Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 6, 2004
Woman learns from Peruvian poor
By BILL GLEN
WCR Staff Writer
Agathe Swiderski returned to Edmonton recently after spending seven weeks in a remote Peru mission run by two members of the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception. Time enough, she said, to alter her life forever.
Swiderski has been a lay associate with the order for 11 years. She continues to volunteer at St. Matthew's Parish with RCIA and at the inner-city Bissell Centre doing some 30 haircuts every Tuesday.
Having lost two husbands to cancer, she says the only way she feels truly happy is when she is giving of herself.
"When John - my second husband - died two years ago, I decided to give my life up to God," she said. "I have more of an awareness now of how precious life is. I have found through my losses that in the giving, I receive."
Swiderski answered a call by the order to come to Otuzco, a mountainous village northeast of Lima, to serve with Sisters Muriel Buckley, 65, and Rita Coumont, 62. Some 600 people live in the village and the surrounding mountains (sierra). Swiderski described the living conditions as dirt poor.
"Villagers try to be self-sufficient by raising meagre crops and a few chickens and cows, then travelling to Cajamarca (about 30 km) to sell at market every Monday," Swiderski said. "They live on rice, potatoes and corn. They grow herbs and other things but they take the better crops to market to sell."
The sisters are responsible for Otuzco getting running water three years ago. There is no indoor plumbing, only a main line with a tap for cold water the locals can access. The sisters boil the water twice before using, but the locals do not.
"The people of Otuzco live in dirt huts with dirt floors," Swiderwski said. "All the while, the valleys below are fertile and rich with vegetation. But they are owned by the wealthy. They look at the green valleys every day, but the local people remain happy. They have such richness in their simplicity."
When she arrived in Otuzco, Swiderski was taken by the setting and the culture.
Swiderski was struck by a poem that said the first task in approaching another people, culture and religion is to take off your shoes, for the place you are approaching is holy. God was present before you arrived.
"Not only did I feel like taking off my shoes, I actually gave them to an elderly woman who came down the mountain one morning," she said. "She was in her 80s and she was very cold because the mountains are very chilly in the spring. They have no heating.
"She knocked on the door and Rita recognized her. We made her some tea, fed her some buns and dressed her. She had a poncho, but only a little shirt beneath. We gave her a warm sweater to wear and we put another in her bag with two pairs of socks. I gave her my sandals. That made me very happy."
Until recently, Buckley and Coumont travelled by horse.
"People come to them for everything. The sisters are true missionaries. They have been in Otuzco for 15 years and the people love them."
There is a primary and a secondary school in Otuzco and others in the sierra where the nuns travel to teach catechism and visit the children. They help young people prepare for the sacraments.
"I found my encounters with the locals so rewarding. I came back home wanting to do more for Muriel and Rita. I mean, $25 here means so much to the mission. We can help them with very little," Swiderski said.
"The mission has increased my own spiritual awareness of what is on the other side of the planet. There is so much poverty. The children do not ask to be born in a Third World country. We are so lucky."
Swiderski went wherever she was needed. She cooked for the sisters. She prayed with them; laughed with them; cried with them. She brought supplies and candies to the schools.
"I was giving but I got so much in return," she said. "It's so true that you see God in the poor. To be in their setting was a revelation."
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