Alto Hospicio is the poorest suburb of Iquique, Chile and sits in what is known as the most arid desert in the world, the Atacama Desert. There are 70,000 or more people who live here in this both barren and sometimes beautiful place. Unemployment is high in Alto Hospicio. People came here looking for work when the mining and fishing industries in Iquique were booming. Many of them found work in those industries, but many did not. Since that time, production in both of these industries has lagged, creating unemployment and many other social and economic problems.
Alto Hospicio is home to Columban Father Michael Howe. Fr. Mike is a quiet and strong man. He chooses to conduct his calling on foot, walking the ragged and dusty streets of Alto Hospicio ministering from home to home, chapel to chapel. The enormity of the parish would be a daunting task for many priests, let alone one. Fr. Mike does have help, two Korean associate priests, Fr. Albinus and Fr. Casimoro help him staff the many chapels in this giant territory. He also has help from a very special woman, Sr. Mary Moloney of the Union of Presentation Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
On a recent visit to Alto Hospicio, I had the rare blessing of accompanying Fr. Mike in his daily work in Alto Hospicio and the even rarer blessing of meeting Sr. Mary. I first met Sr. Mary when she attended an evening Mass that Fr. Mike held in one of the chapels. She graciously invited Fr. Mike and me to her home for breakfast the next morning. We arrived at her small, typically primitive, but immaculate Alto Hospicio home nestled among the other homes of the parish. She had presented her best for Fr. Mike and me, and we shared toast and jam as well as meat and cheese and strong Chilean coffee.
I was immediately touched by this woman’s presence and the nature of her personal ministry. She has dedicated her life to working in Central and South America, primarily with women. Lack of employment and the extreme poverty in Alto Hospicio has created the perfect storm for the women and children of the area. Crime, domestic abuse, drugs, alcoholism and sometimes the disabilities and birth defects of their children dominate their lives. Rates of depression and even suicide are high where daily life becomes a seemingly impossible burden.
Sr. Mary works with other Presentation Sisters at the Nano Nagle House, a center that focuses on teaching women coping skills. Moreover, they help the women of Alto Hospicio find their dignity and reason for living. The skills that they teach at the center are readily transferred to improving their economic condition and lifting them and their families from the oppression of poverty.
We chatted over breakfast about Sr. Mary and Fr. Mike’s calling here in this harsh place. I asked Sr. Mary about her home in Ireland and how often she was able to return and see family and friends. I asked her if she would ever truly return home. Fr. Mike and Sr. Mary exchanged an understanding look for a moment and Sr. Mary turned to me. “This is my home, Chris. Whatever would I do back in Ireland? When I accepted God’s call, it was with the full understanding that I would be giving my life, little did I know that the people here would be the ones giving me life.”
Thank you for breakfast and the lesson Fr. Mike and Sr. Mary, the cooling waters of faith truly flow in one of the driest places on earth!