The first group of Columban Sisters went to Chile in response to a request from Bishop Fernando Ariztia. In his letter to the Congregational Leader the bishop wrote: “I want Sisters who would be involved, not in educational or social work, but in direct work in the fundamental mission of the Church – evangelization and education in the faith.” The Sisters responded then and are still responding, although now only two, Srs. Kathleen Mary Riordan and Angela McKeever remain of the thirty-three Sisters who have served in Chile over the last forty-two years. During the summer Sr. Kathleen was home for a holiday and the writer had the opportunity of talking to her about her life and mission in the Chile of today.
Interviewer: Welcome home Kathleen for your well-earned rest. I would love to hear something about where you live and how you put in your day.
Kathleen: We live in a small house on the street – the same as everybody else. Life in Chile is different from life in Ireland. People there move freely in and out of one another’s homes. Privacy is not important! Neighbours will visit at any hour of the day or night. It takes a while to get used to that. We participate in all the community activities. Sweeping the street, or selling plants in the market to raise funds for our projects are part and parcel of daily life. Participating in these activities is a way of meeting and getting to know the people – their concerns, hopes and dreams – and of making contact with non-church goers. As well as requesting that we work in the area of “evangelization and education in the faith”, Bishop Ariztia had a further challenge for the first Sisters as he wrote: “I realise how difficult it is …. to adapt to and enter fully into another culture, another attitude of mind and to adopt a way of life as is found in the populous sector of a poor area of Chile. It calls for the voluntary stripping of one’s own culture in order to incarnate oneself fully into another culture, so as to reach the soul of that people. Otherwise, one will remain a stranger, and the Christian message will have no life.”
Interviewer: That is the challenge of the missionary. How do you try to meet it.
Kathleen: Indeed. It is both a challenge and a privilege to be able to live out our Columban vocation inserted in a poor area where we have learnt so much from our neighbours. With regard to the work I do, just imagine the Diocese of Limerick. Our parish is that size! We have nine chapels in the parish of San Matias in Puente Alto, which is the largest municipality in Chile. I am involved in different pastoral activities both in the parish and in other Dioceses. My main ministry is in prevention of drug addiction, working with families and children. I also give orientation to those who look for help and treatment. Home visits, sick calls, wakes and funerals, as well as the formation of lay people are part of the regular ministry. This is not to mention emergencies, as when earthquakes strike! I also participate in the inter-congregational mission team which responds to these emergencies, when we strive to accompany victims in the aftermath of the disaster. In addition to the above, I am a member of the team that serves communities on the island of Chiloe in the far south. I go the there with a team of lay people during our summer break.
It takes about fifteen hours by bus. Then we take a boat across to the island. There a jeep meets us and takes us to the families who give us hospitality during our stay there.
Interviewer: Who trains the people who makes up your team?
Kathleen: There are many Sisters involved, and between us we have trained a good number of lay people so that they will be able to carry on when the Sisters are no longer around.
Interviewer: Tell me more about the training program.
Kathleen: This training is well organised in the diocese. Each parish invites lay people who are active in the Church and are interested to be more involved in ministry. There is an ongoing Formation Programme for them and a course that runs for two full weeks in January. Once they have completed this course, the participants receive a certificate to show that they are trained in Liturgy, Baptism participation, Family Catechesis, Health Care, Drug prevention, etc.
Interviewer: So the Bishop’s invitation continues to present a challenge?
Kathleen: “ Yes, the challenge is always there. In the early days the Sisters were very involved in Drug and Alcohol rehabilitation. Later however the government took responsibility for this so we shifted our focus to prevention. Unfortunately, some addicts end up in prison, as they turn to crime to support their addiction. This is where Sr. Angela McKeever meets and works with them and their families.”
Sr. Angela was not in Ireland this year but in her Christmas letter she recalls some of the tragic cases she has met in the course of her ministry. There was Ana “ a transvestite who became rich and famous through drug dealing, but lost everything when she was caught. I met her in jail”.
“Then there is Juan whom I met on his way to Church the other day. He was looking for some solace after he lost his family and everything he had due to his addiction.” But Angela’s strongest memory was of Jose. She says, “I have known him for five years in the jail. He works as a labourer there and what he earns helps him provide for his family of six. He gets out of the jail at weekends. Life was not ideal, but up to last June he was able to manage. Then further tragedy struck. His son Miguel was shot in the abdomen and leg by stray bullets. His condition was very serious, and he needed eighty blood donors, as well as procedures and medical supplies that the hospital did not provide. Eighty prison guards gave blood and in addition some local professionals and prisoners collected money to help with Miguel’s care. I also helped him. But Miguel’s condition continued to be critical and he had to have several operations. “At last Jose could take no more, losing hope because of the constant demands of the hospital and seeing the great suffering of his family. One day he said to Angela, “I am not coming back to jail on Sunday night”. She used all her powers of persuasion on him, reminding him of some of the dire consequences of such a course of action: he would lose all his benefits; having no occupation and no money he would relapse into delinquency; the police would find him and bring him back to the jail. Her persuasion worked and Jose came back that Sunday night. Angela recalls, “Again he was desperate so I told him I would help him with the money from the donations of our generous benefactors in Ireland. He was most grateful. Jose has not been alone because, as they say in Chile, NOBODY LACKS GOD!”
Echoing the words of Pope Francis Kathleen says “In this Holy Year of Mercy, more than ever we must continue to be Missionaries of Hope, and walk with those who carry heavy crosses – even when we have no magic solutions to offer, except to assure them that the God of Life walks with them and cares for them”.
Kathleen and Angela both say “Thank you, to you our friends and benefactors who make it possible for us to be here and to help these people”.