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Intercontinental connection Suburban parish joins efforts of church in Peru


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Palos Heights and Moquegua, Peru, are worlds apart, but in some ways, are very close.

Parishioners at Incarnation Parish in Palos Heights have formed a relationship with the people of San Francisco de Asís parish on the outskirts of Moquegua, a city founded by the Spaniards 460 years ago in a mountainous area of southern Peru, thanks in part to the efforts of their pastors, Father Kevin Hays in Moquegua and Father Ronald Mass, both priests of the archdiocese of Chicago.

Hays went to Peru after joining the Society of St. James in 1997, after spending his first 20 years as a priest ministering in predominantly Spanish-speaking parishes in the Chicago area.

He returned to Chicago for a priests’ convocation shortly after a 2001 earthquake devastated his parish and the surrounding community, and he appealed to his brother priests for help.

Shortly thereafter, Mass spoke with his parish council, and they decided to offer the whole $30,000 that Hays was asking for to reconstruct the church.

Several other Chicago contributors, including Hays’ family and priest friends, the Chicago bishops, Holy Cross Parish in Deerfield, and the Chicago Fire Department chaplaincy, as well as Incarnation, provided funding for the structure (walls, floor, roof), hill top retaining wall and earthquake debris removal.

The finished interior (altar, pews, lighting, paint, etc.) and 330-foot hillside retaining wall were financed by Incarnation Parish. In an e-mail, Hays described the interior of the church as “strikingly simple,” in the classic design of the Moquegua area with local marble, slate and white stone from the neighboring region of Arequipa.

The church seats 450, with room for people to stand at the back. That allows for about 5 percent of the roughly 9,600 Catholics in the town of San Francisco to attend Mass at one time, Hays said, and it is the second largest church in its diocese.

From the church, Hays does many of the same things his counterparts in Chicago do: provides the sacraments, teaches religious education, offers youth ministry.

Incarnation has maintained its connection, setting up a fund for the benefit of San Francisco de Asis with bequest from a parishioner.

The suburban parish also prays for Hays and his parishioners regularly, and is looking into the possibility of sending a medical team on a health care visit.

The connection, Hays said, is not just about money, but the parish and its people need financial help.

“Maintaining hope in the face of extreme poverty would be a constant challenge,” he wrote. “This grinding poverty has taken its toll on the psyche and soul of the population.”

“The effects of poverty, coupled with a first world secularism capable of reaching even this isolated area, have produced an indifference bordering on numbness. Generally speaking, in Perú, 50 percent of the population survives on around $2 a day. The other half should not be considered to resemble anything like a U.S. middle-class. One percent of the population holds all the wealth and none of them lives in Moquegua.”

After the 8.4 earthquake that struck in 2001, few people who lived in Moquegua had roofs over their heads.

Hays and his parishioners worked with government and nonprofit relief services to get food to tent camps, with Hays driving the parish truck. Later, the parish worked with Jesuits from Santiago, Chile (more than 2,000 miles away) to build affordable housing: 9-by-18-foot one-room wooden shelters.

“Two hundred and eighty units were placed, using a criterion of total loss,” Hays wrote. “If one room was left standing, the family did not qualify.”

The parish also rebuilt eight community dining centers, a staple of life in southern Peru. Earthquake relief came from the Archdiocese of Boston through the St. James Society, with $10,000 from the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Now San Francisco de Asis is focusing its social services on orphaned, abandoned or neglected children and single mothers in extreme poverty, Hays said. It is working with sisters of Our Lady of the Missions, who run Hogar Belen (Bethlehem Home), the parish helped offer some 6,300 meals a week to 320 children and 90 mothers from 2002-05.

In 2005, the home, with 150 children in residence, was declared uninhabitable, so the parish helped expand a nearby farm property the home owned by building one room wooden structures which serve as dormitories, study rooms and storage areas.

The cost of transporting the children from the farm to the local schools in Moquegua has been covered by the parish.

Hays said architects and engineers are working on the design for a new center, which must be at a new location due to the post-earthquake instability of the ground.

His parish is covering the design costs, with most of the funds supplied by the Incarnation parish, with some funding from the Society of St. James the Apostle.

Mass has traveled to Moquegua twice, once to see the post-earthquake reconstruction and once in March with Bishop Gustavo Garcia- Siller.

For Mass, the connection between the two parishes has born fruit for his parish community as well.

“It helps us keep a sense of awareness of the broader church,” said Mass. “We have a very strong outreach and social justice program, and this gives us a greater appreciation of the universal church.”