No one can hope to capture forty years of missionary life in Peru in a few short words. When encouraged to write his own story down Paul gives a big groan. He is reluctant to share the story of his missionary life.
He was the middle child in a family of three boys from Peterborough, Ontario. He made his novitiate year in 1956-57 and was ordained a priest in 1963.
In those days the newly ordained were compelled to do a ‘pastoral year’ which was not as productive as planned. By 1964, the then provincial of St. Peter’s Province, Gerry Cousineau, OMI, was planning to have five young Oblates go to Peru. When Paul arrived in Peru he was sent to the north end of the citye of Lima, an area named Comas, which was a large section of the city composed of squatters. The land was not agriculturally productive but was an area of hills, covered with stones, and dry dirt. Along the coast of Peru it seldom rains. This was an area of the very poor people. The call had gone out for priests to come to this area and St. Peter’s Province had responded.
The houses, very tiny, were built of bamboo walls. The houses did not provide safety or security to their owners. The temperature and dampness made it feel very cold. The people survived through the work they could find. There is a particular word in Spanish (no English equivalent) which means to “pick up what you can in regard to work”.
The people organized themselves. The family would move into their parcel of land on the hillside and then the family man would disappear for a week or two. The military were very reluctant to force the women and children to move off the small parcel of land. Then after a week or two, when the military would no longer bother the family, the husband would return to their new location. The military could not effectively get rid of the squatters.
When Paul arrived in Comas there were around two hundred thousand people, without water, electricity, phones or street lights. Comas is eleven km. from the center of Lima.
Fr. Adrian Godin, OMI, originally from Montreal, was very influential in developing a missionary consciousness. He had lived in a straw shack, very close to the people, and concluded that it was important to create an industrial school for the boys to be trained in the trades. At the same time Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba kicked out the Brothers of Charity. Adrian invited them to come to Peru and together they created a school and program that would give the young students four hours of classes in the morning and four hours of training in the shop. In conjunction with the Brothers of Charity, young volunteers from Germany came to be the instructors in this training program for boys.
Shortly after this an industrial school for girls was established. Within the city of Lima there were many openings for maids in the houses of the more affluent people. These young girls were trained to cook, sew and manage a house.
During this time Paul recalls that a Canadian journalist complained how poor the people actually were. He pointed out to the journalist one particular house that had the beginnings of a brick wall. Only three rows of bricks were in place. Looking at the young journalist he pointed out: “You see the three brick rows that he saved up for months to build. Well, his child got sick and that took any money he had saved up.”
The occupant of the house had built as far as he could afford to build. It took a long time to obtain enough money to buy all the bricks needed to build an exterior wall.
A strong part of the vitality of the church community was the project to build a statute of Mary in front of the church building. They asked for submissions and the work of the local artist that was chosen was a mother holding a child while sitting on a bamboo mat. To build such a large statute Paul went out to the mountains to obtain the clay. When he brought all the raw clay back the artist lamented that it would take months to knead this clay properly work in order to create a piece of art. The people came forward, each took a small portion of the clay, worked it at home and returned within a few days. The statute was ready to be constructed.
The theme of the statue was ‘Our Lady of Peace.’ This was expressive of the feelings of the people. They were not fighting in an armed insurrection, nor did they want to take the farming land away from the small farmers. As one man described the meaning of this statue: “We are not here to cause trouble. We are here to build a better life.”
By 1967 the Oblates were ready to open a new mission. The government of Peru was trying to open up the eastern side of the Andes Mountain to farming. This was dense Amazon jungle. Blaise Macquarie, and Andreas Godin and Paul began this new mission in Aucajacu.
The plan was to work toward developing the farmers into a cooperative type of farming operation.
In 1970 there was a coup in the government and the new military dictatorship made it impossible for the farmers to make a living. In order to survive the farmers in this section of Peru moved into growing coca. This plant has many legitimate uses. A man could chew the coca leaves and not feel hunger or cold all day. It was a tool for survival through the Andes Mountain. Coca was also used in religious ceremonies before anyone would work the earth or his garden.
By 1972 the farmers were growing large fields of this coca to sell to the ‘narcos’ in the north who operated out of the country of Columbia. It was very lucrative for the farmer. At the same time there was a very strong push from the USA to try to eliminate the production of coca in this area of Peru.
1981 saw the beginning of the Lighting Path which was a Marxist inspired guerilla group that were bent on destroying the capitalist system.
There were stories of unbelievable cruelty in subduing the local population. Looking back at this ten year period Paul estimates that about five hundred people from their area just disappeared. He relates of one incident where a helicopter landed in a soccer field, rounded up six of the young men playing soccer and flew off. The bodies of the young men were never recovered. The people concluded that the six young men had been dropped into the depth of the jungle where it would be impossible to locate any evidence of a crime.
During this decade there was de facto armed conflict between the Peruvian military and the guerillas who lived in the jungle and would come out into the villages and roads to assert control over the people. Later on into the conflict the military changed their tactics and began to occupy the jungle and camouflaged themselves to look like the guerillas. This brought great confusion to the farmers and townsfolk.
It was during this time that Paul began to make wooden plaques which had the name of the disappeared persons and the information of their disappearance. He remembers that he had about thirty plaques affixed to the exterior of the church wall. There was great strength in this action. The local people were very wary that the military would be listening to what was happening in their small town but Paul, who shrugs his shoulder as he retells this story, “Nothing happened!” For this work the parish was awarded the National Civil Rights Award of Peru.
These ten years were especially difficult for the missionaries. Paul shakes his head: “How did we ever survive?” The narcos and the Senderos has taken over the jungle and controlled who could enter and who should be bared from the jungle.
During these years it happened frequently that human body parts were discovered in one of the five rivers. Paul remembers that these disappeared people were the ‘blood of Abel’ crying out from the earth.
A particularly trying moment was the day two men entered the church talking with one another; they were accompanied by six bodyguards carrying machine guns. Immediately Paul sensed that these were Senderos. Reflecting back on those moments Paul added: “It is enough to make you shiver!”
He remembers that on the feast of John the Baptist he pointed out in the homily that the brutality done to the Baptist was now happening among us. “The military did not shot me” he concluded of this time.
A particular moment to indicate how controlling the guerillas were over the people was the day a documentary crew from CBC/ Canada arrived to do a program on the growing of coca in Peru. The TV crew were looking to record how the farmers had to find that they needed permission from the guerillas to speak to anyone. When it was not possible to speak with one particular farmer Paul managed to get permission to have the crew speak with another farmer. When the Canadian reporter asked about the Senderos Paul did not translate the question! There was obvious frustration on the part of the Canadian reporter.
Later when the Canadian reporter asked why he had not translated the question Paul had to inform him that “this is how it really works.” The farmers would never talk about the Senderos. If they did, they could very easily be dead by the next morning. This was a powerful educational moment for the young Canadian reporter.
Did you personally feel safe during these years?
Paul shrugged his shoulders and said, “Yes!” There is a question mark: Maybe we were stupid about the whole situation? We had learnt from other points of violence on South America: do nothing in secret. Make sure everything is public. A strong piece of advice that Paul did use on at least one occasion: If the military threatens to take you, make sure that their threat is public. Make it known to the public at larger. Have the threats broadcast on the radio!
He attributes his safety to the fact that the Senderos somehow understood that the priests and sisters were on the side of the poor people. They could interpret our mode of operation in favour of the poor people of the country.
As an indication of the closeness to the poor Paul would often encounter at the national church meetings the friendly ribbing, ‘how is the chaplain of the narcos?’ “The people of the big city could never understand how we could live in the center of so much violence.”
By the year 2007 it was becoming clear that the Canadians and Europeans needed to leave the mission in order for the Peruvians to take control of their church. “If we do not leave the Peruvians will not have the space to develop as their own church.” It made more sense for Paul to return to Canada. “When I came back I could see from this perspective that this was the right thing to do.”
The Peruvians will do it differently from the North Americans.
Looking back to forty years of missionary work Paul say that this was the correct time to leave.
“It felt good. I have nothing to offer and after forty years of serving as superior and leader I had nothing more to offer.” It was time to return home. “The bell had rung!”