“This Really Happened: One Missionary’s Story of Transformation,” by St. Joseph Sister Kathleen Judge; Good Ground Press; 2011; 198 pp., $15.
As a child, St. Joseph Sister Kathleen Judge listened when her Irish immigrant father made up stories, saying: “Where should we go today, what land shall we visit?”And she dreamed about living in a land far away. When she attended school, Weekly Readers’ stories further invited her to foreign lands, particularly countries in exotic South America.
So, it wasn’t such a huge step when the small-town girl from Malta, Mont., decided to join the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, and then spent 40 years ministering to people in Peru and Venezuela. At least it seemed natural to young Kathleen, who emulated the early sisters who came to teach in Malta.
Sister Kathleen tells her story in her book, “This Really Happened: One Missionary’s Story of Transformation,” published in 2011 by Good Ground Press. The 198-page book is written in a conversational style and reads much like Sister Kathleen talks. It is quiet, but powerful in the stories it tells. Sister Kathleen is kind and gentle as she talks about the Peruvian people, yet her pervasive message, that poverty “is a social sin when it deprives persons of their basic rights,” is direct and unrelenting.
Journey begins in Peru
Her journey to Peru began in 1964, when she studied Spanish for four months in Puerto Rico. Her first assignment was in Ica, a city located in a wealthy farming area south of Lima. There, Sister Kathleen first recognized the dichotomy between faith and life in Peru.
Although the school served the children of both the wealthy landowners and the poor farmworkers, the mixing of social strata stopped at the classroom door. In the book, Sister Kathleen describes these first years of missionary work as pivotal, a time when she realized that true missionary work meant meeting the challenge of the “conflict between the privileged classes and the oppressed.”
After a brief period of missionary work in Venezuela and a return to the United States, in 1970 Sister Kathleen returned to “a different Peru,” a country changed by an anti-American military coup, a terrorist group and a devastating earthquake.
Throughout most of the ‘70s, she served as formation director for women entering religious life, an assignment that led her to further studies, including studying Jesuit spirituality and later studying with Gustavo Gutierrez, the founder of liberation theology in Latin America.
Sister Kathleen explained that liberation theology was developed in response to the fact that 60 percent of the population lived in poverty, and more than three-fourths of those people lived in extreme poverty.
A new lifestyle
Those studies continued to form Sister Kathleen’s conscience and, as a missionary, she realized that she would have to disassociate herself from the policy of the U.S. government in Peru, which favored U.S. corporate growth over Peruvian citizens’ lifestyle. She also mistrusted the local church when its clerical leaders sided with the wealthy.
She describes the time from 1978 until 1993 that she spent in and near Arequipa, in southern Peru, as “some of the most rewarding years of my life.”
She helped lay people form parish councils, organized communication networks and set up a silk screen workshop to print posters advertising parish activities.
She took part in many Peruvian religious feasts and celebrations, organized breakfast programs for the area’s poor children and set up a daycare program to help mothers care for their children while they tried to sell small trinkets on the streets.
She taught in public and private schools in Peru, and even managed to have poor children educated in the private schools.
Threats from within
At that time, she and other Catholic religious, along with active Catholic lay people, faced threats from a subversive political organization called the Shining Path. The group attempted to overthrow the government by winning over the poor farm workers. It then infiltrated the professionals, including teachers, lawyers and medical personnel.
Shining Path members instilled fear by destroying power lines, planting car bombs and robbing banks. They also attempted to destroy the Catholic Church in Peru. At one point, Sister Kathleen’s life was threatened and she had to leave Peru briefly, but then returned to a different part of the country where she could teach.
Sister Kathleen said that wealthy landowners treated their farmworkers unjustly, and part of her mission was to seek justice for the poor. To practice the church’s teachings on a preferential option for the poor, she and other religious lived among the poor for whom they worked.
Sadly, she said, when she left Peru after working 40 years for social change, the poverty level was “worse than ever.” She began to ask if there is a world plan to keep the ignorant ignorant and the poor poor.
Yet, she said that the relationships and generosity she experienced in Peru have convinced her that although economically poor, the people she worked with are blessed with inner peace and freedom.
Category: World Mission Sunday