This report was written by Jacques Berset as part of a project visit carried out by the pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) in Paraguay from 18 November to 5 December 2016.
Tupãsy! Tupãsy? The Mother of Jesus is coming! These were the words spoken in Guarani to welcome the Missionary Sisters of the Teaching and Atoning Saviour. The people living in the remote villages of the Paraguayan department of Canindeyú at the border to the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Paraná had never seen nuns wearing veils before.
When the Missionary Sisters of the Teaching and Atoning Saviour from Peru arrived towards the end of the 20th century, it caused a veritable sensation in the rural communities of the Virgen del Carmelo de Villa Ygatimy parish, a village situated about five hours northeast of the capital of Asunción by rural road. The parish has about one hundred “chapels” for its 20,000 believers, which is the name used for the scattered parishes of the Ciudad del Este diocese. The diocese extends across an area that is about as large as Belgium.
The believers are hungry for the sacraments
“Three priests work in Curuguaty, 45 kilometres from here. They administer to 92 chapels, which means that they only manage to visit them from time to time. They go to the parishes that do not have any paved roads. They reach them on dirt roads that become impassable when it rains. The parish of Katueté is located 160 kilometres further on – the priest makes it there three to four times a year. In one week, he visits the chapels, celebrates Holy Mass and hears confession, which can sometimes take an entire day. The believers wait patiently for hours to receive the sacraments,” Mother María Luján, a sister originally from Argentina, reports.
Her fellow religious sisters from Peru perform pastoral services such as marriages, baptisms and funerals in rural parishes that do not have a priest. They hold liturgies of the Word and administer the Eucharist to the sick. And it is precisely this which makes up the charism of the Missionary Sisters of the Teaching and Atoning Saviour: to work in those places that have not seen a priest for months or even years. “Our sisters live and work in the most remote areas of Latin America. They take care of people with no known postal address, the poor and the forgotten in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay or Peru,” Mother María Luján explains.
Waiting four years for a priest to arrive
“To receive the consecrated host, we travelled 45 kilometres to the Brazilian city of Paranhos in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul,” María Luján continues. We then drove to the chapel San Antonio, 12 kilometres from the nearest city. The Diocesan Oeconomus Father Ernesto Zacarías came with us. After being bounced about on unpaved roads full of deep ruts, we finally arrived at the parish, which consists of 34 houses with a total of 120 believers.
The believers had already been waiting patiently for a solid hour. They sang songs in Spanish and Guarani in the humid and sticky heat of December that signals the end of spring in the southern hemisphere. They gathered in a small building made of bricks, which they had built together, and expressed joy at the arrival of the priest. He is the first cleric to stop by this remote, inaccessible place in four years. “They bring the sick out to him. He visits those who cannot be moved at their homes to administer the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. We ‘kidnap’ him so that he hears confession for hours on end. He is completely exhausted afterwards,” Mother Lorena cheerfully says. She is a Peruvian nurse who looks after this parish. She is originally from Cajamarca, a village on the plateau in northern Peru, who has been working in Ygatimy for three years.
The arrival of the nuns transformed the parish
The villagers appreciate that the Peruvian nuns are there. “They say that they are very happy that God visits them, that He travels so far to visit the simple people. They are poor, but have a great hunger for spirituality!”
In the villages, where nature has delightfully blended the green of the trees with the ochre-coloured red tones of the earth, the inhabitants live from farming, animal husbandry, cheese making and fruit harvesting. After Holy Mass, the believers talk about the unfortunate circumstance that the young people leave for the city to get their degrees, which means that they get to know city life with its modern technology and all its temptations. Later, they no longer want to return to the villages that are completely cut off from all of this, to lives of simplicity and hardship.
Since the sisters arrived in 1999, Mother Lorena says, the parish has undergone a transformation. “We have observed a spiritual reversal. In the past, the people hardly took part in parish life. The church was dirty, uncared for. Hours of spiritual retreat have led to a change. Now there is more solidarity and less alcohol and drug abuse. The sick receive better care.”
We continue our journey for approximately another fifty kilometres down a dust-covered, unpaved road, reaching the parish of Our Dear Lady of Fatima in Ypehu, in the mountains of Amambay, a stone’s throw from the Brazilian city of Paranhos. We are welcomed there by Mother Beatriz. She is the Reverend Mother of the small local community of the Missionary Sisters of the Teaching and Atoning Saviour.
Protestant sects from Brazil
From their convent base, the Peruvian nuns perform pastoral care in thirteen chapels. The furthest of these is 41 kilometres away. However, all of these chapels can only be reached by deeply fissured roads that put their long-serving all-terrain vehicle to the test. A priest based in Brazil visits these villages four times a year. During Easter Week, a delegate of the bishop of Ciudad del Este comes to celebrate the sacrament of Confirmation.
In Ypehu, the Protestant sects from Brazil are Mother Beatriz’s greatest worry. The churches “Assembly of God”, “Elohim Christian Church” and even the Pentecostal church “God is Love” of Pastor David Miranda are all to be found within a short distance. “The Elohim Christian Church targets poor people, distributing food and offering classes to them. This is the main reason why people go to this sect. The pastor forces them to attend divine services. However, they still attend our liturgy on Sundays. The people want to have their children baptized in the Catholic church because they have a deep faith and they greatly revere Our Lady of Caacupé,” the Peruvian missionary sister explains.
“In the past, five to ten people came to Mass. However, since the nuns are here, the church is always full,” confirms a parishioner, whom we meet in the church garden. The missionary sisters Mother Beatriz and Sisters Adriana, Edith and Felicia, however, assure us that should a priest come to live permanently in the parish once looked after by the missionaries of Steyl, they would quickly leave the place to move to a different one that does not have a priest. “That is our charism!”
Over 400 Missionary Sisters of the Teaching and Atoning Saviour work at 38 missions in remote and inaccessible places in various Latin American countries. The sisters call these places Patmos after the Greek island on which St. John the Apostle lived in exile. From these missions, they often drive for hours on unpaved roads or even go by foot, ride donkeys or take ships to visit a deserted village or farm inhabited by just a few families. It is said that there, where the paved road ends, is where the work of the missionary sisters with their special charism begins.
Each year, Aid to the Church in Need helps the Missionary Sisters of the Teaching and Atoning Saviour through transport and training projects as well as aid to help secure their livelihoods in Peru and Bolivia.