Serving the Poor in Lima

Octavio Duran Features

As a student, Anthony Wilson, a native of Winchester, Mass., went to Cochabamba, Bolivia, to study Spanish as part of his priestly formation. On his way back to the United States, after that short summer in Bolivia, he visited the Franciscan mission in Lima, Peru. He was deeply touched by the poverty he observed.

“I thought about working in Bolivia, but the Provincial asked me to consider going to Peru after my ordination,” Tony said.

Years later, he arrived in Lima as the assistant pastor of Santísimo Nombre de Jesús Church. (This parish, founded by Joseph Nangle, was a mission of HNP until last year, when the Archdiocese of Lima assumed its responsibility.)

Upon his arrival in Lima, Tony found himself in the midst of a very bad political situation. The violence, which had spread throughout the country, was the result of the armed internal conflict between the government and the Maoist movement called Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path.) It took Tony at least five years to figure out the political situation of the country.

“I guess it’s part of the learning experience missionaries go through,” he said. After three years as assistant pastor and 12 years as pastor of the Santísimo Nombre de Jesús parish, Tony felt called to minister to a different community known as “Oasis,” a neighborhood in an area of Lima called Villa El Salvador. This is a very low-income area which terraces its way up mountain slopes on the southern outskirts of metropolitan Lima, in the diocese of Lurin.

“One day, as I was leaving Oasis, I saw the newly built church of Santa Ana, in Villa María del Truinfo, just a few blocks away from Villa El Salvador,” Tony said. He admits that it never crossed his mind that one day he would be invited to work there. But the invitation eventually came, and he didn’t decline it.

“Soon after I became a pastor, I realized that the parish needed more than a building for worship,” Tony said.

Like many fast-growing metropolitan areas in developing countries, Villa María del Triunfo is the result of poorly planned development and urban sprawl. As a consequence, living conditions are unfit for most of its population. Ninety percent of the people don’t have access to health services, 59 percent are not connected to the piped water and sewerage system, and 23 percent don’t have electric power.

According to Tony, poverty and unemployment are the two main concerns of the residents. The parish has developed a few programs that satisfy some of the needs that the government is unable to fulfill.

With the help of the Franciscan Missionary Union and some nonprofit organizations, the parish now operates a legal clinic and a vocational training school, where the youth can learn different skills to better their future.

The parish also has a medical and dental clinic. There is a grammar school and a small library, where children can come after school and do their homework. This is necessary because some families cannot provide the space for their children to study.

Although most of the programs are important and necessary for the more than 300 families of the parish, the comedor popular, or soup kitchen, is the most popular.

Tony says that in a given day food is prepared for some 350 people. The children and the elderly have priority. Food is often delivered on a motorcycle to those who are homebound due to illness or age.

Santa Ana is divided into 18 sectors — small communities that share the same problems and needs.

Santo Tomas and San Elias are two of the chapels for which the parish is responsible. Following the model of Santa Ana, Santo Tomas has a modest medical clinic built adjacent to the comedor popular, where people get a balanced meal for a low cost, or even for nothing. No one goes hungry!

“The residents of San Elias have requested their own soup kitchen. But right now we cannot afford to install one, because we don’t have the means,” Tony said.

The relatively low unemployment rate masks the fact that 76 percent of the people are underemployed (mainly cottage industries), and only 13 percent are fully employed. Fifty-seven percent of the population lives below the poverty level. Twenty two percent of the people live in extreme poverty. One result of these conditions is that the malnutrition rate stands at almost 15 percent. Worse yet, 23 percent of children under age eight are malnourished.

Due to the level of poverty, Tony not only has to deal with the spiritual needs of the people, but also with the most basic needs of his parishioners.

After all these years of mission in Peru, Tony is convinced of his Franciscan calling to serve the poor. “This is what the Gospel is all about,” he said. “The mission is not about us Franciscans. It’s about the people to whom we minister. As the gospel says, ‘Whatever you do for one of these least brothers of mine, you do for me.'”