Mission to Bolivia, land of peace

The St. Louis missionaries to the poorest country in South America bring the Catholic faith to people there, showing them God's mercy and love. Their parish work is seen daily - often from sunrise to much beyond sunset. But it also reflects in the people of the parish, from children to older adults, who are empowered and inspired to serve others or to take up the cross of Christ.


Missionaries of Charity

Father Tim Noelker, associate pastor of Maria Reina Parish, visits the Missionaries of Charity weekly to celebrate Mass and visit children in a day care program there. Bishop Andrew Schierhoff, a St. Louis missionary who arrived when the apostolate began 60 years ago, assisted Mother Teresa's community in establishing an outreach in Bolivia when it was seeking English-speaking priests to assist them.

The day care center serves about 60 children in three age groups, up to 4 years old. The children receive breakfast, have educational and other activities, and eat lunch. A physician, psychologist and nutritionist are among those who visit.

The youngsters clearly enjoyed Father Noelker's visit. He's attained a bit of a rock-star staus in La Paz, not bad for a boy from Neier in rural Franklin County.

"Buenos Dias" a classroom of toddlers shouted as he entered their room, He replied with "Cómo Están?" — how are you? — and shook hands with each. He then led the children in prayer.

In the older children's room, the teacher led the sign of the cross, a prayer and a song. Father Noelker greeted each child and exchanged "high-fives." One girl wouldn't let go of his hand, and he chatted with her a bit. Another child spoke of his "ouchies."

In each classroom, the children remained seated through the visit, though two older boys fidgeted and spoke loudly to gain attention.

Father Noelker also stopped to visit with the cook. She told him how much the Missionaries of Charity have done for her and her family through health troubles. She said her faith gave her peace and made a difference in her life.

Patricia Mayta Ibanez was among 28 teens from Maria Reina Parish in La Paz who, as a work of mercy, prayed for the dead. Bodies are buried clandestinely in the cemetery, which goes without upkeep.

Praying for the dead

The sun barely shined through a heavy, early morning fog that enveloped the steep hillsides of La Paz, a city built in a bowl-shaped valley. A confirmation class from Maria Reina Parish climbed the Cemeterio de Imakolojeta on top of a mound-shaped hill overlooking St. Barbara Church in a former part of the parish. Their lesson was on mercy and their task was to pray for the dead at the neglected cemetery. Twenty-eight teenagers participated, with a few bringing flowers to graves in the cemetery, which is overgrown with dead vegetation — brown and wilted from a two-month drought — and surrounded by trash.

Their prayers and songs competed with the Bee Gees from a nearby home and traditional Bolivian music from another. Each teen then found a grave and prayed for that person with a Hail Mary, Glory Be and Litany of Saints.

Patricia Mayta Ibanez, 15, pulled weeds from a gravesite. She scraped away the dirt and debris to reveal a name — Pedro V. She carefully placed yellow flowers in front of the simple headstone. As she knelt in prayer, the disco and traditional music stopped, leaving only the faint barking of dogs and the grinding of transmissions as drivers negotiated a steep road.

When Patricia finished praying, the church bells rang again. Other teens gathered to pray beside a large cross, but she stayed a few moments longer and prayed at another grave. Later, after Mass at St. Barbara celebrated by Maria Reina pastor Father Patrick Hayden, she explained that she'd never been to that cemetery and knew no one buried there. But she visits her great-grandmother's grave at another cemetery on All Saints Day. That cemetery is well-kept, with the mausoleum off the ground and a glass enclosure for flowers.

The neglect at Cemeterio de Imakolojeta prompted her to linger.

"I felt sad because the grass was growing up, and I felt it was important to do the cleanup," Patricia said. 

This clandestine cemetery atop one of the highest points in La Paz, is largely unkept, but Bolivian authorities turn a blind eye to its existence. The sprawl of crude gravestones and markers are all that many relatives of the dead in La Paz can afford.

Many health experts warn about the hazards of these types of burials,
with the water supply potentially contaminated by decomposing bodies.
However, these burials are likely to continue since municipal cemeteries
cost more than a month's salary to obtain.

Prayer for the dead

In your hands, O Lord, we humbly entrust our brothers and sisters. In this life you embraced them with your tender love; deliver them now from every evil and bid them eternal rest. The old order has passed away: welcome them into paradise, where there will be no sorrow, no weeping or pain, but fullness of peace and joy with your Son and the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.

- U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Dentist Briseida Lomar worked on Alan Chipana's teeth as his mother, Marcian Jallurana, watched. The parish health clinic has minimal costs for patients, much lower than other clinics. It provides medicine at cost, care by health professionals and assistance with hospital bills if needed. Fighting malnutrition is an ongoing battle, especially helping those being treated for tuberculosis. The clinic provides additional medicine for those with tuberculosis who develop a resistance to the initial medicine, care which the patients cannot get at state clinics.

Health clinic

The health clinic sponsored by Maria Reina Parish was busy on a Wednesday, with a mix of young and old in the waiting room, some people wearing traditional Bolivian dress and others in modern street clothes. A baby could be heard crying from a patient's room.

In a three-hour shift, Dr. Javier Davila saw 21 patients. Davila is an engaging, friendly man whose specialty is pulmonology. One of his cases was far from the ordinary: Ruben Condori impaled his arm on an iron rod when he fell at a home construction site.

He had waited several days before going to the clinic, so the gash needed to be drained, washed and sterilized before being stitched. He left with instructions to go to another clinic for a tetanus shot. Then, he said with a smile, he'd be returning to work.

The doctor's cases ran the gamut of illnesses: the flu, mysterious coughs and other lung problems; blood pressure abnormalities and stomach problems, especially related to infections from food and water. The clinic was founded, partly, to treat people with tuberculosis, an infection nearly wiped out in the United States but still affecting people in Bolivia.

Davila enjoys helping people who are poor. The cost of a private physician is beyond their means, he said.

Sister Guillermina Loma Aliaga, a Sister of the Most Precious Blood of O'Fallon and parish staffer from Bolivia, oversees the clinic, which receives funding from the archdiocese's Latin America Collection, St. Barnabas Parish and other sources.

Cesar Apaza Cuentas and his family have been patients at the clinic many times. He most likes the kind, loving approach taken by the staff, which fills a great need.

"This is so important for the community," nurse Agripina Jimenez said. "People come from everywhere, not just the neighborhood," she said. 

Marriage Support

Father Jim Michler, national and diocesan director of Marrian Encounter, hosted a meeting one evening at the church. It was similar to such gathering in the United States, with prayer, song, talks and sharing.

The Marriage Encounter movement began in Barcelona, Spain, in 1952. It focuses on mutual trust and unity beased on profound religious and sacramental understanding of marriage. Marriage Encounter weekends now are held in more than 90 countries.

Cesar and Monica Castellon have been married 15 years and part of Worldwide Marriage Encounter for three years. They explained how they have benefited from it, especially in talking with other couples and what Cesar called "the sharing of hearts...to be the best couple we can be."

ANother couple, Fernando and Claudia Monelano Ruiz, married 13 years, have been part of Marriage Encounter since November. "We believe that the sacrament of marriage is something really important," Claudia said. "The sanctity of the family should be kept first."

Cesar Castellon compared the pressures on marriage in Bolivia and in the United States, where secular culture gives little support to marriage. Commitment too ofted is viewed like the lottery - "If it goes, it goes," he said, adding that many young people in Bolivia come from divorced families. And the mass media and social media don't encourage couples to be faithful either, he said.

Meanwhile, in another part of the parish, a speaker talked about the six stages of married life for couples preparing for marriage and others. Amas Omar Carlos Ramos Nina, 27, who works in the copper mines in Chile every other week, is engaged to Daniela Eva Vino Carrilo, 22, who works in health care in La Paz.

Nina wants to be married in the Church because "God has always been part of our lives," and for that reason they want His blessings. His bride-to-be said she wants God to be part of their marriage because He and prayer can help them overcome difficulties that any couple is sure to face.

The Parish of Santiago de Calamarca (place of stone) is in the village of  Calamarca in the Altiplano about about 40 miles south of La Paz. Priests from the Latin American Apostolate visit the parish once a month while native born Francisco Zuleta has become the Deacon of the Parish and serves as its offical administrator on behalf of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.  

The 16th century church is adorned with a silver alter worked in a rococo style, and two rococo alter pieces. It also contains colonial paintings known as "The Angels of Calamarca."


Historic Santiago (St. James) Church is filled on a Sunday evening with a tight-knit community of farmers and townsfolk who sing along with musicians playing charrangos (similar to ukeleles) and guitars at a Mass celebrated by a priest from St. Louis — a city in another continent about 15,000 feet lower in elevation.

The 17th-century church stands tall overlooking the small, isolated municipality of Calamarca (population less than 1,000), about an hour drive from La Paz on the altiplano, or high plains, between the peaks of Andes Mountains.

The church was filled with families — grandparents, parents and grandchildren, single adults and couples. Some wore colorful traditional Bolivian dress, others wore dress clothes. A young woman served as a lector and several young people took turns reading the Prayers of the Faithful. Everyone stayed after Mass while the celebrant, Father Patrick Hayden, blessed them individually with holy water.

The church had been silent for several years before two other St. Louis priest-missionaries, Father Daniel Stretch and Father Ted Pieper, came to staff the parish and live there 50 years earlier. The town had no electric service at the time, and the priests used a generator to run lights in the church.

Today, St Louis priest-missionaries who live in La Paz take turns celebrating sacraments in the rural parish among the Aymara people, one of the indigenous peoples of Bolivia. The 30 villages in the parish territory have access to Mass only three or four times per year, unless the residents there can travel to Calamarca where the St. Louis priests from Maria Reina Parish in La Paz celebrate Mass on a Sunday evening once a month.

Antonio Chavez, his wife, Sophia, and their son, Christian, are among the weekly "fixtures" at Mass. When he was younger, Antonio was in the youth group, and his wife helps organize a dance group for the annual Fiesta of the Cross. The church is important to him. >>

>> "We don't want to forget God," he said. "We must remember that we are God's children."

Sophia added that the church is "a place to pray and place trust in God, a place to be close to our faith."

The parish is administered by Deacon Francisco Zuleta, who travels to the various chapels.

The Angels of Calamarca, which are 35 paintings, hang on the walls of the church interior. The angels were painted between the 17th and 18th centuries. It's the most complete collection of similar paintings in Latin America.

The parish today is battling a society that values secularism, a return to native religions and the exodus of young people to La Paz and other cities in Bolivia and other countries such as Brazil and Argentina. About 20 years ago, Santiago de Calamarca saw growth, but today the growth has stalled. The visits of the St. Louis priests and the efforts of the deacon and several catechists haves enabled people in Calamarca and other out-lying villages to continue practicing their faith.

Deacon Zuleta, ordained 22 years ago, felt called to announce the Gospel as a young man and has found his work as a deacon fulfilling, working with his wife, Vicky, their four children and catechists. A caretaker at the church, which was restored 100 years ago after the roof fell in, lives in a loft area. The church was enhanced again about 15 years ago when a woman in town received donations from Germany and elsewhere for renovation work and St. Louis Catholics donated money for repairing the floor.

Santiago Parish is especially vibrant around important feasts such as the feast of Our Lord of the Exaltation of the Cross (Sept. 14) and the feast of St. James the Apostle (July 25). 

San Vicente

Ezekiel started using drugs at age 5.

He's struggled in battling his addiction, and he was in a serious motorcycle accident that left him with a steel plate in his head, disabilities and scars. But he's a sensitive, kind, deeply spiritual man who has connected with the Franciscans in La Paz and is regaining control of his life at an alcohol and drug rehabilitation center founded by a missionary priest from St. Louis.

Father Daniel Stretch already had been working with alcoholics when he founded San Vicente Center in 1980 as a place for alcoholics who were living on the street. Father Stretch died in 2003 at age 75 after serving 44 years in Bolivia. Father Stretch earlier passed leadership of the center to Oreste Benzi, an Italian who eventually was ordained a priest. The Italian priest also founded the Community of John XXIII, an association of lay faithful recognized by the Vatican which oversees San Vicente Center.

Ezekiel Jofre Rico, born in Argentina, began using marijuana and eventually moved to crack cocaine. He had been active in the Church as a child and later became involved with the Third Order Franciscans, a lay group. Struggling with mental illness, he tried to commit suicide at age 27, spent time in prison and then began living on the streets with no contact with his family. A Franciscan priest in La Paz began helping him and recommended that he go to San Vicente for addiction and for mental health treatment.

Ezekiel spent a year in treatment at San Vicente and stayed off drugs before he relapsed. He is continuing in formation with the Third Order Franciscans and enjoys reading the Bible.

"I don't want anything to do with cocaine," he said, noting that his friends in Argentina email him sometimes looking to do drugs with him. He also has stopped smoking cigarettes and is grateful for the help from the Community of John XXIII.

The center has a capacity for 30 men and takes a holistic approach, addressing physical, psychological and spiritual needs. Days are structured and include taking care of personal hygiene and work assignments at the center, cleaning, cooking and more. They have occupational therapy in a carpenter shop where they make stools and made plastic flowers for Mother's Day gifts. With the help of the Franciscans, they will be doing carpentry work at San Francisco Church in the center square of La Paz.

Included is individual and group therapy, time to play soccer and evening entertainment. Iver Ramirez Escobar, a seminarian spending his pastoral year at Maria Reina Parish staffed by St. Louis missionaries, is assigned to San Vicente to provide spiritual assistance and Father Jim Michler, senior associate at the parish, celebrates Mass every two weeks on a weekday. The men attend Mass on Sundays at Maria Reina and receive health care at the parish clinic, supported by the Pan y Amor program of the St. Louis Archdiocese.

Americo Bela, 30, said he has struggled with alcohol and wants change to make a better life.

"We need help," he said while standing in the kitchen where lentil soup was being prepared for lunch. "When we start, we don't stop. That's why some of us live on the street. Our friends and family try to deny us."

Bela said he recognizes he made a mistake and wants be a better model for his child than his father was to him. "The key is faith," he said. "God is going to help us, and John XXIII is our guide."

When a new resident arrives, a staff member examines that person's history to tailor the treatment to the individual. Most men come with other health issues, especially if they've been living on the street. Arrangements are made for them to visit the health clinic at Maria Reina Parish. Therapy also is offered to the families of the men.

Carmelo Mamani Quispe Edad was an alcoholic who was one of the first people helped when Father Stretch founded San Vicente. He was on the streets and drinking when he met Father Stretch at Cristo Rey Parish, where the priest from St. Louis had been serving. Carmelo received treatment and helped in the construction of San Vicente. He now assists by helping other men dealing with addiction.

"I am very happy now," Carmelo said. 

How to help

Archdiocesan priests, the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood in O'Fallon, the Papal Volunteers in Latin America and other lay volunteers have taken part in the Latin America Apostolate for the last 60 years.

St. Louis priests serve at Maria Reina Parish, which serves more than 14 neighborhoods and about 60,000 parishioners. The parish celebrates its golden anniversary in August, and the Latin America Apostolate is marking its 60th anniversary.

Donations may be made:

• during parish collections Aug. 6-7.

• through your parish online giving.

• online at www.stlouisreview.com/bgK.

• by check to Latin America Apostolate, 20 Archbishop May Drive, St. Louis, MO 63119.

For information, visit archstl.org/missions

or call (314) 792-7655. 

Your rating: None Average: 5 (4 votes)