The modes of travel added a new experience to my unintentional “bucket list”: two nighttime bus rides, one of ten hours and one of five and a half hours, beginning at midnight. The distance between the communities and apostolates are quite extensive and the best means of travel are often the late night bus rides, which prove to be a near “first class” adventure. Sleep came easily while traveling in the wee hours of the night, even with the benefit of afternoon siestas, a prerequisite of life in Argentina.
Las Termas de Rio Hondo
The parish centers of the Region may be just names on the pages of the Province Directory but each has a unique quality and history. Our parish in Las Termas is a beehive of pastoral ministry, catechesis, small base communities and a growing Catholic school apostolate, Primary and Secondary. The parish, named in honor of Our Lady of La Salette, extends throughout the campo into more than forty small capillas, or mission chapels, each with its own pastoral leadership team. Las Termas boasts of a faithful group of active laity known as the “La Salette Family.” This apostolate is served by Alfredo Velarde (Regional Vicar) and Fernando Altamiranda (Regional Councilor).
On a morning journey with Fernando, we traveled to a small out-of-the-way public school where we celebrated seven baptisms of infants and toddlers in the presence of their family, teachers and students. Classes were interrupted so that the entire community could share in this sacramental moment and liturgy.
Alfredo’s dinner table hosts a fantastic dinner each midday for the La Salettes, the parish staff, and the many visitors who find a welcome place at his table. Rosa, the cook, has learned to be prepared with an extra plate and a glass of Argentine wine. Exceptional hospitality is the norm in this rectory.
La Banda is a separate parish, well over a two-hour drive from Las Termas, in the Province of Santiago del Estero. “Jose P.” (Joseph Peethuruthel from La Salette Matha Province) is pastor, serving with José Daniel Centeno, pastoral colleague and Regional Vocation Director. José is now in the fourth year of his “on-loan” assignment from India and speaks excellent (and enviable) Spanish. This parish apostolate provides a very active Caritas ministry – a ramshackle building with a series of small rooms to offer catechesis, to teach sewing, cooking and hair-cutting, etc., to host a soup kitchen and, most of all, to provide a small medical clinic for the barrio’s inhabitants.
La Banda serves some of the poorest members of the surrounding communities in tiny isolated capillas, with the simplest of liturgical furnishings and possessions. The homes are all too often wooden planks or cardboard walls and corrugated roofs. Yet in meeting some of the local community leaders, the pride and the care of their mission chapels are truly humbling.
The next visit was by a ten-hour midnight bus trip to the small city of Santa Fe to another a parish entitled Our Lady of La Salette. Here Fernando and I joined the Catholic community in the celebration of their 75th Anniversary of the parish with a lively Sunday liturgy and joyous afternoon almuerzo banquet. Marcelo Palacios is the pastor of this historic parish, living in community with Adrian Fernandez.
These confreres serve one of the original La Salette foundations in Argentina, dating from 1939 when three La Salette Missionaries arrived from Poland to care for the many Polish immigrants. The afternoon Anniversary Dinner offered proud speeches and toasts along with an excellent audiovisual presentation of the historic arrival and the growth of this missionary apostolate in Argentina.
Marcelo and Adrian could not have been more hospitable. They arranged for me to participate in an informative discussion with parish leaders about their many parish ministries, such as an active youth outreach, their long-standing devotion to Our Lady of La Salette, programs in faith formation and catechesis, work with the poor, and their special liturgies and charismatic healing services for the elderly and infirm. Marcelo is an avid “Facebook” enthusiast and Adrian is an accomplished musician with the guitar and violin. The local pizza in Santa Fe made for a great midnight snack before the nighttime bus trip to Cordoba, my next stopover.
Cordoba, according to a local guide, is the second largest city in Argentina with nearly three million inhabitants. The Regional House and the local Parish of Our Lady of La Salette are situated in the Barrio Jofre Norte section of the city. The La Salette Formation Residence is a short drive from this neighborhood just off the beltway, on the opposite side of this growing city and industrial center.
Very near the city limits of Cordoba I viewed an expansive range of small mountains and hills. The campo region is abundant with agriculture and small farms, dating back to the influx of Italian immigrants from the 19th century. The Regional House is a well constructed home located on a large and secure property which contains a soccer field and baseball field for many local sports enthusiasts in this barrio. Baseball was introduced by a former La Salette Missionary from Omaha, Nebraska, Ken McDonald, and now enjoys a revival in popularity by the grandchildren of Fr. Ken’s earliest baseball athletes and fans.
The Casa Regional is a very welcoming religious community and guest house served by our confreres, Roberto (Bob) Butler, the Regional Superior, and Cruz Tejerina, a gifted gardener and popular local charismatic priest. Bob always takes the time to offer fraternal hospitality and a fine midday almuerzo, usually prepared by fellow La Salettes and/or a wonderful cook.
Kitchen cuisine expertise is not a prerequisite for servant-leadership either in the Region or in the North American Province. Yet the meals were excellent and our conversations lively during my four day visit, as the members of the Regional Council and the Formation Residence found their way to the dinner table much of that week.
Nearby, in the center of the local plaza, I had the privilege to join Norman Butler, pastor, and Moises Rueda, pastoral associate, for an evening liturgy, as well as a tour of the parish, the beautiful outdoor La Salette Shrine on the property, and some of the historic sites of Cordoba.
Norman drove me along the boundaries of this parish to visit the many mission capillas, where Mass is celebrated on a rotating schedule. In most of the parish apostolates within our Region, the numerous capillas are the only means by which parishioners receive the Eucharist and share in the pastoral services and faith-life of Catholicism. This weekly ministry demands a great deal of time but the gifts of service and sacrifice on the part of our La Salette Missionaries are provided with unselfish generosity. The results are evident in the hearts, the faces and the growing faith-life of so many local parishioners.
One final visit took place in the La Salette Formation Residence known locally as the Chapel Jose Ignacio Diaz. The formation team consists of Pedro Battistini and Javier Pereira, along with three seminarians who reside in this community. The two newest members are pre-novitiate candidates from Bolivia, Cesar and Herman (my apologies as I have forgotten their last names). One professed seminarian, Diego Diaz, lives in this formation community and is completing graduate studies for Instructor certification. There is also another professed seminarian, Ariel Muratore, fulfilling his pastoral year of formation in the parish of Our Lady of La Salette in Cochabamba, Bolivia under the guidance of David Cardozo, the pastor. Both Diego and Ariel recently participated in the international “PPP (Perpetual Profession Program)” of the congregation held at the La Salette Sanctuary in France this year.
The formation community hosted me one evening for Mass and the evening cena where we practiced our skills and foibles at Spanish and English while enjoying homemade empanadas, sopa, and local posteles for dessert. The seminarians graded me just below the level of our own seminarian, Paul Jussen, who spent last summer in Cordoba studying Spanish (and from all reports, watching much of the World Cup as part of his “local homework”).
In conclusion I want to express my gratitude to all the La Salette Missionaries of the Region of Mary, Queen of Apostles, for their ministry, friendship and dedication and especially for their genuine fraternity and hospitality during my brief but memorable time with them. My thanks are also extended to the many, many parishioners, La Salette Family members, catechists and collaborators, teenagers and school children, and new found amigos who patiently endured my Spanish and gladly entered into my heart.
I conclude with a few thoughts and words of His Holiness, +Blessed Paul VI in his historic 1967 encyclical, Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples)
“True to the teaching and example of her divine Founder, who cited the preaching of the Gospel to the poor as a sign of his mission, the Church has never failed to foster the human progress of the nations to which she brings faith in Christ… her missionaries have also promoted construction of hospitals, sanitariums, schools and universities... Yet, for all this, they did protect and promote indigenous institutions; and many of them pioneered in promoting the country's material and cultural progress…
So we deem it fitting to praise those oft forgotten pioneers who were motivated by love for Christ, just as we honor their imitators and successors who today continue to put themselves at the generous and unselfish service of those to whom they preach the Gospel” (Populorum progressio, #12).