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... From the Goodnews archives, January/February 2005


Cenacolo Community


Kristina Cooper tells the story of one of the most effective Catholic ministries world wide which helps drug addicts to be delivered of their addictions through prayer and community life. She also finds out how the community at Knock in Ireland got started



Sr ElviraThe Cenacolo community was founded by Sr Elvira Petrozzi, an Italian nun in 1983. For many years she had been concerned by the destruction she had seen among young people through drug abuse and she longed to help them. Since she had no formal training to work with addicts and the charism of her order was teaching, it was 8 years before she managed to persuade her superiors that this was a genuine call of God and to release her for the work.

She began with two companions - a fellow religious, Sr Aurelia, and a teacher Nives Grato. They were given an abandoned old house in the city of Saluzzo in Italy, which was leased to her by the city for a dollar a year, and on July 16th, the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the Cenacolo community officially opened. Soon young people began to arrive on her doorstep needing help and the work began. Sr Elvira has leamt as she has gone along. In the beginning the young addicts were allowed to smoke and have a glass of wine, Italian style, with their meals. She soon leamt, however, that such social niceties were not possible for people fighting with addiction. One evening she came back to find the young men in the community were all drunk, having bored a hole in the pantry wall and finished off all their supplies of wine. Now alcohol and tobacco are not allowed on the premises for anyone.


While secular de-tox programmes will use methodone and other drug substitutes to wean people off hard drugs, Sr Elvira has a completely different method. She believes that the problem of the young people is not so much one of chemical dependence on drugs, but that drugs are the only way that these young people have found to cope with their problems in life. She sees her job as showing them, a better and much more effective option - Christ. Thus Cenacolo is not so much a therapeutic community or drug rehab centre, as a school of life with prayer at its heart. The young people are thus put through a kind of intensive spiritual boot camp where they leam to live in a totally new way - to accept a simple lifestyle, and to rediscover the gifts of work, friendship and of faith in the Word of God, instead of relying on the crutch of drugs to escape from everything that is too painful to deal with. In their brochure the Cenacolo members explain their biggest problems are not the chemical withdrawals but re-orienting their lives.
One of the keys to the healing of the drug addicts is the role of their "guardian angels". These are fellow addicts who are further along the spiritual journey, who can offer emotional and spiritual support to new boys. The guardian angels provide 24 hour support for their charges, listening to them, encouraging them, making them cups of tea if they wake up in the night troubled, or even doing their work for them, if they feel too ill to do it. This unconditional love melts the hardest of hearts and helps prepare the newcomer for the day when he will do this for someone else on the programme. Later it is hoped they will take this giving attitude out into the world and help others, instead of being stuck in the self-centred spiral that many addicts find themselves in because of their drugs habit.


The programme also teaches the addict to embrace the suffering and pain in their lives and give it to Christ through prayer, particularly in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Thus they learn in a practical way that these things can be carried with the grace of God and the love of community without having to resort to chemical escape mechanisms. Those who successfully complete the programme emerge not just healed of their addiction but strong, vibrant Christians with a heart to give and serve, particularly to help others who are suffering in the way they did in the past. While some addicts go back home, marry and get jobs and generally become reintegrated back into normal society, others decide to stay on and help found other Cenacolo communities elsewhere. Some have even opted for the priesthood or the religious life, and in the last few years a new religious order has grown up within the community, as well as the opportunity for consecrated celibacy.

Not surprisingly their success has led to a huge growth in the last decade or so, particularly in Italy and Croatia. There are now 47 communities world wide, with 1500 people in them, as well as many prayer groups and supportt groups for the families of addicts. A Cenacolo community was opened in Knock in Ireland in 1999 and it is hoped that there will also be one in England too in the near future.


Aida Monsell, who is now 71, was one of the main forces behind the opening of the Irish Cenacolo community. She was so impressed by what she saw when she visited the Cenacolo house in Medjugorje, and knowing the need, she pestered Sr Elivra to open a community in Ireland too. She began a prayer meeting in Dublin to pray for the intention, little knowing that there was another priest, Fr Arian Crowley, doing the same thing with his group in another part of the city. The two met in 1998 when Sr Elvira invited them both to come and live with the community in Italy so they could experience what the life and vision of the community was about. As Aida, aged 65, had just retired she jumped at the opportunity, and spent three months at the community mother house in Ceretto.

"I felt it was very important to go through what the drug addicts would have to, without any concessions, so I would know what I was talking about when I spoke to people about it," she says. "But it was very hard, particularly at my age. But I learnt a lot about myself in the process and came out, I think a better person, and I am really glad I did it."

After that things moved rapidly and in June 1999 Sr Elvira came to Knock to look at the various properties that might be suitable for a community house. Aida remembers, "When she came to the third one, she said, "Praise the Lord, that's the one". Then there was the small problem of paying for it, but Aida wasn't worried, "I've leamt to be a great believer in Divine Providence, so I never worry about those things. We had enough for the deposit, which was paid in the August, and a few days before the full amount was due in October the £147,000 we needed, somehow arrived." Some of the Friends of the Community moved into the house temporarily so the Blessed Sacrament could be installed immediately. A couple of weeks later Sr Elvira appeared with eight young men and the house was officially opened on the feast of the Immaculate Conception on 8th December 1999.


Currently the community can house 16 people and the hope in the future is to build a separate chapel in the grounds. "We don't have much money for that either," says Aida blithely, "but I'm not worried, that's the beauty of believing in Divine Providence. If the Lord wants it, we will get the money, and if he doesn't we won't, and then there would be no point in building it anyway." The whole of Cenacolo operates on Divine Providence and the Irish community receives no state funding at all despite the work they do. "We don't accept anything from the State because we don't agree with their policy on drugs," says Aida, "we don't believe in giving methodone, which the government funded centres do, and we want to have the freedom to do things the way we feel called to. We have had some marvellous successes over the years, and some failures too, boys for whom our way was too hard and who left after a few days. It isn't for everybody but for those that it suits it works brilliantly." Those who do follow through the whole 3 year programme, go on to live good productive lives, she says.


Rather than relying on highly paid workers with academic qualifications, the beauty of the Cenacolo programme is that it is run by the addicts themselves. Their service to Cenacolo becomes part of their own healing. They help others the way they have been helped themselves, and this helps them to move on with their lives. Sr Elvira reckons that while an addict can be healed of his addiction to drugs in 6 months or so, to get to the root of why he is taking the drugs in first place and to make the personal changes in his life needed to make sure that he won't go back, it takes about 2-3 years. As the Irish house is comparatively small, addicts only stay there for six to nine months or so. After this they usually move on to one of the houses in Italy to broaden their experience.

Interviews for addicts for places in the Knock community are held twice a month in Dublin on the 1st and 3rd Fridays of the month at the Aughrim Street Parish Centre. 13 Prussia Street, Dublin 7. Here addicts and their parents can meet with members of the community and discuss whether Cenacolo is the right solution for them. For further details contact:

094 93 88286 (outside Ireland add 00 353 and omit the 0 before the 94). Currently the Irish community is the only English speaking one in Europe and addicts from England, Scotland and Wales are usually sent here.


It is hoped that there will be a house in England in the near future. There are prayer groups which meet regularly to support this ministry in Brighton, Coventry, Birmingham, Bideford Glasgow, Liverpool and two in London, which people are welcome to join. Those interested should contact the Goodnews Office.

There is a visit being arranged from 31st Jan - 3rd Feb 2005 for people interested in visiting Cenacolo in Italy and getting involved with their work in some way. Contact the Goodnews Office.


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