Columban Sisters in Peru, 1962
Peru is country of contrasts, and one of the most striking contrasts is that between the rich and the poor. Most of those in this latter group have in the past forty years migrated from the outlying regions of the country to the coastal cities in search of work. The problems of that this migration of people brought about called for assistance from better off areas of the world. And so there came a great missionary expansion to South America in the early 60’s.
Some sources cite the concerns of both Paul VI and John XXIII regarding the state of the Church in the southern continent; others refer to the threat of the spread of Communism as a major factor. But in relation to both of these there was reason for mission and the appeal of John XXIII was certainly heard by the Columban Sisters’ leadership and so in 1962 they assigned a group of four Sisters to Peru.
Their mission was to provide healthcare and education for people in the capital, Lima. At that time Lima was a city with a population of about 2 million – and now almost 8million. The needs were very clear: large numbers of people had left the mountain and jungle for the coast, rich in hope of getting better living conditions and prospects for their future lives through education and employment. What the Sisters found were people living in extreme poverty on the edges of the city, situation that has given rise to the phenomenon of “pueblos jovenes” (young towns” )
Today, fifty years later, the population of Lima is approaching 8 million. This, however, has not deterred the people who are still coming to the coastal cities, dreaming of a brighter future for themselves and their families. The Columban Sisters continue to live and work with them as they struggle to realize their dreams.
Most Peruvians are baptized Catholics and have a deep faith in God. However, in the past, opportunities to come to know God better have not always been available to them. Today, many of them meet weekly in small groups to reflect together on the Word of God and try to discover God’s presence in their often difficult lives. Programs and courses of study in Scripture, theology and prayer are very well attended and more and more Peruvian people are taking leadership roles in local church communities and are going on mission to outlying parts of the country and also to other countries.
The Sisters live and work among the people who have settled in huge housing settlements on the edge of the capital city, Lima, in IndependenciHuaycan and Canto Grande in the dusty hills on the outskirts of Lima, in the desert region of Ica, south of Lima, and in the high mountainous region of Ayacucho, a Quechua-speaking area.
During one period in the 70’s a Columban Community lived and ministered in Recauy, Ancash Province of Peru. The Columbans were the first group of Sisters to go because some of them felt the call to go there. (Ana Maria’s book p.18 – She refers earlier to the political unrest in the country as a whole but does not link that with the terrorist threats. I’ll follow this up with Mary Nolan since she is one of the founders of the mission.
The sisters’ works are varied depending on the needs of the people of the local church and the gifts and talents of the sisters. Basic to the sisters’ way of life is the willingness to be present to the people, especially the women, in their joys and sorrows, their struggles and successes. For one Sister, her desire to link families with there loved ones in prison asked of her the ultimate price: her life. Sister Joan Sawyer was shot dead on 14 December 2003 along with seven prisoners. She was one of four people who had gone to Lurigancho Prison that fateful day. The prisoners what to plead their case for better conditions yet never harmed the hostages. It was the local security who did. Read more on Joan’s story….
While the mission of the Sisters is very varied, basic to all of them is the desire to accompany the people as they walk the often difficult road that leads to a more just, open and equal society. This they do through participation in small communities where the present reality is shared and analyzed and where the Word of God is reflected upon in order to discern the way forward.
The Columban Sisters in Peru are now an international group with sisters from many different countries living and working together.
The sisters’ dream is to see their work continue into the future so that many others may be enabled to realize their full dignity as human person created in the image of God.
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