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Saint Leo Abbey to celebrate Benedictine work with 120th anniversary Mass

Abbot Isaac Camacho shows new lighting at Saint Leo Abbey, part of remodeling by monks and volunteers. At a special Mass today, Camacho’s homily will contain a long-honored idea: Happiness comes from sincere conformity to God’s will.

KERI WIGINTON | Times

Abbot Isaac Camacho shows new lighting at Saint Leo Abbey, part of remodeling by monks and volunteers. At a special Mass today, Camacho’s homily will contain a long-honored idea: Happiness comes from sincere conformity to God’s will.

ST. LEO — Abbot Isaac Camacho has a Blackberry.

The spiritual and administrative leader of two dozen Benedictine monks at Saint Leo Abbey keeps the wireless device tucked under the black robes of his habit. It's a concession to modern life, like the abbey's Web site.

"It's so handy," Camacho said of the sleek smart phone. "I keep in touch with my personal assistant and with our accountant."

But the dark-haired priest also writes prayer intentions in the ancient art of calligraphy as he leads his community in perpetuating the spirituality of an Italian saint who lived from 480 to 547.

This morning Camacho will celebrate a special Mass commemorating the 120th anniversary of Benedictine work and prayer in central Florida.

Other events, from art shows to bingos, are planned for the coming year.

On June 4, 1889, the Florida Legislature approved the charter that allowed the Catholic religious order to build and operate a school that later became Saint Leo University. The Benedictines transferred title of the school to an independent board in 1969.

"I can't imagine being here 120 years ago," said Camacho, 43. "There were no cars; it took a half day to go to Dade City. The monks did everything; they were entirely self-sufficient."

Hundreds of acres of natural flora were transformed into vast citrus groves, much of it since replaced by subdivisions and other development that make the hilltop abbey more of an oasis than ever. Pasco's population has boomed to more than 471,000 from fewer than 4,300 when the monks arrived.

But some things remain unchanged and timeless. Camacho said that for his homily today he will reprise the words of the priest who dedicated the abbey's Church of the Holy Cross more than 60 years ago.

"True happiness and security are to be found only in an appreciation of spiritual values and sincere conformity of human life to God's will," Camacho said he will preach.

"This still resounds perfectly today," he said.

The church, finished in 1948, is a symbol and focal point of the anniversary. Final touches on a five-month, $100,000 interior restoration were being completed this week.

About 170 gallons of paint and 100 gallons of glaze have brightened the worship space with a yellowish, faux antique patina.

Tile floors were waxed and polished; cobwebs swept from the wooden ceiling rafters.

Saints peer down from 18 restored stained glass windows.

Decorative red and gold tapestries have been placed behind statues of other saints at several side altars. The canopy surrounding the centerpiece 22,000-pound rose marble crucifix behind the main altar has been cleaned and painted.

Abbey handyman Robert Palmer helped oversee the labor of the monks and five community volunteers.

"I'm not Catholic, but I am a true believer in God," said Palmer, 58, of Dade City. "Working in here has been a real spiritual experience. The monks have given me more spiritual direction than anyone."

Gregorian chant has been restored to the liturgy.

"We should preserve it, it is a treasure of the church," Camacho said.

The anniversary events will help raise money to clean and paint the church exterior. Camacho said the church and affiliated retreat center provide an important place to step away from the hectic pace and materialism of the secular world.

"The monks learn to act different from the rest of the world, in other words, to be holy," Camacho said. "In Scriptures, the word holy means to be different. Don't do what society does, be different; be holy."

Fast facts

Anniversary Mass

What: Saint Leo Abbey's 120th anniversary Mass, followed by a reception.

When: Mass begins at 11 a.m. today. Guests are asked to arrive by 10:30 a.m.

Where: The church is

at 33601 State Road 52,

a couple of miles east

of Interstate 75.

Saint Leo Abbey to celebrate Benedictine work with 120th anniversary Mass 06/12/09 [Last modified: Friday, June 12, 2009 8:26pm]

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