By Sister Barbara Cervenka, OP – August 22, 2017, Pamplona Alta, Peru – In 1989, I visited Peru for the first time, coming to Pamplona Alta at the invitation of Sister Patricia “Pam” Millenbach, OP. Pamplona Alta, one of the shantytowns (or pueblos jovenes) surrounding Lima, was home to nearly a quarter of a million people. But its dwellings were made of cardboard and reed mats, vulnerable to the intense heat of summer, the dampness of winter, and the sand and dirt of the foothills of the Andes.
Pamplona Alta, Peru, 2017
Sister Patricia “Pam” Millenbach, OP (left), and Sister Mary Kay Duwelius, OP
Sister Pam and Sister Mary Kay Duwelius, OP, worked there among the poorest of people. Sister Mary Kay ran a common dining room, called a comedor popular, and built a library for high school students, who often had no place to study in their small and crowded homes. Sister Pam worked with children who had disabilities, arranging for medical care, surgeries, therapy, glasses, and hearing aids – none of which were provided by a government beset by political strife, terrorism, and poverty.
During my first visit, I became interested in the work of some of the women who made cuadros, pictures of cloth. I bought them and organized them into an exhibition that has traveled to many places in the United States and Canada.
For nearly 30 years, I have returned to Peru many times to work with these women and other groups of artists, selling their artwork to help support them and their families through Con/Vida, a small, not-for-profit organization that Mame Jackson and I established. We exhibit and sell their work. We estimate that we have been able to return nearly $500,000 to Pamplona Alta, providing support for nearly 30 families.
But during my most recent visit this June, I discovered that the folk art of the women is not the only legacy of Peru. Many people in Pamplona remembered and asked about Sister Mary Kay and Sister Pam, who had been forced to leave Peru in 1992.
Father Ignacio, pastor of the San Martin de Porres Parish, proudly showed me the library that Sister Mary Kay had built. The building, still in excellent condition, is now being used to teach women professional sewing skills. On the building grounds, Padre Ignacio is in the process of building more classrooms to teach computer technology. He publicly thanks the Sisters for the wonderful work they began and which still serves the people of Pamplona Alta.
Father Ignacio shows Sister Barbara the library building that was
founded by Sister Mary Kay Duwelius, OP.
I visited Fundades, a group of women working to continue all that Sister Pam had begun for the children. Lucia Claux de Tola, a good friend of Sister Pam, worked these past 30 years to create centers for therapy for the children. She has established six centers, both in Lima and in the surrounding shantytowns. These centers are well equipped and serviced by professional doctors and therapists. They care for hundreds and hundreds of children. Lucia credits Sister Pam with inspiring her to begin and continue this wonderful work.
We all begin work but rarely know where that work and the resulting relationships will lead. It’s been a privilege to return to Peru and see that work so well begun now continues to bring life and support where it is so needed.
Full photo featured at top:
Sister Barbara Cervenka, OP, with members of Grupo Compacto Humano in Pamplona Alta, Peru