16 February 2012
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My Recollections on the Early Years of the Peru Mission
In 1957 new life and new momentum were injected into the missionary movement of the Church with Pope Pius XII encyclical, Fidei Donum. Although it was always accepted that the expansion of the Church was the concern of the whole Church and especially of the Bishops, up to this, it was mainly left to the Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith and the congregations subject to it. Faced with a decline in the numbers of priests and the growing influence of Islam, Fidei Donum called for a more active collaboration from the universal Church. Bishops were reminded that this mandate extended beyond their own dioceses and urged them to “a new ardour for the missionary activity of the Church, throughout the world”. (Fidei Donum-Hickey 118) Vatican II took up this challenge declaring, in the opening chapter of its Decree on Missionary activity, “Ad Gentes”, that “the Church is by its very nature missionary”. (2).
In 1958, responding to this and given the shortage of priests in the Latin American Continent, Cardinal Cushing of Boston founded the “St. James Missionary Society to South America”. Being a great friend of Bishop Lucey of Cork, he asked for volunteers and some of the Cork diocesan priests joined the St. James Society to work in some of the South American countries. One of the priests, who requested to go, was Archdeacon Duggan, a man of 71 years. Most would question his suitability for missionary work in such a different culture, but God works in strange ways. He enrolled in the Language School in Lima as all had to study Spanish. After a few months he suffered a heart attack and died. Bishop Lucey travelled to Lima to his funeral. While there he saw at first hand the huge settlements of the poor living in subhuman conditionswith no services from the State and very little from the Church. He decided that he would ask for volunteers from his own diocese and this was the start of a Cork Diocesan Mission to Peru. Trujillo, the second largest city in Peru, 300 miles north of Lima on the coast, was chosen as the mission site. This was the beginning of what was to be a flourishing mission that brought new life to generations of poor people and changed the face of that part of this huge country. Of course the priests who were already working with the St. James Society were the obvious pioneers for the new mission, officially opened on St. Patrick’s Day, 1965. Others quickly volunteered from the Diocese and in time volunteers from Kerry and one from Cloyne Diocese came forward.
A Call for Sisters
After just a few months working on the mission, the priests realised that, if the mission were to succeed, the presence and ministry of Sisters would be necessary. At home in the Cork Diocese, five of the seven Convents already had missions abroad, so Bishop Lucey approached Bantry for Sisters for the Peru Mission. Nurses were thought to be most in need, as there was no Health Service in the poverty stricken barrios. Three Sisters, Gabriel, Columba and I were chosen. We were sent to Spain for three months to learn Spanish. Reading or imagining what I’m going to write now is very difficult for anyone living in this modern society.
Peru was practically unknown to us only as a country on the map of that huge Southern Continent. It was a vast underdeveloped country, with a totally different culture, language and a huge population with the majority living in extreme poverty and a minority of rich people who controlled the great natural wealth of the country.
Because we were going to such a poorly-developed country, almost everything we needed for the house and clinic had to be brought with us. As we had to take so much luggage it was decided that we would travel by boat. A Cork businessman and Director of Irish Shipping at the time, Liam Devlin, made arrangements for our trip and luggage. We travelled on a passenger/cargo ship, the “SS Flamenco”. It was also an opportunity to take some things that were urgently needed for the Churches e.g. vestments, chalices, ciboria, monstrances, tabernacles, Holy Oil stocks, Sound Projector and film rolls etc. Generous supplies of medicine, injections and bandages etc were all donated by chemists and doctors from Bantry and elsewhere. The generosity of the people was outstanding. Shops and jewellers made useful contributions and the Children of Mary (no longer existing) donated a beautiful large Tabernacle for our own community chapel in Peru. It can still be seen, now in the Virgin de la Puerta Convent since our original Convent, San Patricio, is now the San Patricio Drug Rehabilitation Centre. Also a large statue of Our Lady which still stands inside the main door of that Centre was donated. In all 87 trunks and tea chests travelled with us.
The Long Journey to Peru
L to R: Bishop Lucey, Srs Gabriel O'Donnell, Aloysius Herr & Columba Barrett at railway station, Cork beginning their journey
On February 17th 1966 the three of us were seen off from the Cork Railway Station by Mother Dympna, Bishop Lucey, Fr. Leader, Mr. Devlin, friends and other priests. From Dublin we took the boat to Liverpool where we were met by the Mercy Sisters of Mt.Vernon with whom we had to stay one week because of a dock strike at the port. We finally boarded the SS. Flamenco on February 24th at 7.00am and at 10.00pm began the long journey to Lima, Peru where we were expected in 3 weeks. The Captain welcomed us on board and we met the other 7 passengers. We were excited to be on our way at last, but, unfortunately, it was to be a slow and disappointing journey in many ways. After only 3 days out to sea the SS. Flamenco developed engine trouble and had to travel on one engine. Very little progress was made and then that engine stopped too. Panic set in when the alarm bell began ringing. Life jackets were distributed and the evacuation drill carried out. It was a frightening and troubling experience. Would we all perish in mid-Atlantic without ever setting foot in Peru? With some ingenuity and prayer, I’m sure, we moved on again and eventually what a great relief it was when we were told that land was in sight. That was Puerto Rico and we docked on March 11th at San Juan where repairs were carried out. We were able to have Mass at a Redemptorist Church and all the crew came to Mass on Sunday.
At home our Community in Bantry was extremely worried that no word was received from us. At that time communication was impossible from that distance. Luckily, the radio officer on our ship, Charles McCarthy, from Cobh, was able to pick up a signal from a radio officer, Joe Newman, Schull, on a sister ship which passed us 8 miles out to sea. The good news was then communicated to Cork and all were happy we were safe. After four days in San Juan, we headed out to sea again. We reached Curaceau, Venzuela, on St. Patrick’s Day. After that we looked forward to seeing the Panama Canal and hoped it would be daytime when it would be our turn to pass through. At 3.30am we were all on deck but we had to wait a long time as only one ship goes through at a time, and there were several waiting.
Now it was quite evident that we were in the Equatorial Region as the temperature soared. We enjoyed the sea breeze on deck and got the first impression of the climate we were to live in for the next six years. The tradition among seafarers is that crossing the equator for the first time is like receiving an accolade. Each is presented with a decorated scroll from the Captain receiving the Freedom of the Sea. Our next stop was Guayaquil in Ecuador. We were advised not to go ashore as there was unrest there. At last we were entering Peru and our next stop was Pimentel, the port of Monsefu, where the Canadian Mercy Sisters have a mission. They came on board and welcomed us to Peru. We felt we were coming into familiar territory even though there was so much uncharted water and desert before us still.
Mì Peru – a Land of Youth and Surprises
Finally on April 4th, 1966, the SS. Flemenco anchored off shore in Callao, the port of Lima. It was Holy Week and we wondered if operations would be held up and thus hamper us disembarking. The following morning a small boat was seen approaching the ship and what a surprise to see all on board were from Cork. They were Fr. Tim O’Sullivan, Cork Mission, the late Fr. Mick Fitzgerald, and Fr. Jerry O’Shaughnessy, the late Fr. Pat Daly, Bantry, all Columban priests and Sr. Joan O’Donovan, Columban sister in Lima. It was agreat moment, not alone that we had arrived in Peru but also that somehow we were at home. The Columban sisters and priests were to prove great friends and supported us for many years. We stayed with the Columban sisters for a week and enjoyed generous hospitality and got our first introduction to the reality of living in a poor barrio in Peru.
Arrival in Peru
Now we were faced with the difficult task of getting the 87 trunks out of the customs. Peruvian customs don’t have a good reputation and are said to be selective in what they allowed in. The officers would want to know what was in each box and some might be kept for further investigation. It was quite possible for the staff of such operations to help themselves to some of the more valuable items. Fortunately, Fr. Tim O’Sullivan knew how to get through the Peruvian bureaucracy. Go to the top! He knew somebody who knew the President’s secretary and the go ahead was given for all the trunks belonging to the Irish Sisters to be released. It took one week to have the trunks in our possession.
We also had to go to the Department of Foreign Emigration to go through the procedure of securing a Residential Permit. This was a formidable operation, presenting all kinds of letters, filling forms, taking photos and fingerprinting. It can entail several visits before one is equipped with this most important legal document which you need to live and travel in the country.
Finally, on the 19th April, we began the long journey of 300 miles along the Pan Americana Highway to Trujillo. En route in Chimbote, we were welcomed by the Incarnate Word Sisters from the States and by some priests and people who knew Fr. Tim when he worked there with the St. James Society. But the real Cork welcome awaited us in El Porvenir where the priests were building the first Church and the priests’ house was complete. Up to then the priests lived in a suburban estate in Palermo in Trujillo, and that was to be our house while we were waiting for the Convent in Florencia de Mora, San Patricio, to be finished.
During this time we were getting used to the reality of the barrio and surroundings and the masses of people who were constantly trudging on foot through the sandy streets. Some carried their few purchases from the market and a baby strapped on the back. They were all so gracious and never failed to salute you. Peruvians are a friendly people and being sociable is very important for them. The transport system consisted of old ramshackle buses and taxis with broken windows and doors held closed with cords. They were surely great mechanics who kept them moving! These estates – barrios - had no running water, no electricity and houses were built by the families, as they could afford it, of mud bricks, esteres (straw matting) or cardboard. The first night we experienced the lack of proper electricity system when the light went out as we were about to read the many letters from home which awaited us. Sr. Gabriel went out to find a shop to buy some candles. In an effort to put Spanish words together to communicate her problem she remembered that “luz” was “light” and “dar” was “give”, so she put the two words together not realising that it isn’t as simple as that. “Dar luz” is the Spanish idiom for “giving birth”! I don’t know what the lady in the shop made of this “gringo” Sister with this problem! I’m often asked what’s the most important preparation for going to Peru. To my mind the language is very important. To be able to communicate is basic and this depends on many things and it doesn’t come easy and takes a long time. The late Fr. Michael Murphy (later Bishop Murphy), who was in charge of the mission at that time, always challenged us not to be complacent about our Spanish, and used to say, that we were professionals and that the Peruvians couldn’t be expected to continue tolerating our poor Spanish.
Adapting to the climate was difficult. We wore white at first but later changed to blue as it wasn’t easy to keep white clean with so much dust and the scarcity of water. Laundry was always done by hand and in cold water. Drying was never a problem. Ironing was done with a box iron and lighted charcoal inside. Nowadays that’s seen only in a museum!
Suffering is relieved
As yet there was no medical centre built. Schools were the first to be built apart from our houses. We were given a classroom to use for seeing patients, one in San Patricio parish and one in the other parish El Buen Pastor. We worked there attending to the long queues of people who came with tuberculosis, respiratory problems, malnutrition, pregnancies, sick babies, cuts and sores etc. Up to this the medical needs of these poor people weren’t a concern for the Health Authority. The fact that a team of nurses from abroad, supported by the Church,was prepared to build infrastructure for health and education alerted the authorities. At first, a few Peruvian doctors would give a few hours a week, free service. As time went on, and demand grew, it was necessary to have the constant presence of doctors and a dentist. Fr. Murphy was always concerned that, should any mishap happen to anyone treated in the clinic, it was important to have qualified, Peruvian authorised personnel. Looking back now, when litigation is such a constant threat, this policy was very insightful. The mission then employed and paid for doctors and a dentist. The mission also bought the medicine for the centres but the people paid a very small fee, depending on their situation, in order to respect their dignity. Nobody was ever denied attention. Very often, many of those attending the clinic, would, in other situations, be hospitalised. People with T.B., or other diseases, came daily for their treatment. It was important that people understood properly the directions with their medicine, because they were not accustomed to taking medicine, and also given our limited vocabulary, we could easily be in trouble. I recall an incident when I was treating a lady who had a very bad infected throat and the doctor prescribed injections for her. When I took her to the treatment room and asked her to lie on the couch to give her the injection in her bottom, she looked very confused and asked a very intelligent question: “En mì nalga para mì garganta?” “In my bottom for my throat?!!”
Sr Aloysius Herr in Clinic
In August 1967, the medical centre was ready and that made a huge difference, providing more space and facilities. Because most people and children were poorly nourished, medicine, on its own, wasn’t sufficient in the long term. At that time Caritas used to send shipments of powder milk, cooking oil and flour to South America from the U. S. The priests applied for this, so a depot,for distribution,was set up at the side of the Medical Centre. A local lady, Francisca, and a team of helpers were in charge of listing the names of families in need, and making the distribution, like they did in the Acts of the Apostles! This proved a great help for the poor. I was awakened one morning about 3.00am with the dogs furiously barking and a lot of talk on the street outside. I wondered what it could be and thought a break-in was being planned. I found out later that it was the day for the distribution and a queue was forming so that they would be ready when the door opened at 8.00am!
Mercy seeks out and answers human need
Very often when a mother brought a sick baby to the clinic it was obvious that she herself looked thin and run- down. She was given treatment as well, and the family was put on the list for visitation. In conversation, as well, we would learn that the child wasn’t baptised because it might cost too much, or it would be mentioned that another child hadn’t made First Holy Communion. We would refer her to Sr. Josephine Keohane, who worked in Catechesis and the Sacraments in the parish. In this way the whole person was cared for.
Nowadays, we would call it “collaborative ministry”. At that time we didn’t know there was such a dynamic! Looking back now, we came on the mission with no missionary expertise or preparation. The Mercy charism, the spirit of Catherine McAuley and the example of those who went before us were what inspired and motivated us. We had huge commitment and dedication and would follow up on those who came to the clinic by visiting them in their homes. This meant trudging through sandy streets where every step forward in the hot sun meant slipping back another step, and we were also at risk of being eaten alive by dogs! But the friendly children on the street always came to the rescue of the Madrecita! (an affectionate term for Sister – little mother.)
As well as attending to health issues I was always moved by the extreme poverty of the people. There was practically no employment and poor pay if any at all. The women worked like slaves to rear a big family, very often alone. Knitting was always something I loved and I began teaching the women to make little jumpers and cardigans for their children. The Peruvians are very artistic and innovative where crafts are concerned. Very quickly we progressed to adult knitwear, mostly the Aran cable pattern which was unknown in Peru. We then needed to get a market in some “well to do” area. We were lucky to find a large American Department Stores, Seers, in Miraflores in Lima who were willing to display and sell the garments. This venture went very well and the women were able to get some income from it. Sometimes, during the knitting process, the white wool got a bit soiled and the garment had to be washed! The Peruvians aren’t the best time keepers, and often weren’t ready when the deadline came for transport to Lima. However, the opportunity couldn’t be missed and the Peruvians have great ingenuity when it comes to solving a problem. So to complete the drying process some of the boxes were left open to the sun on the back of the truck during the nine hour trip from Trujillo to Lima! A line was secured and they were flying in the breeze as the truck sped along the Panamerican Highway! Visualising this afterwards became an item of entertainment at our get-togethers.
Bishop Lucey admiring Aran knitwear
The Church responds to changing times
As Mercy, we are not a missionary congregation in the strict sense, and while we were well prepared for our ministries at home, it wasn’t until after Vatican II with the Council’s Decree on Missionary Activity, that our understanding of the mission of the Church developed. While health, education and other humanitarian concerns are necessary and important, being Church in this century also means engaging in action for justice, peace and liberation. In fact we are called to seek out activities which bear on structural and systemic transformation of the human society. This era in mission life was about to begin and the Sisters who came after us were fortunate to be part of that movement. The power of touching those who are poor endures.
I enjoyed my time in Peru. It was a great experience and insight into another culture, different from ours. I was sorry to leave but at that time, our term, set out by Bishop Lucey, was six years. We were expected to return to our work with the Health Board in Ireland when our term of leave of absence had expired. Sr. Gabriel and I returned in 1972 to Bantry Hospital where I worked until retirement. My time in Peru definitely coloured my lifestyle to this day.
Srs Aloysius Herr & Josephine Keohane