For four decades the Josephite mission in Peru has maintained the spirit of St Mary MacKillop through many hardships—all of them shared with the Peruvian people.
The COVID-19 Pandemic is the latest challenge faced by the mission, which celebrated its 40th year on 1 April.
Sister Clare Conaglen spent 16 years in the mission and recently returned to Australia to take up a position on the Congregational Leadership Team. She agreed to share some of her insights about the situation in Peru and the achievements of the mission over four decades.
Between 2003 and 2019 Sr Clare saw an immense improvement in the lives of average Peruvians, with extreme poverty falling from 58% to 24%.
“I saw a number of families who had migrated from the mountains or jungle and invested in their children’s education and their children have done well. Some went to university and had good jobs. In turn they were able to help their parents”
Unfortunately, over the last year COVID-19 has devastated the Peruvian economy, which has one of South America’s highest rates of informal work.
“People have little stalls to sell food or other things at the side of the road. All of that had to stop because people were in quarantine at home,” Sr Clare said.
The sisters’ ministries have also been affected by the pandemic. A centre for children with disabilities, numbering 90, had to close for the last year and operate virtually. As a result, almost a third of the students have had to drop out.
“They have no video, they have no internet, no mobile phone. So they cannot receive their therapies over the phone or they can’t pay for them,” Sr Clare said.
However, for those who can continue to attend, virtual therapies have had surprising benefits.
“By having this centre, it gave them dignity. They’ve learned so much! One of the benefits they say with virtual therapies is that the whole family gets involved. So there’s more acceptance of these special needs children and integration in the family,” Sr Clare added.
Sr Clare said the Peruvian mission continues to have a profound spiritual and practical impact, despite the challenge of COVID-19.
“I think we all had the experience of being involved in groups in the parish or elsewhere and with our limited Spanish the people would ask ‘Sister, what do you think about this , and what do you think about that?’ And you haven’t even formed an opinion – you’re not sure what’s going on!”
“I think our presence says to them, ‘You’re important. You’ve got dignity.’”
Sr Clare is grateful to have received spiritual gifts from sharing her life with the Peruvian people.
“It enables me to trust in God, no matter what happens. I think the faith of the people has affected me in that sense—no matter the hardships.” she said.
“We would accompany a lot of people who had problem after problem after problem, but they could always thank God. They would always be able to say, ‘Gracias A Dios’ — ‘Thanks be to God.’”
The pandemic has made life uncertain in Peru. Sr Clare believes the future for the mission is to discern the best way to support the sisters, three of whom are Peruvian, and the Covenant Josephites.
“It’s a bit of an unknown at the moment—what’s going to happen? I think there needs to be a lot of conversation because the sisters are getting older. The three Peruvian sisters all have vital ministries and good contacts. We want to keep on supporting these sisters as we go forward. It’s the big question.”
As the mission continues into its fifth decade it will have new challenges and trials to endure. But the spirit will certainly remain the same.
“We went there and found God amongst the people. We found the Josephite spirit amongst the people,” Sr Clare said.
“And that’s what people have appreciated—our way of being with them, of accompanying the people.”
The photos accompanying this article depict the Peruvian mission in its early days and have been graciously provided by the Congregational Archives.
1. A religious procession, Cerro Pacifico.
2. Sr Elaine Walker with children in Cerro Pacifico.
3. ‘And up the hill they build’. The recent ones at the top are of esteras (straw). The families in the houses at the bottom are gradually building in more solid materials.
4. A Peruvian child.
5. Peruvian houses.
6. Sr Dorothy Stevenson rsj with children at Santa Rosa.
7. Two ladies working the wool that will eventually be made into clothing.
8. A section of the Parish. According to local belief the hills belong to the people, so they build up the hills.
9. Sr Edith Prince rsj with one of the patients from her Clinic.
10. Ursula Hoile rsj gets a warm welcome to Condevilla.
Photos obtained from the Sisters of Saint Joseph Congregational Archives: S314-067, S314-073, S314-096, S314-109, S314-112, S314-285, S314-352, S316-SET1_020 and S326-284.