Twinning Parishes – Georgia and Argentina

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Fr. Alfredo Velarde, M.S., with
a young parishioner

My name is Jenifer Truitt, and I am the Coordinator of Religious Education for St. Oliver Plunkett Catholic Church, a La Salette parish in Snellville, Georgia. In June of 2007, which was the middle of winter in South America, I had the privilege of joining the St. Oliver’s mission team on a two-week trip to Las Termas de Rio Hondo, Argentina to visit our sister parish, Nuestra Señora de Perpetuo Socorro at the invitation of Fr. Alfredo Velarde, M.S., the pastor.

It is in the north central part of Argentina, popular with tourists for its thermal springs. Our parish consists of mostly poor people and includes about 27,000 parishioners; that is, the entire city and its surrounding barrios. The purpose of our trip was to visit our sister parish to learn more about the parishioners, how they live, and with what needs we might be able to help them.

 

To Twin or Not to Twin

In 2003, our pastor, Fr. Jim Henault, M.S., entered into an agreement on behalf of our parishioners with Fr. Alfredo. It is not uncommon for parishes to “twin” like this, and it was something our parish community was interested in pursuing. We chose the church in Las Termas because Fr. Jim had spent approximately two months living there, immersing himself learning Spanish and getting to know the people and their customs. He saw their financial needs and he felt our parish could help them. The agreement was initially a five-year commitment and we have just renewed it for another five years.

 

Our sister parish is not just a single church, as is common in North America. Rather, the parish is made up of four churches in the city and just over thirty small barrio chapels in an area that measures one hundred miles by fifty miles. Fr. Alfredo visits each chapel once a month, and has daily Mass at the main church in Las Termas. Argentina being a Latin American country, Catholicism is the culture and therefore the vast majority of these people are Catholic and under his “pastoral wing.”

 

A Mission Trip to Remember

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Fr. Jim Henault, M.S. (center), pastor of St.
Oliver’s in Snellville, GA, follows bishop in
procession in Las Termas, Argentina.

On our mission trip, we spent time visiting several of their barrio chapels. We have all seen pictures of the living conditions in underdeveloped countries. But for me, actually being there on the front lines was another reality altogether. There is so much that we, in America, take for granted—everything from breathing fresh air (as opposed to inhaling diesel fumes) to having fresh, clean running water at the desired temperature.

I particularly noticed how so many people live outside the city limits, down long, dusty, unpaved (think goat-path) roads. Their homes are simply constructed with brick, mortar, thatch, and corrugated metal. They are usually one or two room dwellings housing far more people than we would expect. Toilets are often holes in the ground, and privacy is provided by hanging plastic sheeting from nearby tree limbs. Animals ranging from dogs to donkeys, chickens to hogs, and even horses wandered around the dwellings. Some even ventured into the chapels during Mass!

 

“Blessed Are the Poor…”

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Teen parishioners in their outdoor
High School classroom.

One home we visited had two and a half brick walls, one thatched wall, and a large open side. There was nothing in this one-room home other than three twin beds that the parish had just recently provided. Although there was no table, no chair, no stove, nine children lived in that home. Both parents were in prison so the children were relying solely on their church and their neighbors for their basic needs. Not one of these children was adequately dressed for the winter temperatures.

In the United States, all our children attend climate-controlled schools and receive one or two hot meals per day prepared in very clean kitchens. Schools out in the barrios were barely adequate for the needs of the students in terms of physical space and supplies. Children must walk, ride old bikes, or even saddle up donkeys to get to school! They have old textbooks but there was not a single children’s picture book to be seen, which was difficult for me, a parent and an educator, to see. In one case, a class of young teens sat outside of the building in front of a portable chalkboard as their teacher helped them learn algebra. They were bundled in coats, but they clearly wanted to learn and didn’t seem distracted by their discomfort.

Although our group never lacked for ample food at our meals, it was clear that the residents of this community would certainly not have anything like the variety and amount of food that we would expect in our country. A typical meal for the children served through the parish program which St. Oliver’s helps to fund (our Adopt-a-Child food program) might include a mixture of ground meat and bulgur (a wheat cereal), a piece of bread, and some water. Running water is not available for the vast majority of households. Instead there are water collection areas where people bring buckets or old bottles to collect water from a pipe.

 

Lacking Basic Necessities But Very Happy

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A group of happy young children.

An average American might expect people living in conditions such as these to seem unhappy, even overwhelmed by what we perceive as their “lack of basic necessities”. This is certainly not the case with the people we met in Las Termas. From the moment we met the very first of our many new amigos, we were warmly welcomed by smiling, happy, generous people who were as excited to have the opportunity to interact with us as we were to meet with them. We visited many barrios to see schools, homes, and chapels where we attended Mass. In each and every location, the people – especially the children – truly warmed our hearts.

During Mass, at the Sign of Peace, we were often mobbed by the children wanting to shake our hands and kiss our cheeks. I think that I must’ve been given several hundred kisses during the two weeks I was there! And it’s difficult to imagine the commotion caused by our taking our digital pictures of the children. Once they’ve seen themselves in the camera’s display screen, they all start jostling for position to have their picture taken repeatedly. The children follow any photographers like a Pied Piper!

During our visit, many of the shopkeepers got to meet us and were always helpful as we attempted to communicate with them. Fortunately I knew some basic Spanish; others knew less, and a few knew none at all. By the time we left, we all had improved our language skills thanks to the patience of the local people who spent time interacting with us.

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Facade of our parish
church in Las Termas.

One especially enjoyable event for us was our visit to a local English language class for high school students. These young teenagers meet three times a week for ninety minutes (outside of normal school hours) to expand their English language skills. When we visited, they practiced what they had learned by asking us questions in English about ourselves and our lives in North America. We answered lots of questions and found out the many things we have in common despite our very different living situations.

 

Our Mission—Sharing Our Experiences With Our Own Parishioners

The actual visiting of Argentina was only the first part of our mission trip. The second part was for us to share with our own St. Oliver’s parishioners what we had learned and experienced on our trip. This we did gladly in many different forums and on many occasions.

We now have a good sense of the needs of our brothers and sisters in Las Termas and have a strong desire to share our blessings with them in any way possible. At the very least, we have committed to keeping the people of our sister parish in our daily prayers. We asked our own parishioners to do their part. Many from our parish have contributed to the Adopt-a-Child program, donating $180 to feed a child two hot meals per day for a full year. Our contributions go to school children, but also to soup kitchens that serve others, including senior citizens who have no state pensions and often have to choose between medicine and food. All-in-all, approximately seven hundred people are fed each weekday through our support.

 

Gifts for Them and for Us

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Parishioners from Las Termas and St.
Oliver’s in front of Chapel of the Virgin
of the Valley, outside Las Termas.

In addition to the food program, we were able to build a new chapel. We are also helping to fund the construction of a parish school, a fond but unattainable dream for these wonderful people. I have kept up email correspondence with a few of the teachers from the English language class, and have learned that the school building project is progressing well. With our assistance, they should be holding classes at the site before long. Our mission team looks forward to celebrating this progress first-hand as we return to Argentina in October of 2009.

This trip was an incredible opportunity for me to visit our sister parish and learn firsthand about life in another country, so very different from my own. Not only did it open my eyes, but it opened the eyes of my heart and I will truly never be the same.

(Visuals provided by St. Oliver’s Parish, Snellville, GA)

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(left to right) A group of happy Argentinian children; La Salette Statue at our parish
in Las Termas; Fr. Jim Henault, M.S., with three young well-wishers at a Welcome Party.