SCJs in Chile
Fr. Stephan Huffstetter shares his final journal entry from his travels with Fr. Heiner Wilmer for the General Visitation. Fr. Steve’s last stop? Chile. He writes:
Since I was already in South America, I extended the trip by a week to spend time getting to know our confreres in Chile, one of the provinces that I will accompany as General Councilor . After five weeks traveling together, Fr. Heiner flew east to Africa, and I headed west. Normally I choose an aisle seat so I can stretch out and move around but since this was brand new territory for me, I booked a window seat and marveled looking out the window at the landscapes below. The flight first crossed vast Argentine farm and grasslands. The land abruptly rose as we approached the majestic rocky peaks of the Andes. Being summer, only the highest of summits remained snowcapped. Then we passed into the broad valley and sprawling Metropolis of Santiago, home to some seven million of Chile’s 17 million citizens.
While I was waiting to go through passport control, the flight left me dry and I approached one of the pop machines. The $ symbol Chileans use for their peso is the same that you see for US dollars. When I saw the posted price of $1,000, I felt sticker shock, and decided I really was not very thirsty! With the exchange rate, it would have actually cost me a more reasonable $1.46.
The SCJs in Chile number only 17, but make a good impact with their schools and parishes in the Santiago area. They also opened a new mission 10 hours to the south in the city of Valdivia, but I did not get to see that community on this visit. Dutch missionaries founded the province, and the elders in the community are from Holland and Luxembourg. Some came when they were newly ordained and have worked in Chile for over 50 years. During the Pinochet military coup during the 70s many were expelled from the country for a time because their work with the poor got them in trouble with the regime. The younger members are mostly Chileans, with international help from our provinces in Brazil and Poland.
My first full day included a trip to the Dehonian Retreat Center, which offers space and many programs for spiritual development. The Pastoral Leadership team from San Juan Evangelista School was gathered for orientation and planning for the new school year. My visit coincides with the end of summer vacation, and in another week, the students return to the classroom. I sat in on some of their sharing and strategic planning, joined them for mass and then enjoyed the cook out and social after their work was finished.
The Cure de Ars is our parish in San Miguel, a commune located in an older, southern part of the city. Two priests serve 25,000 parishioners, though weekly attendance not nearly that high. They have a main church and four chapels spread throughout the neighborhood. I saw a large group of young families coming out of the church after the Saturday baptismal class. Fr. Herman took me for a drive and tour of the area. He explained how they focus on training adult catechists to facilitate small Basic Ecclesial Communities (BEC) in order to touch the lives of people where they live. Part of the parish is mid-level working class, and part is rather poor, with the attendant drug and social problems. One of the chapels had a kitchen attached where parishioners cook food to take to the streets for the homeless. Like many urban areas, change is coming rapidly as blocks of smaller homes are razed and 25 story high-rise apartments rapidly sprout up.
The other parish we serve is Nuestra Senora de Fatima, in San Bernardo. San Bernardo is 20 minutes south of Santiago. Thirty years ago when it became the see for a new diocese, it was a railroad town surrounded by lots of country. Today it has 300,000 people and continues to grow. The area houses and stores are multi-colored, with lots of street art or graffiti, depending on your point of view. I concelebrated Sunday mass with Fr. Johny, the provincial, whose altar servers were well-trained and attentive, and a group of guitar singers led lively music from the front pew. I dusted off my Spanish skills as I mingled with parishioners outside after the mass. With my work in administration, I often miss the small talk and interaction that goes along with being a parish priest.
A standard feature of most towns in a central city square – the Plaza de Arms – where historically the citizen militia could gather if the town was ever in danger of attack. Now the plazas provide a nice green space under ancient shady trees. The mild summer weather here has been great for enjoying a stroll, and for people watching, since the plazas are the center of so much social and commercial activity. This week most of the shoppers have back to school needs on their minds, and stores have tables set up outside selling notebooks and pens and every kind of school supply.
Dehonians sponsor two “Collegios” which serve students from Pre-K through the age of 18 when they are ready to begin university studies. Both Sagrado Corazon and San. Juan Evangelista have over 1000 students, and large sprawling campuses. When I visited, the teachers and staff were scurrying around campus getting everything ready for next week’s start to the school year.
Sagrado Corazon is in San Bernardo. The campus is spacious, spread over two city blocks, with many programs and facilities. We had mass with the faculty who are preparing for the first day of school next week. While part of the town is middle class, other poorer areas contain public housing projects. The school has been trying to find more scholarship monies for those in need. Many families sacrifice to provide their children with the kind of education that will lead them to professional careers, and the school strives to promote Christian values so graduates will be agents of positive change in society. Half a dozen SCJs form the local community. Two priests serve the pastoral needs in the school and help in parishes as needed. Two brothers work in the school administration and are passionate about instilling Dehonian values in the school. Two candidates from the local area study philosophy at the Catholic University and help part time in the school while being full time members of the local community.
San Juan Evangelista is located in the commune of Las Condes, a wealthier part of town. The staff were in the auditorium hearing the director, Brother Jorge, give the opening of the year updates and pep talk. When they broke into smaller working groups, I had a chance to tour the school. I worked in school administration for nine years, and one of my favorite activities is just to walk around campus, inquire how people are doing, and learn about what is going on. They have started intensive efforts to integrate English as a secondary language into the curriculum, which I learned about in English of course! With the rest of the departments I asked simple questions in Spanish and listened and learned about their approaches. The counselors spoke of the family and relational problems that affect all young people. Campus ministry has a strong presence and set out goals for spiritual development in the coming year. Those responsible of discipline also provide a much needed service in working with kids in trouble.
The community suggested that for me to understand Chile, I should do some touring. Since I thoroughly enjoy learning about history and culture, and had Brother Claudio and Herman, one of our candidates, willing to act as tour guides, I was happy to oblige. Sunday afternoon we drove an hour east to the town of Los Andes, home of Chile’s first saint. Theresa of Los Andes was a Carmelite sister who died at the young age of 20, yet modeled a life of prayer and union with God. A sanctuary draws many pilgrims, and I learned that 80,000 young people come for the annual fall youth festival. All the fresh flowers surrounding Theresa’s tomb, and all the people kneeling in prayer amazed me. The chapel was open for the sacrament of reconciliation, good any time of the year, but especially fitting during this season of Lent. After a good lunch with local foods, we drove further into town to the original convent, which is now a museum.
Before joining the SCJs as a candidate, Jorge studied tourism and hotel management. He was a superb guide to the central part of Santiago, and could tell me much about its history and highlights. The Santiago Cathedral has many prayerful spots and beautiful artwork, but what caught my eye was a marble pair of folded hands sculpted into the baptismal font. When you touched the hands the holy water flowed out. Like most national capitols, there are plenty of impressive government buildings. What stood out for me was a large complex that was once a military bunker has been transformed into a center for the arts, with a museum, theater and children’s workshop.
A final excursion was to the port town of Valparaiso, on the Pacific Coast. Along the way we passed avocado and olive orchards, and miles of vineyards in wine country. We stopped in Casablanca to visit the Sanctuario Purisima Virgen de Lo Vasquez. Valparaiso is so alive with the bustling activity of shipping, naval, and cruise ships arriving into port. We took a hundred year old ancient wooden cable car/elevator up the steep slope leading down to the sea, and discovered an area of colorful arts and craft shops, and museums. The view from above was breath taking. I also enjoyed walking along the lovely white sandy beaches of neighboring Vina del Mar.
Since the purpose of this visit was not official business, but to get to know the province and congregation better, I was well satisfied. While the group may be small, they are filled with great hope, and I look forward to discovering ways I can support the good work they do.