-month language-research visit in 2004, and in October that year he left on what he hoped would be his final trip to Kalumburu, ‘to leave my bones there’.
It distressed him greatly to witness the breakdown of much that he had worked so hard to achieve in his 40 years at Kalumburu, and as he grew increasingly frail it became clear that he needed nursing home care. He came south in June 2007, and was admitted shortly afterwards to the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged in Glendalough, where he spent just under a year before his death. He was very well cared for by Sisters and staff, and gradually emerged from the depression that had come upon him.
After visiting him some weeks ago, the writer observed to his fellow monks that Seraphim seemed happier than he had been since returning from Kalumburu.
Fr Seraphim was devoted to the Blessed Sacrament and the Mass, to Our Lady and the Rosary, and led a very disciplined priestly and monastic life. He was sometimes hard on himself and could be hard on others, setting himself very high standards of consistency and perseverance. He was not lacking in a sense of humour, and could be said to have mellowed in his later years. From boyhood he had an extraordinary way with birds, animals and even reptiles (snakes and crocodiles) was a very keen observer of their behaviour, and from Kalumburu sent a number of bird specimens and reports of sightings to the West Australian Museum.
He was awarded the MBE in 1970 and the OAM in 1995 for his outstanding services to the Aborigines of Kalumburu, and in 1996 he was awarded the Civilian Service Medal for assisting the war effort at Kalumburu during the Second World War

Fr Seraphim OSB

.  May he rest in peace.