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
|During a visit to the local prison, doctors took care of some patients.|
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
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
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.
|The doctors distributed a great deal of medicine.|
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
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.
volunteer Dr. Cecile O´Connor, a retired public health doctor from
Beeville, Texas, observed an appealingly
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.
|The residents were truly edified by the charity and dedication of all the doctors.|
"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."
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."
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."
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
And their e mail address: info@CatholicWorldMission.org
Visit the National Catholic Register Web site