A Poor Church for the Poor

St Raimundo Nonato Church, Fortaleza, Brazil

Redemptorist Father Eamon Gowing from County Laois, Ireland, has spent almost 50 years living among the poor of Brazil. – It has been, he says, an incredible privilege.

Interview: Anne Staunton and Pat O’Sullivan

In the early 1970s, in Sao Raimundo parish in Fortaleza, a team of laywomen and laymen worked with you in the parish. Tell us about their work.

My first assignment in Brazil was to the parish of St Raimundo in Fortaleza. I was given charge of Bela Vista, the poorest area of the parish. At that time, Bela Vista was a shantytown of unpaved streets, improvised shacks and no sanitation. Besides my priestly work (my first Masses were said under a mango tree), I began organising the people to look for ways to improve their living conditions and fight for their rights.

One of my earliest memories is of inviting the mayor to visit the community. It was the rainy season, and the streets were a sea of mud. I had great satisfaction in meeting him at the entrance to the neighbourhood and telling him he would have to leave his car there and walk the rest of the way, which he did, trudging through muck almost up to his knees.

A problem aired at most of the community meetings was the number of children not going to school. We decided to set up a little school with young people from the community as volunteer teachers. The project went well, and a visiting Oxfam representative was duly impressed. He suggested setting up a team of young people to work full-time in developing the community. Two of the volunteer teachers were selected, and later on, two young men involved in community activities were added.

The team surveyed the community and found that inadequate housing and lack of health services were the most urgent needs.

Housing: In looking around for ways to help, we discovered that a Redemptorist brother in a neighbouring state had invented a system for making cement blocks that were much cheaper than the regular blocks on the market. Basically, he used less cement and vibrated the mixture, which produced a block slightly weaker than the regulation block but adequate for simple, one-storey houses. The team received a grant from Oxfam and set up the system in the community. Poor families could come at any time of the day or night to make blocks. For every 1,000 blocks made, 800 were theirs, and 200 were retained by the project and sold to restock cement and sand. In this way, a considerable number of families improved their houses, which gradually changed the appearance of the neighbourhood.

Basic medical services: A chance meeting with a professor at the medical department of the local university resulted in her bringing medical students under her supervision to attend the community. So now. the poor had access to basic medical care. A later development was the setting up of a nutrition centre. The professor was impressed by the large number of malnourished children in the community. With the help of the team and a grant from Oxfam, she set up a nutrition centre to help recuperate the most severely malnourished children. This centre undoubtedly saved the lives of many children and gave many more the chance of a healthy future.

During a period of five years, the team developed many other activities, such as adult literacy classes, vaccination campaigns, training courses for electricians, plumbers, and so on. When the Oxfam project ended, all four team members continued their involvement in community activities voluntarily.

Do you still remember the night in 1976 when you celebrated a prayer vigil for the families of political prisoners in St Raimundo church while the federal police were driving around the church with all sirens blazing? Can you paint of picture of what it was like and why you were supporting Women for Amnesty in a dictatorship?

Late one September night in 1976, a group of women appeared on the doorstep of the parish house in Fortaleza. They were members of a recently formed organisation, Women for Amnesty, and were asking permission to hold a prayer vigil in our church. This would not have been problematic in normal circumstances, but of course, the circumstances were anything but normal. The military dictatorship (1964-85) was in full swing, and any sign of opposition was brutally repressed, with arbitrary arrests, torture, assassinations, and ‘disappearances.’

Women for Amnesty was one of the first signs of organised civil opposition in Fortaleza. Their leader, Nildes Alencar, was a teacher and sister of Frei Tito OP. who was in jail for organising an underground escape route for political activists on the run. As it was a women’s organisation, there was a guarantee of a little more tolerance on the part of the regime. But the only way they could organise a public meeting was under the protection of the church. Hence the proposal of a prayer vigil.

This proposal posed quite a challenge for our Redemptorist community (Frs James Duggan, Pat O’Sullivan and myself). The women told us that several of the city’s more central churches had turned them down for fear of reprisal. And we, as foreigners, would be particularly vulnerable. We withdrew to think and pray about it and decided to give it our support.

The atmosphere throughout the vigil was very tense. Police cars were passing by with sirens blazing at full blast. At some stage, two men joined the vigil – obviously very out of place – and whispered alerts were passed around asking us to be careful about what was said as the men were believed to be taping the proceedings. But, fortunately, the vigil passed off without incident.

For some time afterwards we walked about and lived in fear of reprisals, but luckily there were no serious consequences. Women for Amnesty grew in importance nationally and was a major factor in the final defeat of the dictatorship.

I remember when Fr James Duggan and yourself moved to a shantytown in 1978. It was a monumental shift in pastoral vision for the Redemptorists at that time, and I know that it was something you had always wanted to do. What was driving you towards living the option for the poor in those years? Why was it such a significant move?

In 1978, the chapter of the Vice-Province of Fortaleza made a decision that involved a significant change in the pastoral vision of the Irish Redemptorist missionaries in Brazil. A resolution was passed that two confrères would be designated to open a new community in a slum for a period of five years. Until then, the missionaries lived in sizable communities (three members or more) and were mainly engaged in running parishes along the lines of traditional parish ministry. This move envisaged the religious living a poor lifestyle among the poor and working exclusively for the poor on the lines of basic Christian communities.

To my surprise and joy, I was one of the two chosen. The other was Fr James Duggan, RIP, from Blarney. We took up residence in an abandoned mud house in Palmeiras, one of the poorest communities on the periphery of Fortaleza. James was the cook, and I was the washer-up!

Palmeiras consisted of about 1,000 mud huts, no sanitation, unpaved streets, no public transport, precarious electricity and no public water supply. We began our ministry with Masses on street corners and a series of house meetings which started with a Bible reading and discussion, followed by a survey of community problems and how to tackle them.

On the religious front, there was a great demand for First Communions and Confirmations, so a series of catechism classes and a youth group were set up. On the social front, volunteer groups were organised to dig wells and construct primitive outdoor toilets. Materials were supplied by a grant from a voluntary group in Brasilia. Transport was a big problem, especially for health emergencies during the night. That question was partially solved by the archbishop donating an old car to the community, but it created another problem for the padres as they were the only drivers available. We were constantly being called out to do emergency runs to the hospitals and maternity (Three babies were born in the car!)

At the end of the five years, the Redemptorists withdrew from Palmeiras, but the original project continued on two fronts. First, by a stroke of luck, two Italian priests took over Palmeiras and continued the work along much the same lines. Second, the Redemptorists opened new communities in slums on the periphery of Fortaleza and Teresina, and this style of religious life and work has continued to this day.

I was posted to our Redemptorist parish in Teresina and assigned the task of finding a poor area in the city in which to found a community among the impoverished. Soon afterwards, in Fortaleza, two more communities were opened in poor neighbourhoods in Sao Miguel and Serviluz. In 1996, the present community of Luxou was founded, where Fr Martin Murray and I have been labouring for the last 25 years. On a personal level, I am grateful to superiors and confrères for giving me the privilege of being able to dedicate myself to the poor for practically all my 50 years on the mission in Brazil.

(Courtesy of Reality Magazine)