Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach

Columban Ministries During the Dictatorship and Today

September 10, 2013

  The Columban JPIC Office in Chile

JPIC Ministries Under the Dictatorship

Justice and Peace has been at the heart of Columban ministry and pastoral work in Chile. Throughout the seventies and eighties we were well known to be on the side of the poor and the victims of the military regime. We were seen to be a voice for justice and human rights throughout the years of the military dictatorship. Along with the Columban priests and sisters, a significant number of the Columban group in Chile were made up of Associate Priests from dioceses in Ireland, the U.S., England,

Scotland, Australia, and New Zealand. Later, lay missionaries who also moulded themselves into the Columban way of life in solidarity with the poor and victims of injustices joined us.

Throughout the 17 years of military dictatorship we coordinated our efforts with the Vicariate of Solidarity, which was set up by the then Cardinal Archbishop of Santiago, Raúl Silva Henriquez to offers refugee and support to the victims of human rights violations. we also provided soup kitchens (comedores), shared meals (olla communes) and cooperative buying (comprando juntos) in all four parishes and communities. Today we continue to provide this service for elderly people and university students in some of our parishes. We participated actively in the monthly meeting of the Pastoral Obrera (workers vicariate), which dwelt on an analysis of the reality we were living under the military dictatorship and our response to situations in our parishes and communities.

During the years of the military dictatorship, the Columbans put in place a viable pastoral program in each of the parishes. We inserted ourselves into the local church, worked the Pastoral Plan and participated actively in deanery, zone and diocesan events. We implemented the catechetical program, set up Basic Christian Communities and solidarity groups. We became involved in youth ministry both at local parish level and diocesan level and contributed to the process of education in the faith of many young people. This involved us in the National Institute of Youth Ministry (ISPAJ). Our work in the “poblaciones” (deprived social housing areas) resulted in the formation of a generation of lay people in leadership skills, social and political involvement, and empowerment of the poor building up their self-esteem and human dignity.

This was not without a price. We were subjected to military terrorism when our Center House was stormed on 1st November 1975 which resulted in the assassination of our housekeeper, Henriquetta Reyes and the detention and subsequent torture of Sheila Cassidy, an English medical doctor. Sheila was later expelled from Chile and the British labour government broke off diplomatic relations with Chile and withdrew their Ambassador. Full diplomatic relations were not restored until Margaret Thatcher came to power in Britain. Every year the Columbans continue to celebrate the anniversary of Henriquetta Reyes and until recently we celebrated the anniversary Mass in her home in Rengo, some two hours south of South of Santiago. Bill Hallidan was Regional Director at the time of the shooting and witnessed the event. This had a profound affect on him and a created a deep trauma. No one has ever been charged for this act of terrorism. Today one of the bullet holes on the wall of the Center House is preserved in memory of this tragic event.

As Columbans we experienced the detention and expulsion of three Associate priests working in the early 1980s, Brian McMahon, Des Macgillicuddy and Brendan Ford, and later the expulsion of Denis O´Mara for his involvement in the anti-torture movement, Sebastian Acevedo. This movement was created by priests, sisters and committed lay people to publicly denounce the use of torture by the military regime. Several Columban were influential and participated actively in the movement. It took its name from Sabastian Acevedo who burnt himself alive in front of the cathedral of Concepcion as his son was being tortured by then secret police (CNI).

During those years we were often watched with suspicion by the authorities. Some members of the Region had their permanent visas revoked or made renew their visas on a regular basis.

Several of our parishes were searched at various times during the military government, the most prominent being the parish of San Gabriel in 1988, shortly before the plebiscite in October 1989 that gave way for a return to democracy and an end to the military dictatorship.

JPIC After the Dictatorship

Democracy returned to Chile in March 1991 and Columbans have been active in these years of transition. We have maintained close ties and we identify ourselves with the Church of the poor. We continue to minister in the most underprivileged areas of the city. We work closely and network with other religious groups who are committed to social justice and accompanying the victims of human rights abuses. Chile in recent years has in no way been exempt from the impact of globalization and consumerism and it has made its impact on the lives of many people who are struggling for a better quality of life. There has been a shift from a community outlook on life to a more individualistic, an aspect that has also influenced the Church.

Chile is a changed country and people are much better off, but the wounds left by years of military dictatorship have yet to be healed. While we continue to live under Pinochet’s Constitution of 1980 and the political and economic structures that were put in place during those years (privatization of water, education, mining and labour laws, anti-terrorist laws) there is little basis for a more just society.  All these structures and laws form the root causes for much of the social unrest and inequality today. It is only 23 years since the end of military regime and memories are still very raw. Columbans contribute both by their presence and through joining other voices to bring about healing and reconciliation.