Imagine a spiritually nourished parish without a priest but rather two nuns! Such a reality exists in the village of Ventanillas de Otuzco near the city of Cajamarca in Peru where two members of the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception from New Brunswick now live and work.
A progressive bishop, José A. Dammert, was appointed to be bishop of Cajamarca in 1962 and he remained until his retirement in 1992. He was well known as a “Bishop of the Poor”. He was faced with a dilemma in the village of Otuzco which had no resident clergy, and for some historical reason the people were resistant to having a resident priest. The bishop invited two religious women who were already seasoned missionaries to come and administer the parish and they were accepted by the people.
Sister Muriel Buckley and Sister Rita Coumont already had 20 years working in Peru. Sister Muriel had worked in Comas, one of the instant invasion settlements that ringed Lima. Sister Rita worked in the historic town of Chincha Baja, 200 kilometres south of Lima on the coast where many people were descendants of slaves brought to work in the local haciendas. Both Chincha Baja and Comas were among the poorest in those decades of the 70’s and 80’s.
Sisters Muriel and Rita are both trained teachers, and as such they became responsible for the catechetical (church education) programs of the parishes: working with children, youth and parents in conditions that would stretch the resources and creativity of most educators. The Oblate priests with whom they worked benefited from their tireless devotion to the parishes in which they were placed; even the preparation for the liturgies, the domain of the clergy, was mostly done by the Sisters who were both gifted in organizing religious celebrations that might have exceeded the planning attempts of many of the priests themselves.
I am able to speak to the extraordinary contributions made by the Sisters of Charity , having worked as a seminarian and priest in Comas from 1972 to 1979. After I married in 1981, which of course ended my clergy career, I have maintained contact with friends and co-workers in Peru. My home in Toronto was often a stop for visiting clergy and nuns from Peru which allowed me to share my friendships and their experiences with my three children. For many years I had not thought of returning for a visit until my youngest daughter phoned me in May and asked me to go with her to Peru. After months of planning, we arranged a five week tour around Peru, a combination of visiting some traditional tourist sites as well as an opportunity for me to reconnect with friends.
It was important to me that we scheduled a visit to the Cajamarca region, expressly to visit Sisters Muriel and Rita, who are among those who I would consider my heroes. They have been in Otuzco for twenty-five years now, although not in a supporting role as there are no clergy. Occasionally, a priest will come for a special celebration but then he leaves to serve his own parish. Bishop Dammert gave the administration of the parish to the Sisters and subsequent bishops, though not as progressive or visionary, have not changed the arrangement. This means that the Sisters are responsible for almost everything, including being officially appointed as the Ministers of the sacraments of baptism and marriage.
During their tenure in the parish, a beautiful church has been built with assistance from both Canada and Europe. The Sisters have a modest but comfortable two story adobe home, and next to them is a parish center with adequate office space and meeting rooms. The Sisters conduct regular liturgical celebrations, in the church and in the outlying communities, which are similar to the traditional mass, without the consecration prayers; “blessed hosts” are brought in from a parish in Cajamarca for communion. As the Sisters are not clergy, there are fewer restrictions on the rubrics of these celebrations and they encourage the participation of lay men and women.
The parish is centered in the village of Otuzco but it includes a number of surrounding communities. While Sister Muriel concentrates her efforts on the main parish center, Sister Rita works with the people out in the surrounding communities. In days gone by, she would walk to the villages but she eventually progressed to using a motorbike. Now she rarely uses the motorbike as the roads, though widened and improved to allow for bigger vehicles, are now used by trucks that have little concern for walkers or bikers. When the rains come, traveling to the villages becomes even more difficult and extra dangerous, especially for a solitary traveler.
Naomi with Rita and Muriel
My daughter and I were with the Sisters for four days; in this short amount of time, I saw two old friends who have matured as missionaries, less concerned about the mechanics of a parish and completely immersed to the people they serve. Church is what brought them to Peru and eventually to Cajamarca, but they are there for “la gente” – the people. They have served the Cajamarca region long enough to see the children they first baptised now getting married. The Sisters are a part of the “pueblo” – no longer outsiders. In Peru, the sisters are sometimes called “hermana” (sister) or “madre” (mother), a sign of affection and respect. Rita and Muriel have earned their title of Madre, for they have become elder parental guides who are wise and trusted.
In Canada, there continues to be controversy about the role of women in the Catholic Church. Some Catholic women have sought ordination in the Catholic tradition, rather than waiting for reforms. What is perhaps ironic in juxtaposition is that in the more conservative environment of Peru, Sisters Rita and Muriel are in a leadership role that Canadian Catholic women would envy. At the same time, they are thankful that they are not clergy as there are restrictions and shackles of the clerical state. Perhaps they are, by necessity, ahead of the Canadian church in terms of allowing women to exercise ministry. The sisters accompany the people in more than the traditional “spiritual” areas; they support the struggle to maintain their ancestral rights, including the need to protect their water resources.
Over these years they have been supported, and continue to be supported, by different church groups in New Brunswick. The Sisters of Charity from New Brunswick have every reason to be proud of these two great missionaries who have been faithful servants of the church and dedicated “madres” to communities, mostly in regions with the economically poor, for 45 years. Through Sisters Muriel and Rita, church people in Canada have been participants in a mission of solidarity and friendship. I am privileged to have worked with these great church women and to be counted among their friends.
In sharing with these friends who are powerful examples of strong women, my daughter, like many her age who are alienated from the church, had an experience of religious women that will give her cause to reflect and hope that the future of the Catholic Church will value and honor women and the talents that they can bring to ministry.
(I have submitted this to a diocesan paper in St. John, N.B. for consideration.)