Editor: In the Winter 1975-76 Mission Newsletter, Fr. Jack Toner, M.S., Procurator for our La Salette Missions, reported on the beginning of our ministry in La Banda, Argentina – now celebrating its 40th anniversary as a La Salette Mission. We share with you the excitement and challenge of his report, including the comments of Fr. Roland Nadeau. M.S., ministering in Argentina at that time.
Providentially, increasing numbers of missionaries to Argentina in recent years have enabled us to meet the responsibilities already accepted, and so it was decided at a meeting of the missionary personnel in Argentina, earlier in the current year, that our efforts be expanded, and specifically in an area that would be very poor, disorganized, and largely or completely lacking in priests.
Ministering in La Banda
It required little time to come upon a district meeting such requirements, and though a number of Bishops in Argentina sought the services of our missionaries, it was determined that our new responsibility should be established in the territory of La Banda in the Province of Santiago del Estero. In dimension, it is about 120 miles long and covers an area of, conservatively, 1,000 square miles.
It was also determined that this new mission should fall to the responsibility of veteran Fr. Bill Kinney, M.S., and newcomer, Fr. John McCarthy, M.S. The latter wrote about his initial impression of their new ministry:
In La Banda there are upwards of 50,000 people, described as 'Catholics,' and only God knows how many additional thousands in the surrounding 'campo' (hinterlands). The huts are made of adobe, mud bricks, tree limbs, and long material that looks like swamp grass. There is much sickness and very little medicine. Living conditions are decidedly sub-par.
The people are simple, and the overwhelming majority have never had any contact with a priest. As a matter fact, there are sections of the district where a priest might have visited once a year in the past. Moreover, there are additional hundreds who have never even seen a priest. There is also an incredible amount of prejudice on their part for lack of contact with the Church as a religious community.
Father McCarthy writes more recently:
It is just beautiful to see the change in the people after our initial period of mixing with them. I ride up and down the pathways of the barrio on my motorbike, stopping here to talk with a group of people, tarrying there to play a quick game of soccer with the young people. At the moment, a full-blown census is being taken of the people.
The first time around we merely passed out holy cards with the hours of the Masses indicated thereon, and invited them to join us. Now, in the second stage, we are making a complete census, but still talk with the majority of the people along the pathways or at the entrances to their huts. A certain measure of reserve remains with them, but within the past week, we have been invited into several huts to have coffee or matte (a local drink to welcome strangers). This is a great step forward!
I must admit that it does try one's patience, but with an understanding of their background, their formation, culture, education or lack of it, their attitude is at least logical. What a blessing it is to be planting the seeds of God's presence in this new community."
Fr. Roland Nadeau, M.S., Regional Superior of our Argentina Missions, gives us further insight into the responsibility of La Banda. He points out that in this vast area there are just two churches, perhaps better described as chapels — and these to serve literally tens of thousands of people.
The priest in charge of one of these, a native Argentine of advanced years, became ill and was forced to resign his post. On the other side of the territory, some thirty miles distant, there is another church in an area called "Clodomira," where the priest in charge was compelled to return to his native Spain because of a heart ailment. This latter district of "Clodomira" is roughly the size of the country of Switzerland.
Other Signs of Hope
Most heartening and encouraging to those of us on the home front is the information that our Seminarians in Argentina are completing another successful year, as Argentina moves into the torrid heat of its summer. Two La Salette Novices continue their year of formation with Fr. Jack Bradford, M.S. In its next session, our Seminary will be entering its fifth year of operation.
Meanwhile, the Seminarians continue to share the burden of their support by raising, themselves, the vegetables and fruit that they eat, and the chickens that provide their eggs and some of their meat supply. Recently added at the Seminary is a cement mixer and a cement block-making machine, the products of which are either donated to the poor or sold to the wealthy, providing thereby additional funds for their education and training, which, in turn, allows for extra assistance to the sick and needy poor.
All this these La Salette Missionaries do to make Mary’s message known.