Almost 40 years ago, I met a young man who was just a few years my junior. We really did not have much interaction at that time, but later came to work together in Chiclayo when I worked for one year in the northern Peru mission of the Diocese of Halifax, N.S. How I got there is another story.
I arrived in Peru in March of 1972, in the fourth year of the military dictatorship of Juan Velasco. Originally I was to be a teacher in Chincha Alta but in the short time of
my traveling south this changed to be an assistant to the parish priest in Km. 13 Comas, one of the barriadas north of Lima. I was at that time a seminarian doing my “pastoral year” working in a parish that was 2 km wide at the base near the highway called Avenida Tupac Amaru and it stretched maybe 1.5 km up the desert hill typical of the Peruvian coast. The population of the parish at this time was estimated to be around 85,000 with the vast majority being nominally catholic.
Next to this parish was another Oblate parish, the original parish of the area, known as Ntra. Señora de la Paz at Km 11 on Tupac Amaru. This parish was staffed at the time by John Kroetch and Manuel Nonone. The parish house had a garden with trees, as it was built on flat land that would have been on the edge of old hacienda properties and thus had some soil which would respond to some watering and care. At the bottom of the garden were a number of bedrooms which had previously been used
by foreign volunteers who worked in the industrial school founded by one of the first Oblates to the region. Those volunteers had returned to Europe and somehow two Peruvian seminarians came to live in those rooms, taking their meals with the Oblates. One of those seminarians was Victor Díaz Alemán.
Victor came from a northern hacienda known as Cayaltí, which was close to the famous town of Zaña to the south of Chiclayo. Victor came from a campesino family, his parents worked on the huge sugar hacienda that before 1968 was owned by one family but had a population of over 20,000. All these workers and their families lived by the grace of the hacienda owners who treated them as serfs – a peasant community that enjoyed few rights. The church in this area came to
be ministered by priests from the Ontario diocese of London, so that is perhaps the connection that got Victor to live with the Oblates. The bishop of Chiclayo was a member of the Spanish Opus Dei sect who did not support seminarians that came out of the gringo parishes. As I did not attend classes at the seminary I had no interaction with Victor except for those common Wednesday lunches when the two Oblate communities in Comas got together.
Victor was ordained in 1974 and was assigned to work in the rural parish of Requé, the first town on the Panamericana Highway south of Chiclayo after the turnoff for Monsefú. Victor lived for the first 10 years in Monsefú, a most original rural town that had been the mission of a group of Newfoundlanders, including the Sisters of Mercy. Victor lived in a small priest community of three young Peruvian priests who received no financial support from the bishop or diocese. The other young priests were Emigdio Sandoval and Lucho Santamaría. They lived together for mutual support, as there was no support from the local diocese and their communities were extremely poor and unable to support a priest. All three of these young priests taught in local schools, for as the country is officially Catholic, religious instruction was part of the mandated curriculum. Their salaries as teachers is what kept them going, and all their free time was dedicated to working in their parishes. That was typical for Peruvian priests who opted not to earn their living by commercializing the sacraments – which was by far a more lucrative option and not uncommon among both national and foreign clergy.
Victor was a member of ONIS (Oficina Nacional de Información Social) – a priest network for those who worked out of an option for the poor and a methodology inspired by the Theology of Liberation. Victor was deep in his heart a campesino and he was true to his roots. He encouraged his people and stood by them at all times, especially in times of social unrest. For the rural people life was a constant struggle and their human rights were constantly threatened by those with more power – which at this time often meant the military. Victor was often denounced by people of power and threatened. The Opus Dei bishop, who was a Spaniard, would have dearly loved that Victor would give up or more to a more freindly diocese.
There were attempts on Victor´s life. He rode a motorcycle and was known to travel
the road from Monsefú to the highway and then south a short distance to Requé. He would often be returning home in the dark after parish meetings in the church of Requé known as Parroquia San Martin de Tours. One evening Victor was returning to Monsefú in the dark when he hit a wire stretched across the highway to trap him. The wire caught his headlamp, but had it been a bit higher he would literally have been decapitated. Victor was a strong defender of land reform and acted as an advocate for the poor who had no voice. He had his enemies – both politically and within the church.
In 1999 Victor celebrated his silver anniversary as a priest, and I had the good fortune to be in Chiclayo at the time and to attend the celebrations in the Cathedral of the diocese. The evil bishop of Chiclayo had passed on to his eternal reward and had been replaced by another Opus Dei member but someone who was more pastoral than ideological. Lucho Santamaría had sometime earlier left Monsefú while Emigdio
Sandoval continued to teach and work in the parish of Pto. Eten. All three lived alone at this time in their own parishes, but continued to network. By this time there were few Canadian missionaries in the diocese except for a few Ursuline sisters in Urrunaga and the Mercy Sisters who now lived in Pto. Eten.
In the year I was there I heard of an incident involving Victor that typifies his character. Victor seldom wore any priestly garb other than during liturgies, and when traveling outside his parish he would not be readily recognized as a priest. One day he was in Chiclayo and he came upon a group of police who were beating up a young man with their clubs. There was a paddy wagon nearby. Victor approached the police and told them that if they had cause to arrest the man they should do so but they had no right to abuse him and beat him. Now this would normally be a very foolish thing to do – then as now – for the police can be brutal just as a matter of habit. Torture in the jails is common. The police were incredulous at the audacity of this unknown stranger who looked like an ordinary man
from one of the haciendas – which he was. They told him to get lost, so Victor walked over to the paddy wagon and climbed into it and sat down. The police had not experienced a ¨volunteer prisoner¨before, so they stopped attacking the young man and turned their attention on Victor. They ordered him out of the paddy wagon and sought to identify him. When they found out that he was a priest, they just tried to get away from him. In this confusion the police had forgotten about the young man whom they were attacking. I don´t know what happened to the young man after that but Victor walked away without a bruise. For Victor this was not a stunt, but a deliberate intervention to put himself in the way of the authorities abusing the common person.
Victor was one of those exceptional Peruvian priests who could be used as a model for future clergy. He followed the tradition of St. Paul, working outside the parish to support himself and his aging parents who continued to live in Cayaltí. His father died just this year in early 2010. He gave 110 % to the parish in Requé and was loved by all. He was faithful to his vows and lived a simple life of service.
In August Victor began to suffer some symptoms that began to worry others, but at first he was just thought to be tired from the drain of the years events, including his father´s death. Eventually he was persuaded to go to a medical specialist in Chiclayo who immediately recognized some disturbing signs and referred Victor for more medical tests. The diagnosis was that he had a hemorrhaging brain tumour that required swift attention. On August 25 doctors in Chiclayo began a biopsy procedure and ended up removing 75% of a tumor. The analysis has shown it to be a malignant form of astrocytoma – a star fish shaped tumor that spreads throughout the brain. It is very bad news for Victor, who is given perhaps only months to live.
There has been an outpouring of love and concern from not only his own parish of
Requé but many of the Christian communities in the Chiclayo area, for Victor´s generosity was without limits and he often helped elsewhere and participated in events organized by the different communities. When he was first hospitalized, one of the Mercy Sisters, Liz Brennan, ended up as the security guard keeping people out of Victor´s hospital room. She says that people were literally lined up down the hallway hoping to see Victor or just to get a glimpse of him. The community of Requé held a special celebration in the parish church to pray for their pastor – who is so vital to their community life.
Victor is one of the good priests who don´t attract a lot of attention or publicity. He has been a faithful servant in the way priests should be. Hopefully some of the younger clergy in Chiclayo have learned from his example.
post script: September 26, 2010 This afternoon in Chiclayo, surrounded by family and friends, Victor died. His condition became very critical in the last week as many people, his fellow clergy, the Mercy sisters, his family from Cayalti and area, and many people from his own parish and other parishes gathered around him to cover him with their prayers and love.Victor’s mother who is 88 years old sat by his bed and held his hand until the end. His two brother priests Lucho and Emigdio were also with him.
He has been the pastor of the parish in Reque for all 36 years of his priesthood. As his body was brought from the hospital back to Reque, it appeared that the whole town had come out to receive him back, filling the road and the church. Gladys Fernandez wrote in an email “ With such profound sorrow on his death, we give thanks to God for the gift that we were given in having known Victor. Our communities owe to him so much graitude … so many times that we have received his support as a friend, as a pastor, as a companion on the road. We are left with his love, his joy, his life of great generosity, his witness of fidelity to the gospel, his commitment to seek the good of the most poor, … may we remain inspired by his example and accompanied by the Spirit of Jesus that always was present in Victor”.
¡Compañero Victor Diaz Alemán – PRESENTE!