Elred Wetli Memorial Statue in Volcan
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It is hoped to erect a 9 foot high statue in the centre of Volcan to the memory of an American Benedictine monk named Elred Wetli. He dedicated his life to teaching English to the children of Volcan and vowed he would do this until he died- His death in 2009 showed that he was true to his word. Elred was an exceptional and outstanding human being, this statue,if built, would be a fitting memorial to Volcan’s most outstanding citizen.
The last Benedictine.
Brother Elred Joseph Wetli was a legend in the town of Volcan. He is the closest to a living saint that many in the Catholic diocese have seen. He came to this small mountain community with five other Benedictine monks in 1961 and started the first library in town and an agricultural junior high school called San Benito. On Sunday, July 20th he passed away at the age of 97 years.
I was invited to meet this living legend on a warm, sunny Volcan Autumn day by Osvaldo Flores, a former student. I saw the then 95-year old man sitting hunched in a wheelchair at the entrance desk. He had a copy of the Readers’ Digest Bible in front of him, and although too old and infirm to be of any real help in the library, he still contributed by his simple presence. When introduced he pulled a gnarled and arthritic hand from under a blanket and extended it toward me with a warm, bright smile.
Brother Elred, or simply “El Brother” as he is known locally, has taught countless local children the English language. He felt that knowledge of English would give the children greater opportunities in life. For dozens of local children this was true. Local mayors, ship’s officers, university professors and teachers now owe their livelihood to this humble Benedictine monk.
In the school library I saw 60-year old photographs of a tall, handsome soldier dressed in full battle order. Flipping the pages my eye was caught by several other pictures of the same soldier relaxing on a warn torn South Pacific island. The smiling soldier is surrounded by a crowd of ragged children. The pictures speak volumes about the man. Even in those dark and tragic days of World War two, his life course was being formed.
Eldred had served as a signal sergeant in the US army in world war two Pacific campaign, with tours of duty in the Palau and Solomon islands and finally in Japan.
After world war two in 1950 he enrolled in the Benedictines Holy Cross Abbey in Canon City, Colorado. In 1961, with five fellow brothers he arrived in Volcan, Panama and started the San Benito Agricultural school. Eventually all the monks were recalled to the US but Elred refused, stating that this is where he wanted to remain and where he would serve until he died.
I recall looking at the picture taken in 1990 when Eldred was honored by a local Bishop with the Order of Saint Gregory. The medal was actually conferred on Eldred by Pope John Paul the second. Even then the eyes that gazed out from the picture were one of a man already tired and heavy with years. In one rare lucid moment I asked him if he had any regrets. He smiled, looked me straight in the eyes and said “No, no I have no regrets.”
“El Brother’s“ ashes will be laid to rest in the chapel that sits on the school campus at San Benito. Surrounding this simple one-room building are a dozen or so trees- trees that El Brother had planted some 40 years earlier. It is hoped that a statue will be erected in his honor in the center of Volcan. The statue will show Elred holding a lantern. This man brought the light of learning and English to countless students in the Volcan area. Few men in life ever achieve what Elred Wetley achieved – he changed lives forever and did it with incredible compassion and humility.