Little Fathers at heart of slum's evolution into vibrant district

PERU LETTER: For nearly 60 years, dozens of Irish missionaries worked in a Peruvian slum, their efforts funded by parish collections…

PERU LETTER:For nearly 60 years, dozens of Irish missionaries worked in a Peruvian slum, their efforts funded by parish collections across Cork, writes TOM HENNIGAN

IT IS nearly 3pm and already the day is winding down in the small covered market in the centre of La Esperanza.

Most of the white-tiled counters are now empty, although some still have rows of whole plucked chickens spread out to tempt any last shoppers.

Women, who an hour before were serving up rich bowls of Andean stew to a steady stream of customers, are now sitting on the small stools having their own lunch.


I go up to one who seems bemused at the gringo wandering around the place and ask her if she knows anything about the Irish missionary priests who used to work in the neighbourhood.

My question seems to answer her own one about me and she smiles: “Ah! Los Padrecitos! Of course.”

Los Padrecitos – the Little Fathers. It is the name many of the locals use to refer to the dozens of Irish missionaries who for decades worked in La Esperanza, the poor desert periphery of Trujillo, Peru’s third largest city.

The name can only be affectionate as it is hard to imagine the Irish missionaries seemed anything other than tall in a country where height is not one of the national characteristics.

They first arrived in 1965 after the then bishop of Cork and Ross, Cornelius Lucey, agreed with the overwhelmed Peruvian church to help administer to the fast- growing slums around Trujillo.

The biggest of these, La Esperanza, had only 11 families in 1945. By the mid-1960s, the population was 50,000.

They were mainly subsistence farmers from high up in the Andes, drawn down to the city by the prospect of work and schools for their children. When they arrived, though, they had to live out in the desert on the edge of town.

The first houses were wicker huts in the sand with no water or electricity. There were no schools, nor even streets, and of course no churches.

So the Cork missionaries came and over the decades were at the heart of La Esperanza’s evolution from a desert slum of migrants into today’s poor but vibrant urban district of 150,000 people.

They built churches but also schools and clinics with the money taken up at collections in parishes across Cork. They opened soup kitchens for the poorest and organised workshops to teach local women dressmaking – and so might be inadvertently responsible for Trujillo’s thriving trade in fake football tops.

Over the decades, 55 priests from Cork and Ross spent time on the missions in the poorest of Trujillo’s neighbourhoods, acting as parish priests and community leaders. As well as their central role in La Esperanza, they experienced first hand some of the tumultuous events in Peru’s recent history.

In 1970, they organised relief efforts after a devastating earthquake left 60,000 dead across northern Peru.

In the 1980s, they faced death threats from the fanatical Maoist guerrillas of the Shining Path movement, which killed several foreign missionaries in other parts of the country during the vicious civil war.

The last of the Padrecitos left Trujillo in 2004 and the thriving parishes they built up out of the sand were turned over to the local church. Today just a handful of Irish nuns remains in the area.

Although gone, they are very much not forgotten.

In the Madre de Cristo parish office, the secretary, Anita, is typing up a leaflet to be handed out around the neighbourhood calling for people to attend a Mass for Padre Juan O’Callaghan, one of the missionaries now ill back home in Ireland.

“When my father was sick, Padre Juan helped out our family. They are all remembered here because they did so much,” she says.

She gets parish helper Amanda to bring me over to the Madre de Cristo church to show me its plaque commemorating Los Padrecitos.

Amanda says they are greatly missed. “I started working for the parish because they called for helpers. They came here from their country to help us so I started doing little chores to try and help them.”

She is a touch embarrassed when she has to rescue the plaque from on top of a cupboard in the small sacristy. Lest I get the wrong idea, though, she explains it had been on a wall recently demolished to make way for the church’s new baptismal alcove. So friendly and quiet- spoken until now, there is a touch of indignation when I ask her if they will put it back up.

“Of course! This is their church. They built this parish.” The parish priest is now a Peruvian. Padre William was educated in a school built by the Irish missionary and calls himself their “disciple”.

“All this that you see here today is thanks to the help from Ireland,” he says, as we look in at a classroom of 20 young kids in spotless uniforms sitting in front of their computers in the parish school while their teacher guides them through the day’s lesson.

Outside a group of mothers waiting to pick up their children laugh as they remember Corkmen with names such as Padres Miguel and Patricio and debate which one was it that would eat any exotic local delicacy put in front of him.

When her two young girls come charging out of the school gate, Marina makes to go. “We have good memories here of Los Padrecitos,” she says. “Thanks to them we are not as poor as we were. They made life better.”