Father Ayechu was born in the small Spanish town of Elcoaz (Navarra), very near the seminary, which the Augustinian Recollects used to have in Artieda (Navarra). This seminary belonged to the Province of Our Lady of Candelaria, with its seat in Bogotá and is almost exclusively based in Colombia. Fr. Ayechu entered in Artieda on 30 September 1934. He was then 11 years old. It was a joyful and hard moment at the same time, because they were not allowed then to have vacations and the children did not know when they would see their families again. In fact, Benjamin did not go back home until the Spanish civil war broke out in July 1936. Due to lack of resources, the Augustinian Recollects sent home all their seminarians.
In 1937, he entered the novitiate, which the friars had in Sos del Rey Católico (Zaragoza). At the age of 16, he made his religious profession, followed by his three-year philosophical study and the start of his theological formation. In December 1943, having the fear of being enlisted in the military, he was sent to Colombia together with other companions. In Bogotá, he continued his theological studies, and once completed, he was ordained priest on 3 February 1946.
He spent his first eleven years as a priest in Colombia: six in Ciénaga (Magdalena) and three years in Cali (both in parishes). After which, in 1954, he was sent to Panama, where the Colegio San Agustín had just been founded.
Q.- You are considered to be the founder of the Universidad Católica Santa María la Antigua (USMA).
A.- As director of Colegio San Agustín, I saw the need of providing a continuous academic formation in a Catholic university. I proposed the idea to the Nuncio, to the Archbishop and to the President of the Republic and thus the USMA was founded in 1965. They chose me to be its first rector. The university is to celebrate its 50th foundation anniversary soon. Today, the USMA is one of the first universities of the country. It has some 6,000 students and has an extension in Colón, David, Santiago de Veraguas and Los Santos. It has its prestige as a university since it never had any strikes or social problems. Its future is very promising, because it knows how to maintain good discipline and the quality of the faculty. It is also very demanding with its students. Its graduates get job easily in all companies. And it is also internationally recognized.
Schools and Parishes
Q.- The presence of the Order of Augustinian Recollects in Panama has two clear aspects: education and parish ministry. What do you consider more important?
A.- I consider these two aspects to be very important, and both have future in Panama. The Colegio San Agustín has grown much in this country and has a great prestige. The students are well received wherever they go, and every year, there is a long list of applicants who want to enroll in it.
As regards the parishes, we do have seven all over the country. We have the parishes in the mission of Bocas del Toro, especially Changuinola and the Parish of the Holy Family in David. Likewise, in the city of Panama, there is the historical Parish of Saint Joseph, one of the oldest parishes of the Order. Then, we also have there the Parish of Saint John the Baptist of La Salle, popularly known as the Stone Church, which is highly esteemed and has grown much. And finally, the new Parish of Saint Luke the Evangelist, next to the Colegio San Agustín, which is the most important and it grows continuously every year as the area becomes more and more urbanized.
The Future of Central America
Father Benjamin, Cardinal Re, and Jose Luis Lacunza Q.- What future does the Order have in Central America?
A.- The problem of the Order in Panama, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic is the lack of friars. Most of the religious are quite old, and this entails many problems. At present, we are all generally working well, but aging is now being felt.
Q.- How must the revitalization of the Order be in these countries?
A.- There is a need to work more for the promotion of vocations, which has not been fairly done until now. I always insist on this, but for some reasons, it has not been realized. They are doing this in Guatemala at present, but the same thing ought to be done in Panama and the Dominican Republic.
Q.- From the apex of your 90 years of existence, could you make a recount of your life of dedication to the Order and to the Church?
A.- It is a very difficult question for me, but with all humility, I am going to offer what I believe I have been able to give to the Order.
At the age of 90, I continue to work and I hope to go on working as long my health allows. It is what I have tried to do always. I spent my first nine years as a priest, working in some parishes in Colombia. Then, I have worked for 14 years in the field of education in Colegio San Agustín in Panama and in the USMA. In 1970, they elected me as prior provincial of the Province of Our Lady of Consolation, which had been erected in 1961. I was Provincial for two three-year terms. During my term as Provincial, I tried to establish our communities outside Central America. I founded the Colegio Agustiniano in Madrid, which is now so famous, and the seminary in Torrente (Valencia) for our theology students. Likewise, we assumed some ministries in the Dominican Republic, which used to be administered by friars from the United States.
Then, I also had the chance of working in Rome for the General Curia for six years (1987-1992). When I went back to Panama, I built the Stone Church in the capital city. Then, I collaborated for another six years in the Nunciature. I moved for the transfer of the Colegio to its present location in the Costa del Este, and there, the Parish of Saint Luke the Evangelist would be erected. In fact, I am presently residing there.
In some way, my efforts and the appreciation of people can be summed up by the awards that I have received like the One hundred Distinguished Panamanians award and the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, among others. These are recognitions given to the Order in my person.