Memories of the Peruvian missions or five out of seven


As best I can remember, it’s a first in my 40 years as a priest. I just returned from giving a young man five of the seven sacraments: the sacraments of confirmation, reconciliation, matrimony, and the anointing of the sick along with first Communion.

I wrote an article on this young man, David, last October.

This time last year, he was a healthy 18-year-old. In October his live-in girlfriend was pregnant with his second child, had malaria and needed a cesarean operation.

David was suddenly paralyzed from the waist down by what doctors call a “virus.” The parish council of his pueblo sent him to Lima. The money ran out and the hospital gave him no treatment — not even food — his bed sores were incredibly bad, and the hospital did nothing.

The parish council sent bus tickets for the family, along with two seats for him. He returned here from the hospital in Lima far worse than before. The trip was a crucifixion.

Sister Helen changed the bandages on his bed sores yesterday. In all her years of nursing she’d never seen anything like it. The sores go right down to the bone, which is visible. Sister Elizabeth almost got physically ill at the sight. His body is just bone covered by a thin layer of skin. At night he has been crying and screaming in agony with no pain medicine.

The nuns and I were saying today: after living here and seeing all this how could we ever again complain about anything.

Someone was scheduled to visit David and give him instructions in preparation for the sacraments he has been asking for. But Sister Helen said there is no time. He can hardly speak and could only nod his head at the marriage vows, and yet he was radiantly happy along with his new wife.

As we celebrated those five sacraments on a dirt floor surrounded by squalor and misery the words of that hymn came to my mind: “Surely the Presence of the Lord is in this place.” And I felt sure the heart of the Lord was beating with joy to be in that place. I know mine was.

The children were happy, too, because they were anticipating a little fiesta.

I’m bringing in a paneton (cake and sweet bread with fruit) and a powdered drink with sugar; the sugar bag had a slight hole — unknown to Sister Elizabeth — but not to the children.

She left a trail of sugar from the truck to the other side of the Pan American highway up through the dirt to their little dirt floor shack. Despite Sister Elizabeth’s admonition about sanitation, the children instantly ate all that sugar right off the ground. There wasn’t even a speck left for the ants!

The children here are hungry — and the adults as well. Peru is in a major recession and unemployment is soaring. At present there is no shrimp larva and very little seafood from the boats. Our soup kitchens continue to meet a real need.

Roger’s picture appeared in The Miscellany last year. Young, strong, industrious — he told me his wife and family often eat just once a day and sometimes not even once.

And yet his attitude is so positive and joyful. He trusts the Lord to provide something the next day and is delighted to go home having earned 55 cents.

Most of our donation money now goes to provide food for our soup kitchens. The low ocean temperatures caused by La Nina have been a disaster for fishing and are now bringing rains to the mountains in what should be our dry season.

We’ve had to keep postponing work in the mountains so next week we’re due in on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, with a wedding and workshop on Saturday. Please God the roads and river beds will let us in.

Our two nuns are delighted to be back and are doing great work. But it looks like Sister Elizabeth will be elected to her council in July, and they’ll have to leave Peru. Also, after her two operations, Sister Helen is having difficulty coping with conditions here.

They’ll leave with a lot of memories.

For instance, someone was banging on their convent door. They opened it and a man was standing there without a stitch of clothing. It was Hercules, whom Bishop Thompson visited on the beach and who also appeared in The Miscellany. The Bishop’s food money for that family continues to keep them alive.

He and his family live in a shack on the beach where they drag for shrimp larva. He saw his oldest son — 16 — go under the water. He dove in naked and dragged his son’s unconscious body ashore.

Meanwhile, his wife flagged down a car, and they raced to the Tumbes hospital a half hour away. By the grace of God, the nuns had just entered the convent to pick up something. They put 200 solis ($60) in the hands of Hercules, and he continued on to the hospital.

His son showed no signs of life, and the people in the car prayed over him. The money got him medical treatment, and he completely recovered. They consider it a miracle. Hercules returned to the convent to thank the nuns and to apologize for arriving there as he did.

But he knew that without the money his son would have gotten no medical treatment. Our nuns once entered a medical center here where the people were watching a baby die from poison because the mother lacked $2 for the antidote. The nuns saved the child’s life with just $2!

As I said, our nuns will leave with many memories. Thank God my own sister finishes language school in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in mid-June and hopes to join me here.

I am now the only St. James Society priest in northern Peru, and I have been told there is no St. James priest to replace me. Our only other St. James priest here left to return to his home diocese Easter week and his large active parish is now priestless. He had over a dozen churches and pueblos. Thousands of Catholic people are hurting as they have no priest.

I miss the assistance offered by the St. James priests. They were all tremendously helpful and sacrificial. They would give their services at any time whenever it was needed at great cost to themselves.

For example, last Saturday I faced alone the task of giving the sacrament of reconciliation to 300 teen-agers who are beginning their two-year program of preparation for the sacrament of confirmation.

We had two six-hour workshops for the coastal teens in Zorritos to La Crux. This doesn’t count all the teen-agers in the mountains.

I divided my time between the two workshops and giving the sacrament of reconciliation to as many young people as I could.

The sacrament of reconciliation is alive and well in this part of the world. There are not enough hours to meet the needs of the people. I see the Lord touching and changing so many hearts and lives through this beautiful sacrament of mercy.

I gave the sacrament to the teen-agers of Zorritos before a large picture of the Lord of Mercy. Our two chairs faced this picture.

When I finished after several hours my handkerchief was soaking wet from loaning it to them. I looked on the floor in front of their chair before the Lord’s picture. There was a pool of liquid — all tears. If tears are a sign of healing and repentance, a lot of it took place. So many young people in real pain were touched by the Lord.

With all the difficulties, it is a great place for a priest to work. I pray more priests from the United States as well as young people will respond to the need and the Lord’s call.

Last week I visited our five young parishioners who are in the diocesan seminary. Thank God they are all well and in good spirits. I hope one day they’ll be replacing me.

That’s our goal. Cardinal Cushing, the founder of my community, the St. James Society, said over 40 years ago: “I’m sending you down to South America to work yourselves out of a job.”

That’s what I’m trying to do.

Msgr. J. Donald Gorski is a priest of the Diocese of Charleston ministering in Zorritos, Peru, with the missionary St. James Society. To contribute materially to this mission, checks may be made out to the St. James Society and sent to: Msgr. Robert Kelly — Missions, P.O. Box 1257, Folly Beach, SC 29439. The Society of St. James will forward the checks through their bank account in Peru — thus avoiding the Peruvian Post Office. Only one thank-you acknowledgment will be sent to contributors and it will come directly from Zorritos.