It is a curious but blessed fact of missionary life that geographical distances do not produce emotional distances.
Columban missionaries often live in countries which are a long way from the countries where they were born and raised. We can spend years without visiting family and friends at home. Yet, we remain very close to our loved ones. Visits home are a special time of grace for us. There is always a great welcome. Everyone is anxious to catch up on what has happened since the last time we met.
We usually go back to our missions weighing several (or more) pounds more than when we got off the plane. Our bags are full of new clothes, books and other gifts. Over the years, my family and friends in the United States and in Ireland have helped to finance many projects here in Chile: chapels, community centers, libraries, soup kitchens, training programs, etc. In the past, they had to rely on letters and photos to inform them about the progress of these projects. Unfortunately, I am not a great letter writer!
However, in recent years, I have been visited by various members of my family as well as friends. It has been gratifying for me to see their interest in the work of the Columbans in the poblaciones (housing projects) of Santiago, Valparaiso, Iquique and Vallenar as well as work in the campo (countryside). Their visits are always memorable for me, and I try to return the hospitality which I experience on my visits home.
At different times, my brother Stephen and his wife Carole sent their two older teenage children, Stephen Jr. and Maureen, to visit their missionary uncle in Chile. Their parents wanted them to see another reality and to appreciate how the poor struggle to maintain their families. My nephew and niece came with strict instructions that they were not to be tourists. They had to do something useful. So they cleaned drains and vacant lots, painted meeting rooms, dusted library books and helped in soup kitchens. For young people who were used to a more prosperous lifestyle, they adapted well. Their Spanish improved. They ate different foods and lived with their uncle in the parish house without the comforts of home. They had to get used to the dogs barking late into the night. But they approached it all with good humor and made friends with the young people in my parish. I was proud of them. I figured that despite a few hardships, they had a good time.
The eldest, Stephen Jr., has visited me several times since then! Later my brother Stephen decided to make a visit himself. He came with his youngest son Patrick. Like his children, Stephen insisted on doing something useful. A lawyer by profession, he was always quite good and skillful with his hands. He repaired the roof of the training center which the Columbans had built in La Pintana. We also traveled south to the Columban mission in Puerto Saavedra among the Mapuches.
He was fascinated by the country and promised to return. He kept his promise and came back for a second visit which coincided with the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Columbans in Chile. For years, he had been active in Columban fundraising events in New York. He felt privileged to take part in an historic occasion for the Society in Chile.
In 2001, I was assigned to the Columban parish of San Pedro Nolasco in Puente Alto. Puente Alto is the most populated municipality of Chile with over 500,000 inhabitants. In ten years, the parish of San Pedro Nolasco had grown 700% from 10,000 people in 1992 to 70,000 in 2002. The government had built numerous new housing projects for the poor in the area.
Within a few years, this part of the municipality was listed among the most densely populated areas of Chile with all the social problems which overcrowding brings. The Columbans responded to the challenges by developing new Christian communities and building new chapels and meeting rooms. When Stephen came back, he followed me through the streets of the parish as I celebrated Mass in neighboring centers or in the streets. In the community of Sagrada Familia (Holy Family), we were using a small house for our catechetical programs and other meetings. It was not in great shape, so he decided to paint and repair it. I would leave him and his son there in the morning, pick them up for dinner and bring them back in the afternoon. He was always interested in people and with his improved Spanish he conversed with the neighbors and enjoyed an occasional beer with them.
Some nights, I did not collect them until 11:00 p.m. The people of the parish were impressed that a lawyer could roll up his sleeves and be so efficient at manual labor. I was scolded several times by my parishioners for exploiting my brother and nephew! Before he left, Stephen promised that he would help them to build a decent chapel. When he returned to New York, he began to contact family, friends and business associates and to interest them in making a donation for the construction of the chapel of Sagrada Familia. Just a few months later he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He underwent surgery and began chemotherapy.
He was determined to try and beat the cancer. The battle with the deadly disease only served to strengthen his motivation. He wrote letters and made more phone calls. He contacted Fr. John Burger who was the U.S. Regional Director at the time. By mid-2004, Stephen had gathered enough money to begin building the first stage of the future chapel with meeting rooms. He was in constant contact with me about the progress of the building.
In September, he learned that the cancer had come back in a more aggressive form and that the drugs were not working. The doctors were going to try another form of chemotherapy. Unfortunately, his weakened condition did not allow his body to accept the new drugs. He was in and out of the hospital several times. A man of deep faith, he kept on praying his favorite devotion, the Rosary. He had been listening to tapes in Spanish of the Rosary and told me that sometimes he even prayed in Spanish. He was convinced that the Lord had sent him to Chile with a purpose. By October 2004, we were able to start celebrating Mass in the new building even though it was not finished.
In December, I decided to go home to New York to see Stephen. I knew that it would be our final meeting. I arrived on the morning of December 20, 2004.
When I got to his home, he was not conscious and was having difficulty breathing. I anointed him and stayed by his side praying. He died two hours later. The Lord called him to make his last missionary journey.
The community of Sagrada Familia continues to grow. We need now to expand the chapel to facilitate all the people who are coming to Mass on Sunday. Somehow, I know that Stephen once again will help me. In the meantime, I will try to be more faithful in thanking the Lord for the generosity of my family, friends and Columban benefactors. They are all real missionaries.
Fr. Mike Hoban lives and works in Chile.