Everything began on a late summer afternoon, when Father José Medina and I went to visit an elderly couple who had immigrated from Cuba to the small town of Fort Valley, Virginia. The storied Shenandoah River, subject of the song sung by Bruce Springsteen and so many others, flows only a 30 minute car ride from their place. Bill and Angie live on a huge 600 acre property. After passing the sign at the entrance that reads “Welcome to Mount Zion”, we drove up a steep, unpaved driveway to reach the two cabins nestled in the middle of the woods. Father José explained to me that, until 2010, he and Father Antonio Lopez would often come here for periods of vacation with high school and university students of Communion and Liberation.
Each of the cabins has space enough for about 20 people. The scenery which encircles everything makes it a complete package: the beauty of the mountains and the silence of the woods offer an ideal atmosphere for spending time together, whether it be spent studying, praying or getting some rest. However, 10 years have gone by since Bill and Angie had to close their retreat house. Much seems to have changed since then, but the two wooden cabins, built with solid material meant to last, seemed to be holding on. The doors were open, so we entered the house. Dust, filth, insects and remains of animals welcomed us in almost every room. The garage, especially, was filled with junk and… spiders; and yet, the state of neglect that we found, was not able to cover up the sound of voices, laughs and songs that the mold-covered walls seemed to preserve in their memory. The house is still “alive” with memory. It was then that José and I decided to begin the Fort Valley Project.
Once back in Washington D.C., I called my friends from the Movement, the majority of whom are students and young workers. I told them about the history of Mount Zion and discovered that some of them had even been there as high school students, together with the priests of the Fraternity. And so, I proposed to them to spend 10 days together cleaning, repairing and putting in order the two cabins. It would be our “vacation” during the time of pandemic.
A week later, we went to work. The days went by in a simple manner: after a quick breakfast, followed by morning prayer, everyone would work until lunch time; a couple of hours later, we would go back to our brooms and rags; to conclude the day, we would say Mass in the small chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the heart of the woods. The chapel, which had been closed for many years, needed work as well: the outer stone wall was still intact, but the interior was in extremely rough condition. The humidity had literally eaten away at the plasterwork and the wooden floors. We worked every day; and what a satisfaction it was to see it become more beautiful at the beginning of every Mass! There are not many pews, but we fit: a bit tight but we were all happy. After the final blessing, we would faithfully sing to Mother Mary as a sign of gratitude for the day of work. At the end of the day, we all ate dinner on a huge terrace under the starry sky. The search for beauty is what guided our work and the common life. On the last night of our stay, it rained. As we tried to improvise, we found that there was not enough room inside for our usual dinner. Then, someone had an idea: “Let’s just go to the garage!” Some immediately complained, and others stuck up their noses. But in the end, everyone agreed and we all found that after 10 days of work, the garage was just as clean and welcoming as a dining room. And, for a night, the walls of Mount Zion were filled with our songs once again.