Our celebrations of the 30th Anniversary of Columban Sister Joan Sawyer´s death in Lima, Peru, on 14th December last were made very special by the presence of Joan´s niece, Hilary, who travelled from Co Antrim, Ireland for the occasion. On the afternoon of the 14th, Hilary set off with a bus-full of people from the Parish Espiritu Santo where Joan had lived and participated in the community the year before she died and from where she left for the prison ministry each day.

Before we began our journey we united in a moment of silence with the community in Antrim, Ireland, who was also commemorating Joan´s anniversary.  During the 45 minute ride to the cemetery we prayed and sang hymns.   Entering the cemetery, Campo Fe, we were welcomed by the sprays of a beautiful water fountain glistening in the glorious sunshine and greeted by a chorus of birds, surely Joan´s way of saying welcome and thank you.


As we gathered around in silence, Hilary placed a beautiful wreath of flowers on Joan´s grave,  received and arranged the flowers brought by the people and knelt in prayer.  We were all deeply united in that precious moment  “a moment in and out of time.” 

limaJS30thBThe parish priest, Fr. Edgar Valdivia in the name of the Peruvian people also placed an arrangement of white roses as an expression of gratitude and appreciation of Joan´s total giving. Interspersed with song  and  music,  many people expressed memories of Joan  recalling  with deep  emotion and gratitude   Joan´s  life  of total service to the poor and those  most in need.    

Sister Mary O´ Dee  read  the Gospel of the Annunciation recalling Mary´s “Yes”  chosen  by Joan as her motto, “ Behold the handmaid of the Lord.  Be it done unto me according to His Word.”


After a pause, Hilary surprised us all by singing “The Londonderry Air” gently and softly, just like Joan might have sung. 

Sister Mary Mulcahy thanked the people present for their constant and faithful presence these past 30 years.

Fr. Edgar Valdivia  spoke about Joan´s  extraordinary  dedication  and commitment  to her ministry,   the missionary spirit and  work  of the Columban Sisters here in  Perú  and  in many other  countries   where they  work  especially with the poor. 

With a final prayer we ended our pilgrimage renewed in faith and hope. Together in the bus we shared refreshments as we made our homeward journey with thankful hearts.

On the following morning, Sunday 15th,  we were  able to share  some memoirs,  write-ups,  pictures, etc. of  the events  of Joan´s  death  with Hilary  when Ana  María Mulqueeney , who had lived with Joan  was  very pleased to  converse and to share her recollections.  Also  we shared   a  beautiful , touching and  reflective video  of the Life of Joan  prepared by Sister  Erisa Lee  which  Hilary  loved.

limaJS30thDOn the evening of the 15th  we celebrated Mass in the parish church, the church from where   Joan was laid to rest 30 years ago.   Our church was beautifully adorned for the occasion. Our main celebrant was Columban Fr. Cathal Gallagher accompanied by Fr. Edgar Valdivia.


To begin our celebration, Hilary lit a special candle in memory of Joan.

The First Reading from the Prophet Isaias read by Sister Eufrasia García summed up for us Joan´s life.

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, becauselimaJS30theF He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and return prisoners to the light…”

 The Gospel Reading  from Matthew  11,  2-11  reiterating  the message of  Isaias  in the First Reading   brought  home to us even more, that Joan was indeed chosen  to  play a very special role as a messenger of the Good News to the poor.

Fr. Cathal gave the homily and being present at the funeral that day, 30 years ago, vividly brought to life touching memories of the sentiments of the multitude of people on the long walk to the cemetery. He recalled the cries for justice, peace, respect for life, dignity, and solidarity which were expressed in various forms along the way. 

limaJS30thG“The crowd that day,” Cathal said, “realized and felt  deeply the injustice and violence committed in their midst and they were more than willing to walk every step of the way to show their solidarity  in bringing about a more just society. They were united with Joan who had given her life accompanying the prisoners and helping them to find hope amid violence and injustice and they knew they were witnesses to the presence of solidarity and love even in the most difficult situations.” The much repeated phrase to the cemetery still rings today in the hearts of many Peruvian people: Joan you will live on in the hearts of your people.”

 limaJS30thHAs the gifts were presented at the Altar, we were much connected with Joan as Hilary, accompanied by Columban Sisters, and some close friends presented Joan´s ring, her blood-stained handbag, her cross and chain, her personal agenda, credentials, photo, and flowers.  Each offering was commented on creating an atmosphere of quiet reflection and prayer.

 At the end of the Mass Sra. Rosa La Madrid (Friend) presented to Hilary, a scroll as a token of gratitude from the people of Perú.

                                                   “I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matt. 25:36)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           





Then we happily shared refreshments which Hilary had provided for all.   It was time to say Goodbye and it was lovely to see how the people spontaneously formed a queue and one by one came to Hilary to express their appreciation and gratitude.

On the morning of December 16th Mass was celebrated in the section of the prison where Joan ministered.  Fr. José Calve, Chaplain to the prison, very cordially welcomed us and had all in readiness for the celebration.

Joan would have loved the choir who sang and played with much feeling. Around at both sides of the pavilion were seated a large group of friendly youth participating with much attention. Sister Ana Mazola spoke with affection of her memories of Joan when Joan came to participate in the Prison Ministry.  She spoke of her gentleness, her kindness, her dedication, her compassion, and her untiring commitment to her ministry 

Fr. Jorge Alvarez Calderon (a long-time friend of the Columbans) was the principal celebrant. He was accompanied by Fr. José Calve and 4 Columban priests. In his homily, Fr. Jorge recalled the terrible scene which was vividly portrayed on the television on the night of the 14th.  It was, he said,  an incredibly unjust, violent crime with total disregard and disrespect for human life.  It was an absolute massacre.

Then he asked Hilary, how old she was at that time and to share with us how she feels now. Hilary was eighteen years old and hearing the news of Joan´s death, she said, “The family was in total shock.”  As days passed, months passed and the years passed, recalling and remembering Joan, we can now say, “This is how Joan would have wanted to die.”

Concluding the Mass, Sister Maura Gallahue thanked everybody for their presence, solidarity and prayer. 

After the Mass we were invited for refreshments prepared by the Pastoral Team in the room named after Joan Sawyer, where Sister Maura presented to Hilary a replica of the Cross that marks the location where Joan and the seven prisoners lost their lives.  This special cross was made in the prison. 

Hilary´s visit would not have been complete if we did not have the opportunity to meet up with Mercy Sister and nurse, Mildred McNamara.

limaJS30thLSpeaking with Hilary, Sister Mildred unfolded her story from the first moment of hearing the news of Joan´s death.  “Realizing the urgency of the moment,” Sister Mildred said, “I put aside my personal   grieving, and thinking of Joan and the Columban Sisters, I set out immediately to give a helping hand.”   Sr. Eileen Roe  had  Joan´s  clothes ready  and  Sister Mildred went to the morgue  and  had to wait many anxious hours in  very  difficult  circumstances before she could  prepare Joan´s body for burial,  her last loving service to Joan.   

On arrival at the parish  church  El Spirit Santo, Sr. Mildred said she will never forget  the Columban Sisters standing in wait to receive Joan:   Sisters Eileen Roe,  Mary Nolan,  Brigid  Sullivan, Ana  María  Mulqueeney, Eileen Rabbitte.  Joanna Krupa, Anne Marie Smith, Mary Clune, Rita O´Dea, Elizabeth Doyle, and Perlita Ponge.

limajs30thMIt was a grace giving moment for me,” Mildred  said,  “as  the  Columban Sisters   carried  the coffin  of their  sister, Joan,  a missionary,  a martyr,  into the church, and the huge  crowd of people who gathered around , inspired  by Joan´s spirit of love and total giving reached  out to touch the coffin.”  

Then we chatted more as we shared the tea, sandwiches and fruit cake with typical Mercy hospitality.It was a lovely evening, a beautiful evening, and Hilary was profoundly grateful. 

As I end my reflection on Sister Joan Sawyer´s 30th   Anniversary,   Liam Lawson´s lovely song comes to mind and I quote a few lines:

   There’s a time for remembering

A time to recall
There’s a time to be grateful

For the moment so blest



For wherever we gather 

In the light of God’s grace
And for all we remember

There will ever be a place.”


                                                   By Sister Mary Mulcahy who has been on mission in Peru over 25 years

Categories Reflections