Columban History in Peru

February 15, 2010

Columban Father John Hegerty with a parishioner in Lima, Peru.

When the Columbans came to Lima in 1951, they took responsibility for a parish of 50,000 people on the northern side of Lima, extending from the Rimac River to the Chillon River.

Most of the area was farmland worked under the hacienda system: landed gentry and peasants. The continuous urban sprawl, provoked by population growth and migration from the provinces to the capital city, forced Columbans to divide and subdivide the original parish. There are now at least 25 parishes where in 1951 there was only one.

More continue to come as the suburbs continue to expand. The population of the area is now more than 2 million and still growing.

These parishes did not come about by slow organic growth but by sudden eruption. Overnight, a vast settlement of primitive shelters would suddenly appear where before there were only open fields and dusty valleys and mountain slopes.

Columbans responded to these invasions by helping the people to learn to trust one another and in this way gradually develop a sense of Christian community. Building new parishes from scratch, they began by gathering the people in small groups for prayer, for worship and for catechetical instruction. At the same time they accompanied the people in their struggles to get in light, water and sewerage into their areas.

They organized support groups for the youth, mothers and the elderly, encouraging them to minister to their peers. The people enthusiastically accepted the challenge. Columbans provided training for catechists and lay leaders to assist them in building vibrant basic Christian communities.

The Columban Sisters, who arrived in 1963, undertook work in health clinics. They assisted mothers clubs by teaching women ways to improve their standard of living. They organized and participated in prayer groups with the women, giving them a sense of their own dignity and self-worth. They trained catechists who, in turn, prepared children and adults for the sacraments.

These children received their first Communion from Columban Father Seung Won Nam in a chapel in Lima, Peru.

In each area as the communities grew, so too did the need for a decent chapel or community center where they could come to pray and worship together and support one another. That involved the ever-recurring problem of securing adequate sites and the building of a series of chapels for the various communities in a given parish area.

All this took place in a climate of a devastating, year-after-year inflation rate coupled with periodic violence caused by radical groups. This made their efforts all the more difficult and added to the suffering of the people, already burdened under indescribable poverty.

During these years of exhausting and at times frenetic pastoral activity, Columbans struggled to instill a missionary spirit in the hearts of the people. Their efforts have borne fruit. Laity from the older parishes are now helping people in the new settlements to build Christian communities.

In October 1995, the first Peruvian Columban priest, Fr. Diego Cabrera Rojas, was ordained. After serving in Fiji, he became the regional director of Peru in 2007.