Parish Founders are Bishop Helmsing,

Papal Volunteers

By Paul Turner
Special to the Catholic Key

Help the poor.  Spread the Gospel.  Save the world from communism.

Back in 1962 there were many reasons for beginning a mission to Bolivia.  The Cold War was settling in, the Soviet Union was sending arms to Cuba, and people feared the spread of communism throughout Latin America.  Pope John XXIII, in the year Vatican Council  II opened sent forth a call for the evangelization of South America.  

One of the first North American dioceses to respond was St. Louis.  The Bolivian mission was born. 

In Kansas City - St. Joseph, Bishop John Cody had been named to the see of New Orleans, and Bishop Charles Helmsing arrived from Springfield Cape Girardeau.  Bishop Helmsing, familiar with the missionary response in St. Louis, authorized his new diocese to begin preparations to join the mission to Bolivia. 

The Papal Volunteer program was founded to provide means for lay people to respond to the missionary call of Pope John XXIII.  In the diocese of Kansas City - St. Joseph, several mission centers eventually benefited from local volunteers, but the first was the mission in Bolivia. 

Joe Clark, Hubert Gregory, Ann Vanderahe, Jan Reardon, Dick Nelson, and Theo Gallagher were the six Papal Volunteers who left our diocese in late 1962.  They attended language school in Peru, and traveled to Bolivia in early 1963 to begin the mission.  Their salary was $35 a month.  In the spring they were joined by three priests: Msgr. Robert Walton, Rev. Robert Crider, and Rev. Phil McGuire.

The goals were not very precise in the early days.  The missionaries knew they had come to help the poor and to form Christian parishes.  They built buildings.  They visited homes.  They held meetings.  They fixed jeeps.  They fed school children.  They raised rabbits.  Roads were poor.  Phones were scarce.

Conditions in their areas of Bolivia were so primitive at the time, that much of their effort was spent in meeting basic needs.  

Today the people of San Antonio remember Rev. Donald Powers as "the priest who brought us the water."  With the construction of a new cistern in their barrio, they no longer had to walk down the long hill to haul water back to their homes.

All together fifteen different priests of our diocese have worked the mission of La Paz in the past 28 years.  Of them, six have resigned the priesthood (Phil McGuire, Ed Wagner, Charles Lackamp, Jim Hardy, John Seck, and Tom Carney), two have died (Robert Walton and Walter Zientarski), one works in the Philippines (Tom Gier), five are at work in our diocese today (Robert Crider, Don Powers, Mike Walker, Chuck Tobin, and Terry Bruce), and one still labors in Bolivia (Mike Gillgannon).  The succeeding years the political climate of Bolivia changed dramatically.  In 1978 a democracy was formed, but the government and elections were still fraudulent.  A coup in 1980 placed the entire country in a state of fear.  People were afraid to go out, afraid to be seen in groups.  Bolivians lost the ability to trust one another.

The new government was so corrupt that it lost its international support, and by 1982 the democratically elected president from the days before the coup, was reinstated.

The years since 1982 have been relatively stable for Bolivia.  This climate has allowed the Church to grow in ways formerly not possible.  Missionaries, distracted by basic human  needs in the early years and by the fear-inspiring coup of the early eighties, were finally able to build a Christian community of trust and support. 

The parish of San Antonio in La Paz, founded by missionaries from our diocese in 1965, experienced real growth in numbers and spirit.  Sacramental preparation programs for parents and children alike drew groups together in trust and faith.  Children who had gone through several years of education formed a new generation of catechists, and basic Christian communities sprang up.

The advances in the last several years were not possible in the early days of the mission, and missionaries returning for the twenty-fifth anniversary were pleased to see how well the community has developed in the years since their departure.

The spirit of missioning has changed.  In the early days, the goal was to help the poor.  The United States offered technology, know-how, and wealth.  Missionaries from the U.S. brought those gifts where they were most needed.

In time, however, that "help" proved counter-productive.  Providing help from outside the country kept Bolivians in a state of oppression, dependent on others.

Today, the missionary spirit works more toward building up the local leadership and talent.  Rather than imposing a foreign system, missionaries strive to let the local system seek its own roots.

Being an American missionary in Bolivia in the 1990's causes additional stress.  Bolivians are well aware that the United States is systematically building up its military presence.  Bolivians fear that what Honduras has become to Central America, their country will become for South America: a nation too poor to defend itself, subject to the whims of stronger foreign powers who choose local soil for stationing their troops.  When Bolivians see Americans on the streets, they are not sure if they're meeting friend or foe.

The increased demand for cocaine throughout the world has made Bolivia hot property for drug lords.  Coca plants have grown there since time immemorial, and the people have incorporated coca into their culture.  Very few Bolivians abuse drugs, but the demand for cocaine from other nations has caused the number of coca fields to multiply exponentially.  Trapped in an economic system where the middle class has all but disappeared to the very few wealthy and the majority of poor, the peasant farmers are at the mercy of demand for their crops.

The United States and Bolivian governments have mouthed agreements to help the peasants: They have promised alternate crops; they have promised pay if the farmers destroy coca fields.  But those who destroyed their fields have so far received nothing in return.

United States missionaries to Bolivia, then, often find themselves in the awkward position of loving their Church and despising their government.  The increased militarization of Bolivia accentuates the powerlessness of the people over self-destiny, economy, and peace.  Multinational corporations exploit the cheap labor available in Bolivia and other countries at the expense of joblessness at home and the continuation of economic disparity abroad.  Now instead of saving the world from communism, missionaries wonder how they can save the world from capitalism.

Pope John XXIII issued a call to the world to help the needy.  We responded to a world of poverty.  What have we gained?

We have gained a sense of the global mission of the Church.  We have gained pride in the work of our missionaries.  We have gained a cross-cultural exchange that teaches us about the human spirit.

But there is more.  As the Bolivian Church begins to stand on its own legs, our mission teaches us about what Church is and about what poverty is.

Church is about community and faith.  We knew that instinctively at the beginning, but those themes continued to come home as we labored in the midst of poverty.  It was tempting to think that if we could overcome poverty, then we could build Church.  But the Latin American nations have experienced that they can build Church in the midst of poverty, in spite of poverty.  And Church can help overcome the oppression born of poverty.

This simple lesson has become increasingly important for North Americans to learn.  For as we watch the development of nations economically poorer than ours, we become aware of another kind of poverty at work even in the midst of economically wealthy nations like the U.S.  Our people experience a poverty of trust, a poverty of altruism, a poverty of relationships, a poverty of safety.  To our horror, we discover that we are striving to build a Church community against formidable odds..

Pope John XXIII issued a call to the world to help the needy.  Little did we know that we were as needy as the needy we went to help.

Perhaps the most significant contribution the Latin American nations have made to the Universal Church is the development of basic Christian communities.  In a Church where small communities have become bloated by increased memberships and mergers due to a shortage of priests, people cry out anew for smaller groups in which thy may share faith.  The development of these communities has given the faithful a means of support, worship, sociological flection and societal change - whether that means bringing water to the barrio or demanding the government reveal the whereabouts of Bolivians who have "disappeared" unexplainably.  Here are groups taking their faith, developing it together, and putting it into action for a better community and a better world.

What we are doing in Bolivia is helping shape a church which will be a guiding light for the future of the world.  The Bolivian mission is one of the best kept secrets in our diocese today, and we have been impoverished by its lack of publicity.  Our schools, our parishes, all our organizations would benefit from knowledge of these dioceses joined by one faith, separated by two cultures.  The work of our missionaries may be a source of tremendous pride; the faith of the Bolivians a source of inspiration.

Our communities will flourish only as we become socially aware of the Church in the world around us.  Participation in the global Church brings depth to the local Church.  The directions for the future may be as vague as the direction was for the mission in those first days in 1962.  But one theme will always remain clear: the need for communities of faith.

[Special Article published in the Catholic Key on September 23, 1990]

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