Decades of Grace
By Josh Zeller, Communications intern
S. Mary Barbara Philippart was missioned to Lima, Peru, in 1962.
“Mother came on Guadalupe Day,” relates S. Mary Barbara Philippart, who, on that day in 1961, was informed by Mother Mary Omer Downing that she would leave her teaching post in Lima, Ohio, and be missioned to Lima, Peru. She had volunteered earlier than that, but was not called when she thought she would be.
“… I made a novena with my mother, and then I volunteered …. But I was not selected,” S. Mary Barbara recalls. “The Sisters selected went to Cuernavaca in Mexico to study, and I went to Notre Dame to begin my work on my master’s degree in Spanish.”
When the selected Sisters came back from studying Spanish, one was suddenly diagnosed with cancer; at the time it barred her from ministering in Peru. Because S. Mary Barbara was fluent in Spanish, she was selected to go in Sister’s place. Wrapping up a busy schedule that included five preparations and planning the prom, a replacement was found for S. Mary Barbara, and she arrived at Lima in March 1962.
Sister had come to Peru with the intention to build a school for the Chinese Colony, in order to supply their children with the education that they were often denied through discrimination and the ineffectiveness of the public school system. This could not have been accomplished without the help of Bishop Horacio Ferruccio, who had worked in China for many years. He had a connection to a Maryknoll father, who was in turn connected with the Maryknoll Sisters. They ran the two parochial schools that existed in Peru at the time—one in Lince and the other in Arequipa—so they were able to provide essential materials like books and desks, while the bishop helped to find a suitable place to house the school. After a few years and changes of venue to accommodate size, by 1964 the Colegio Peruano Chino Juan XXIII was well-established on San Miguel Street with 300 students, where the school continues to thrive today.
In 1976 S. Mary Barbara Philippart returned to Peru, this time landing at Callao—the Port of Lima— which was the start of a 20-year ministry that would end in Mañazo.
In 1967, S. Mary Barbara was missioned to Huancané in the Puno region, after several years as both teacher and principal. After a year there, she returned to the United States, and taught Spanish at Seton High School in Cincinnati. But it was only a few years before she found Peru calling to her again.
“I was on the governing board of the Sisters of Charity when Mother Seton was going to be canonized in 1975,” Sister remembers. “Bishop Ferruccio sent money for [S. Mary Gerard Cheng] and I to travel to … the canonization.” S. Mary Gerard had taught alongside S. Mary Barbara in Peru, and had worked specifically with the Chinese students, because she knew four Chinese dialects.
At the canonization in Rome, S. Mary Barbara’s close associate and friend from Huancané, S. Mary Martin Morand, introduced her to the Bishop of Puno, Jesús Calderon. Later, when the bishop visited the Mount St. Joseph Motherhouse, he asked S. Mary Barbara an important question: “Barbara, when are you coming back?” Sister immediately responded: “When you invite me.” It wasn’t long before she was traveling to Peru by freighter, with Sisters Mary Martin and Therese Dery as companions. S. Mary Barbara’s landing at Callao—the Port of Lima—was the start of a 20-year ministry, which she would complete in a town of the Puno region called Mañazo.
One of the projects S. Mary Barbara Philippart took charge of while in Peru was the Artesania Pachemama, a nonprofit women’s cooperative founded in 1984 for the purpose of the manufacture of high-quality hand-made garments from alpaca wool and pima cotton.
Any services that S. Mary Barbara or the others could offer to the people of Mañazo were greatly needed, as the town had gone without pastoral care for 20 years. One of the first things that they noticed was the need for a medical clinic. The building had been started, but was left unfinished when funds suddenly ran out. Finishing the building was taken on by S. Mary Martin; Sisters Mary Barbara and Therese decided to spend the year getting to know the town as they taught religion in the high school, asking the people what needed to be done.
They had come with the goal to educate and supply relief, but they ended up taking on many building projects over the years; besides the aforementioned health clinic, they also built the parish center (adding both a library and a recreation center to it over time), a school (in Huilamocco), and also managed the difficult and expensive undertaking of rebuilding the church. “… [T]hey all said to rebuild the church. The church was in horrible condition. And we said, ‘We didn’t come to build, we came to build the faith, but not the church building.’ Eventually, I did it.” This included putting in 20 stained glass windows, which S. Mary Barbara learned how to make herself.
There were also many programs that they began during their time there, starting with literacy classes—many of the women in Mañazo had not learned how to read or write. They also at this time prepared people for marriage and baptism, and trained them in the catechism. But there were three major projects which arose that S. Mary Barbara took charge of and helped to grow, three which still exist today: the Artesania Pachamama, the Lunch Program (El Comedor), and the Loan Program.
Artesania Pachamama stemmed from the Mañazo Mothers’ Clubs (Centros Maternos) that had been formed in 1977 by S. Mary Martin, which provided much-needed assistance to women with young children including food, instruction in hygiene, health, and prenatal care, as well as medical help. Two years later, S. Mary Martin was able to obtain hand-knitting and sewing machines, and began to instruct the women in how to use them in order to make items for their families.
With the election of the center-left Alan Garcia to office in 1985, which came at a terrible time of famine due to crop failures, the U.S. government cut 10 percent of food donations to Peru; the Mothers’ Clubs could no longer supply enough food to sustain its members. It was determined that governmental aid could not be relied upon; it was certain that the women would have to help themselves. After Sister helped the women of the community to assess their talents, they decided to run an Artesania, “a handwork industry in alpaca wool,” which would produce quality, hand-knitted sweaters for export.
Throughout the rest of the 1980s, the Artesania got up and running, as the women were able to improve the quality of their knitting significantly; furthermore, the business side of the operation was arranged, which included the declaration of the Artesania as a cooperative, and the obtainment of legal recognition and an export license. In 1992, after some frustration in finding a proper vendor for the sweaters abroad, Sue and Barry Auer in Cincinnati, Ohio, took charge, and helped to organize sales at the Mount St. Joseph Motherhouse.
After a few years, sales transitioned to Pamela Rohlman of St. Pius X Catholic Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, where the nonprofit organization Artesania Pachamama USA was established. Sales continued there—as well in the Ohio cities of Cincinnati, Dayton, and Cleveland—until this year. S. Mary Barbara has actively been in search of a new vendor, and has high hopes that she has found one in Mercado Mundial, which is currently reviewing sweater samples produced by the cooperative.
The Lunch Program also came from the Mothers’ Clubs, and was formed to directly address the famine and poverty of the 1980s. The Peruvian government’s remedy for hunger was to start “Comedores Populares” around the country, food kitchens that were run by local women. One was started in Mañazo, which was both greatly needed and successful. When the government began easing back support around 1990, the community decided to build a restaurant that would sell lunches to school teachers and other individuals who could afford it, and provide free lunches to as many needy children and abandoned elderly as they could for 10 months of the year. Since S. Mary Barbara left Mañazo, the program has been administrated in Peru by Marlene, one of their brilliant team members. She is responsible for “cleanliness, good nutrition, and PR,” in addition to buying the food and working in the kitchen every day. At the Motherhouse, the program is managed by S. Sheila Gallagher and Associate Cathy Colque.
A final project that has also been of great help to needy families is the Loan Program, which is available to the women in the Artesania and Lunch Program. The loan amount varies from 800 to 2,000 soles ($244 to $608). Depending on the size of the loan, it must be paid back in six to 10 months, and interest is only 1.5 percent, which helps to pay for the town’s Social Program; some of the interest also goes back into the program, establishing a rotating fund. The loans are used for a variety of different purposes that improve the quality of life for the families of Mañazo, whether it is used to buy animals, or to fund a child’s education. In Peru, the program is managed by Alina Guevara, who sends reports to S. Mary Barbara. Sister is very proud of this and all of the other programs, because they have been in existence for decades, and continue to assist the women of Mañazo to be “all God made them to be.”
After 20 years of service in Mañazo, S. Mary Barbara left Peru in early 1997. She had been with the people during a very difficult economic time that brought about not only the danger of hunger and general want, but also the deadly and destructive guerilla rebels called The Shining Path, which did not spare even tiny Mañazo of its brutality. Her devotion to the people greatly helped and continues to help, but S. Mary Barbara says that during her years in Peru, she too experienced grace.
In Mañazo, there are sometimes feuds between families, or differences between two or more people. However, quite unlike Western society, they are able to put aside these differences to work on community projects together, because they know it will be of benefit to the whole. S. Mary Barbara noted that the women always were ready to help one another, whether it was teaching someone how to knit, or notifying the community of children or elders who had been abandoned.
With time, the position of these merciful women has improved. Sister recalls, “When we arrived, the women never opened their mouths at a meeting.” Then came the empowerment of the Mothers’ Clubs, the Artesania, and other programs—now, the women speak up at the meetings, as the men do. The changes that Peru itself has undergone have been various and drastic since the 1960s, and S. Mary Barbara and the Sisters of Charity have been there every step of the way.