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Longtime Missionary, Defender of Native Peruvians Mariano Gagnón Dies

LIMA, Peru — Mariano Gagnón, OFM, 87, a professed Franciscan friar for 66 years and a priest for 60, died April 28 in Lima.

A wake service was held on April 29, followed by a Mass of Christian Burial on April 30 at Chapel of Nuestra Señora de los Angeles (Our Lady of the Angels) in the Friary of the “Descalzos” in Rimac, Lima. Provincial Minister Fr. Alejandro Adolfo Wiesse, OFM, of St. Francis Solano Province, served as principal celebrant and Fr. Mario Brown, OFM, and Anthony Wilson, OFM, served as concelebrants. Burial followed after the Mass, with prayers of internment offered by Bishop Gerardo Antonio Žerdín, OFM, of the Apostolic Vicariate of San Ramón. Mariano was buried in the friars’ crypt at the friary in Rimac.

Early Years
Mariano was born on Oct. 7, 1929 in Manchester, N.H., to Arthur and Ida (née Beaudet) Gagnon and baptized Joseph Theodore on Oct. 9, 1929. He attended St. George Grammar School in Manchester and, after dropping out of the local high school, attended St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary in Callicoon, N.Y., where he finished high school and was introduced to the Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province.

It was during the aftermath of World War II that a teenage Mariano heard a bishop give a lecture on the challenges faced by the Asháninka Tribe, the largest group of native people in the Amazonian jungle. Mariano’s father was Métis, an aboriginal Canadian tribe, and his background made Mariano sensitive to the plight of the Peruvian Native Americans.

In 1948, at age 19, Mariano moved to Peru to pursue his interest in serving there as a Franciscan missionary. He was received into the Order of Friars Minor as a member of the Province of St. Francis Solano in 1950 and professed first vows one year later. His philosophical and theological education took place at Santa Rosa de Ocopa in Lima and he professed solemn vows in 1954. Three years later, he was ordained to the priesthood by Cardinal Juan Landázuri Ricketts of Lima.

Ministry
Following his ordination, Mariano went on to establish several missions in the Amazon jungle – Flor de Punga, along the lower Ucayali River, where he worked with the Cocama tribe and served from 1957 to 1960 in the newly established Vicariate of San Ramón; Santa Elena on the Tapichi River, from 1960 to 1970; and finally, Cutivireni along the Ene River, where he worked from 1970 to 1991. At Cutivireni, he began working with the Asháninkas, whose land was being threatened by deforestation caused by settlers. Mariano persuaded the Peruvian government to protect Cutivireni from settlement and built a mission there. Located at the junction of three rivers, it had 91 buildings ­– 80 houses and 11 other structures, including a chapel, an infirmary, a bilingual school, workshops, and a generator building – and was home to 700 people.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, cocaine trafficking grew in the Ene Valley, raising the premium on land-grabbing and putting the Ashaninka at risk from Colombian drug traffickers. The Ashaninkas, who were farmers, were asked to stop planting cacao and start growing coca instead. With Mariano’s support, they refused, and as retribution, in 1984, while Mariano was away in Lima, settlers and local drug traffickers burned down the mission for the first time. Mariano returned from Lima and rebuilt the mission.

In 1988, the year the mission was finished, the Shining Path – a Communist militant group – began infiltrating the region and attempted to recruit young Ashaninka for indoctrination. Mariano refused to assist them and, in 1989, while he was in the United States, the Shining Path invaded and burned the mission. A war began between the Ashaninka and the Shining Path, and when Mariano returned several months later, he found the missions in ruins and learned that the Shining Path had threatened to kill him if he returned to the jungle.

Despite this warning, he returned several months later in 1990 and with the Ashaninka, undertook an arduous five-day trek to a new location, walking through a jungle and climbing up a mountain called Tzibokiroato, where the Ashaninkas hoped to defend themselves from the Shining Path. While Mariano was raising funds and awareness for the Ashaninkas in Lima, the Shining Path took Tzibokiroato, and the Ashaninkas fled into the jungle. When Mariano returned, he organized the evacuation of 169 of the remaining refugees to a new location in the Amazon. They were flown over the Andes in a small aircraft that operated without navigation equipment or oxygen masks. In 1993, Mariano, together with William and Marilyn Hoffer, wrote a book about his experiences called “Warriors in Eden.”

During this time, Mariano also served as mission superior of the Vicariate of San Ramón, as well as director of the Franciscan Missionary Union and mission promoter.

In 1993, Mariano requested to transfer to Holy Name Province and was assigned to serve as vicar at Santisimo Nombre de Jesus (Holy Name of Jesus) Parish in Lima, celebrating Sunday Masses and officiating at weddings. He continued to raise funds for and care for the Ashaninkas – first in Tangoshiari, from 1993 to 2002, and then in Cheni, where he worked with Franciscan friar Tomas Martin, OFM, from 2002 to 2006. He also founded an institute for the promotion and defense of the Amazon rainforest and the natives who live there – the Centro Franciscano Para la Defensa del Nativo y la Ecologia Amazonica.

It eventually became difficult for him to travel deep into the jungle to visit the mission at Cheni, so from 2006 to 2013, he maintained a residence in Satipo, where he lodged natives who came to the city to study or receive medical attention. His Franciscan journey came full circle in 2013, when HNP friars in Peru entered into an agreement with St. Francis Solano Province to gradually integrate HNP’s mission into the Peruvian province. For the next three years, Mariano served as vicar of the Franciscan parish in Satipo and maintained and renovated the Emmaus Retreat House complex, built the chapel, and administered retreat activities.

In 2014, the Congress of Peru honored Mariano in recognition of his work as a missionary. During the last few months of his life, he alternated between living at the Franciscan friary of the Descalzos at Rimac, and the apartment of a friend, where a full-time nurse cared for him.

Maria Hayes is communications coordinator for Holy Name Province.

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