A Mission That Became a Home
July 10, 2009
It is going to be a long trip and in just a few days.
With Msgr. John Kozar, Pittsburgh priest and national director of the Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States, and 10 of our seminarians, I will be leaving Sunday, July 12, for a five-day visit to Chimbote, Peru. It takes about 18 hours on planes and in airports to get from Pittsburgh to Lima, Peru. And it takes an additional eight hours on a shuttle bus to get from Lima to Chimbote.
But the rewards of the trip promise to be nothing short of heaven on earth.
Nearly 50 years ago, the Diocese of Pittsburgh began a very special relationship with the people of Chimbote, Peru. It began under Bishop John Wright, then the bishop of Pittsburgh, who asked Father James Shanahan to be the first Pittsburgh diocesan priest to serve there.
Father Shanahan and other priests who followed soon after him — Father (now Msgr.) Jules Roos, Father Gerald Lutz, Father Jack Price — were the pioneers in our Peruvian mission. A few years later, they would be joined by other priests, the Sisters of Mercy and then, a few years later, by the Vincentian Sisters of Charity and the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth.
An extraordinary difference
What is it like in Chimbote? Chimbote today is a city of 700,000, roughly 250 miles north of Lima. At one time, Chimbote had a great fishing industry, but that has been depleted in recent years. The population is grossly unemployed or underemployed and is considered one of the poorest cities in Peru.
This is a land of desperate poverty. A land where hope is hard to come by. But it is a land where the church has been able to make an extraordinary difference. And that difference has come from Pittsburgh.
That difference began with the Social Works Center that opened as an outpatient clinic and home for the elderly. In 1966, our own Father Jules Roos, who was performing emergency baptisms for babies dying from the unhealthy conditions in which they were born, decided to open a maternity hospital where mothers could give birth in clean and comfortable surroundings.
Father Roos sought the assistance of the Dominican sisters from Grand Rapids, Mich., who served as nurse midwives at the maternity hospital. The first facility was very humble and primitive by today’s standards. But it flourished and grew into the bustling Maternidad de Maria Hospital in Chimbote, well-known throughout Peru.
Today, the maternity hospital is a 26-bed facility that delivers between 200 and 300 babies each month. Mothers are taught the importance of good hygiene and prenatal care. After delivery, they learn health care techniques to give their babies a better chance to survive in a harsh environment of poverty and suffering. The Dominican sisters have been present at the maternity hospital and outpatient clinic for more than 40 years in the persons of Sister Margaret Mary Birchmeier and Sister Lillian Bocheim.
For 45 years, the Peruvian mission has been home to Msgr. Roos. A Pittsburgh priest, Father Roos assumed back in 1964 that he would be in Peru for a short five-year stint as a missionary, then return home. Instead, the mission became a home. As his home too, Msgr. Roos has lived his priesthood in service to the people of Chimbote.
The work of the mission in Chimbote covers many needs. In the outpatient clinic, called the Posta Medica San Martin, the poor come with their children for specialty pediatric care, and for the treatment of common illnesses and disease. Because patients are sometimes too ill or can’t afford public transportation to come to the clinic, nurses who have been trained by the Dominican sisters visit them. The sisters often find that, while some are too weak to come for treatment at the hospital, they muster enough strength to be out in the community doing day work to support their families.
The San Martin Laboratory, established in 1971, is another important component of the Social Works Center. The laboratory provides quality technological support to the hospital and the community.
Over the years, many people have maintained the connection between Pittsburgh and Peru. Generous committed friends reinforced the mission from Pittsburgh. On site in Peru, missionaries, like Msgr. Roos, have kept the mission strong.
Walking with Jesus
Together with our seminarians, I am looking forward to visiting this “mission that became a home.” This will be an extraordinary opportunity for me to see this incredible work firsthand. The seminarians are taking their own time to join with me and Msgr. Kozar. We will not only have the chance to see this work, but also to be a part of the community itself, visiting where the people of Chimbote live in dire poverty, celebrating with them in their parish church, all the while being immersed in their whole environment.
While it will be a short visit, it will be more than that. It will be a pilgrimage, walking with Jesus amongst his people, the poorest of the poor. I know that it will be the kind of journey that will speak so eloquently of how Christ lives and works among us, how we must be his hands in doing good and how we are to welcome him in the poorest of the poor.
I can’t tell you how much I am looking forward to this pilgrimage. As a matter of fact, I will be taking you with me in thought, in deed and especially as we celebrate the Eucharist, as we pray with, give service to, and be with our sisters and brothers in Chimbote. Please keep our seminarians, Msgr. Kozar and myself in your prayers.
I look forward to telling you all about our journey when we get back — a journey to A Mission that Became a Home!