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Medical Missionaries Boost Faith in Spiritually Needy Amazon
When a small team of Catholic medical missionaries brought expertise, medicine and personal care to up to 200 people a day in this Amazon region in August, little did they realize they would awaken the sleeping giant of faith.

Medico hace chequeo a paciente en la carcel, Amazonas
During a visit to the local prison, doctors took care of some patients.
ITACOATIARA, Brazil Few attend Mass, few couples are married, and even fewer know the catechism, said Legionary Father Peter Hopkins of New York, one of two priest chaplains who participated in the Amazon trip organized by the Texas-based Helping Hand Medical Mission.

But they have a simple piety and a love of the Virgin Mary, he said, and they responded readily to the compassion and witness of the Catholic doctors, eagerly accepting the 3,000 rosaries brought by the missionaries, who were invited by the local bishop to set up temporary clinics for the poor in this Amazon region.

"They were very receptive," said Dr. Oscar Tijerina, an emergency medicine specialist from Mission, Texas, and one of the 17 members of the mission team. "We would pray the rosaries with the patients. They were all very excited. They all have faith in the Virgin of Guadalupe. But they just need the push, the encouragement." The patients lined up early, hours before the clinic opened, and prayed a rosary with the medical team before the day´s work began. Afterward they spontaneously sang Marian hymns, said Lupita Assad, a nurse and volunteer director of Helping Hand, which has conducted 26 missions to Latin America since 1996.

Because of the success of the 10-day mission, Bishop Gritti Carillo of the Itacoatiara prelature hopes to raise the funds to build a permanent clinic to offer health care, natural family planning classes and catechism instruction year-round, Father Hopkins said. In this way, the bishop is seeking to rebuild the faith in a remote jungle area that has largely been forgotten by the wider Church.

"He was flooded with calls from people thanking him for having the Americans come," Father Hopkins said. "[With a clinic], we could come down a couple times a year to do missions there, and he would
Doctor entregando medicamentos a sus pacientes, Misiones Médicas Amazonas
The doctors distributed a great deal of medicine.
have a place of evangelization." Once nearly 85% of the people in this 32,000-square-mile prelature - not yet a diocese - were Catholic, Father Hopkins said. Because of 20th-century liberation theology that weakened faith practices - and the insurgence of evangelical Christians, Mormons and Jehovah´s Witnesses - that number is down in some areas to 50%, he explained.

When Bishop Carillo arrived two years ago from Italy - he hails from the birthplace of Pope John XXIII, as does a neighboring Amazon bishop - there were only four Catholic marriages in the entire prelature, Father Hopkins said. Since the Helping Hand mission, several couples have come to the bishop seeking to have their common-law marriages regularized in the Church, the priest said.

The presence of the U.S. medical team, who paid their own way and brought their own medical supplies, was an encouragement to the local people, said Dr. Nicoleta Manciu, an anesthesiologist from Minnesota. "They appreciated the fact that - and I´m quoting one of them - that we treated them like human beings," she said. Though the people of Itacoatiara are poor, the doctors found them to be rather healthy, blessed by a natural food supply, clean air and a lifestyle of physical exertion.

"Most complaints were what we would consider fairly nominal," said team member Yvonne Stewart, a physician´s assistant from Boston who has recently left on an extended mission to Congo. "A lot of the complaints were back pain, headaches, some visual problems, needing reading glasses. They are generally very strong people. They´re not complainers."

One of her most memorable patients was a 95-year-old indigenous woman with an unusual report: "Aches and pains if dances too much," Stewart recalled, laughing. "She was absolutely gorgeous; She actually danced for us. If she was 95, I hope I look like that when I´m 65. She was just in phenomenal health," she said.

Mission volunteer Dr. Cecile O´Connor, a retired public health doctor from Beeville, Texas, observed an appealingly
Doctor practica chequeo a paciente en el Amazonas
The residents were truly edified by the charity and dedication of all the doctors.
gentle manner in the people. "You can get them to smile very, very quickly," she said. "You could hardly see someone with wrinkling on the forehead." Poverty also proved no obstacle to hospitality, which was extended to all the missionaries, she observed. "It´s a very small house and they have one chair, but they want you to sit in that chair," she said. The gratitude of the simple people struck Roberta Tijerina, a high school senior who assisted her father and the other doctors by taking histories and helping in the clinic pharmacy.

"You know that your work there is minimal - you´re only there for a week - yet they´re so grateful for it," she said. Father Hopkins saw that as well. "They would go into one of the doctors and would have six problems. The doctor could only address one of the six, and they were overcome with gratitude," he said. "If [the doctors] could do anything, no matter how small it was, they would thank the doctor profusely. It was very nice."

Government family-planning programs have had their effect in the area, several doctors observed. While there were many families with five or six children, there were also many women, some as young as 20, who they found were sterilized.

"There was a young woman who was 24 and who had two children," Manciu said. "She was sterilized and unmarried. This was perhaps the saddest one I had seen; she did not realize what she had done. If she decides to get married and have a family with her husband, that´s not possible. She´s done. That´s it for her life. It´s very, very sad."

On the other side of the spectrum, there was a husband and wife who traveled with their baby for four hours to come to the clinic, she said. "They appeared to be in their late 30s. For whatever reason they came to me, and they had 11 children. The father seemed to just adore the baby, the tender way he held him. You could easily see Christ in this man. They were a beautiful family." Bishop Carillo navigates the vast river area using a government-subsidized boat, Father Hopkins said. Along with 30 catechists and three or four priests, he goes from village to village evangelizing, he said.

The prelature is growing - he has 12 men studying for the priesthood, five of them in the Legionary seminary established in Sao Paolo at the request of the Holy Father to serve the dioceses of Brazil, the priest said. But the Amazon bishop is up against some stiff competition from the numerous Christian and non-Christian sects in the area, Father Hopkins said. During the mission the priest met an American missionary who flies a biplane up and down the river, stopping at villages to try to establish new Baptist churches.

"They arrive to a town, and they recruit one of the locals who is willing to become a Baptist minister," the priest said. "They send him to Manaus for a year, train him as a minister, and in the meantime they build a church. They send him back, and now he´s the Baptist minister, and he recruits a congregation." Said Dr. Brendan O´Connor, a radiologist with the Helping Hand mission: "Without people like us going down to support them in their faith, it makes it easy for these other groups to convert them."

Mission director Lupita Assad said the mission met its objective by helping the local Church in evangelization. The spiritual program of Helping Hand for the patients and for the doctors is as important as its medical outreach, she said. "The bishop was elated. I haven´t seen a bishop so happy," she said. "It´s not how much we can accomplish, but that we bring hope to these people, and to the bishop. That´s our main, main work."

Ellen Rossini writes from Dallas.

Helping Hand Medical Missions can be reached through the Catholic World Mission Web site:

And their e mail address:

Visit the National Catholic Register Web site


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