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Missionary news

News   -  09  ( 10.12.2005 )

Mission and Spirituality
in Colombia

Damaso Zuazua, ocd - Secretary for the Missions


          The Carmelite Missions cover many geographical areas: Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe …They are developing in different contexts and situations, sometimes in emergency situations, striving continuously to be inculturated, but always with the commitment to serving the Church and society, especially the poor.  The missions force us to think about our neighbours.  Together with our prayers, our missions are the most important element of the Order.


          I touched down this time in Colombia.  The former classical missionary location of this country for us Carmelites was the Apostolic Prefecture of Uraba (1918-1941), amidst the indigenous people, in the gulf of Darian.  Then, from 1954 on, it became the diocese of Tumaco on the Pacific coast with Bishop Mgr. Gustavo Giron Higuita, which gave birth to further growth that we will now speak about.


          The Boyaca Area


          What is particularly interesting about the people from this area is the way they speak Spanish, which seems frozen in time and would have been more familiar to the ears of St. Teresa.  This region is in the centre of the country, and East of the Andes.  It extends over 23,189 square kilometers, with an approximate population of 1,200,000.  The administration is divided into 123 municipalities.  The city of Tunja is the capital of the area.  Agriculture and cattle farming are the principle sources of income. The natural resources consist of coal, chalk, lime, as well as emeralds and oil. There is also an iron and steel industry, commercial development, a tourist industry and in recent times a fabric industry.


          The indigenous population is 2,000 people.  There are 35 hospitals in the area, 3 clinics, 37 health centres, 186 other kinds of health centres, 254 doctors attached to 2,403 centres.  Houses with running water represent 61.5% of the total, and 87.7% have electricity.  46.8% of the population live below the poverty line. 15.75% over the age of 15 cannot read or write.


          We now come to the history of this land.  For the Muiscas Indians, who live here, this land is considered to be paradise on earth.  According to a local tradition Adam and Eve used bathe in the water of the local lake.  2,500 years ago, these same indigenous people built a sanctuary here dedicated to the sun-god.  Explorers and archaeologists have successfully saved more than 50 columns of the colossal temple.  They also found an observatory.  In the area there is a 280 million year old dinosaur fossil.  The whole area contains many fossils making it a place of particular interest.


Villa de Leyva


            Less than 200 kilometers from Bogotá, and 2,145 meters above sea level, is the historical, enchanting and haunting town of the Boyacan people.  It was founded in 1572 by Andrew Diaz Venero from Leyva, who gave the place its name.  Here I met the most splendid example of colonial art in the whole of Colombia. It is a city of 7,000 people who all live in very simple and similar houses: white walls with green balconies and verandas, every building the same style and colour. The streets and squares are paved. Yes Villa de Leyva was once a place where people came to relax and today attracts many tourists who stand opened mouthed in admiration. It is understandable that the local artisan industry should be really thriving.  


          At the time of the Republic of the New Granada those involved in the Independence movement passed through this place: Bolivar, Narino, Caldas, Fernandez Madrid… It was here that the Council or Assembly of the Republic met in 1812 to affirm the sovereignty of the Republic of Colombia.


          Villa de Leyva is without doubt one of the most Carmelite cities in the world. The convent of our Carmelite nuns dates from 1645.  Its most precious relic is between the painting of our Lady and a statue of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, and is called the “Mechudita”.  But the vitality of the convent is really to be seen in the community of 25 nuns.  They have made other foundations in Colombia, together with other communities. 


          In front of the nuns is the Priory of the Carmelite Friars.  They came here at the insistence of the nuns in 1911.  It has always been the Novitiate.  There are wide verandas, covered with potted plants and flowers, a reflection of the five novices. The Priory has organized an interesting Carmelite museum.


          There is a hotel-welcome centre, called “Duruelo”, surrounding the house.  It was built by the Carmelites and is a good source of income. It is good for tourism and a source of employment for the town. This place is one of solace for the spirit, to meet God while relaxing and surrounded by beauty.  The income contributes to the expenses of the formation of the young Carmelites.  The architecture is impressive, cleverly combining space and depth with concrete. It has a capacity for 380 guests and is a good place for meetings and conventions.


The “St. Teresa of Avila” Foundation


            I would like to speak now about the blessed Saint Joseph and Fr. Joseph Arsesio Escobar.  The Patriarch of Nazareth works here unceasingly.  Also if you ask him unceasingly he will obtain many miracles.  Fr. Joseph Arsesio Escobar is a Colombian Carmelite who has the rare ability to convert dreams and utopias into reality…with the inestimable help of the “our most glorious Father Saint Joseph”. The words are from St. Teresa (Life 36:5) that are repeated in our day here in this mission of Villa de Leyva.


          Joseph Arsesio Escobar began a difficult and dangerous ministry to which he was extremely committed in helping prostitutes and children who were abused. The missionary work of Villa de Leyva began a long time ago, but in 1995 the community began working with poor families living on the outskirts of the town.  The work consists in helping these people to build homes.  Fr. Joseph Arsesio, Director of Novices since 2000, gets his novices to help these poor people build houses.    


          Distance was a problem.  In order to overcome this the community bought a piece of land close to the novitiate.  And in 2003 they created the “St. Teresa of Avila” foundation. The following year they were given permission by the State to begin the work.  The local Bishop of Chiquinquira was also involved.  Thanks to God’s providence and the intercession of St. Joseph they were able to buy this land.  Already it is functioning as a health centre.  A mother protecting her abused children keeps vigil over the property.  There is also a kindergarten attended by more than 70 children, with 5 adults looking after them. 


          In the same building they are constructing “St. Joseph’s shelter” for poor abandoned and infirm, elderly people: there are presently16 residents and 30 coming for day care.  The Sisters who run the centre live on the first floor.  A common chapel is used together with a spirituality centre, where there is perpetual adoration, space for retreats, spiritual exercises, and days of prayer… There is a plan to create a place of contemplation, a workshop for local crafts, and a fossil museum to attract visitors.  They are planning to build 20 new houses for poor and single parent families.


          The whole of Leyva town is following enthusiastically the developments of this bold undertaking.  After the Sunday Eucharist the people sell food and drink to raise funds for the project.  There is a great spirit of family among all those involved.  The “St. Teresa of Avila” foundation is a work of the Spirit, and of God’s providence. 


The Apostolic Carmel of Our Lady of Bethlehem


            It is the title of a Carmelite Congregation founded in 1852 in Nantes (France) by Fr. Gilbert Bauduz and Marie Guillet, a member of the secular order.  It is an Institution that has developed over the years and has always been oriented towards Carmel.  Its basic apostolate is looking after problem children and their families.  They will be taking up the challenge in Leyva town at the “St. Teresa of Avila” foundation.  Their tasks will be many: as there are no limits when one is ministering to the poor to promote religion and basic human needs.


          This is the first time that the Congregation has left France and its first missionary adventure.  But the “St. Teresa of Avila” foundation was born of faith and will continue in faith.  For this reason, only in faith have the Sisters, without any international experience till now, accepted this undertaking. It will be a new chapter in the history of their Congregation.  But the three or four sisters who will come here next September are ready to meet the challenges that the future holds for them.


          In this exploratory visit I accompanied their General and her Assistant.  The entire Carmelite family in Colombia, individuals and Church groups, welcomed them and showed a great deal of interest in what they were about to undertake. It was as if they were a kind of guarantee to the local people that what they were doing was working.  The visiting Sisters were duly impressed. The local Bishop saw in them a bridge to establish a scheme to twin the dioceses of Chiquinquira and Nantes.


          Anything we can do is a contribution for the mission to the Church in Latin America. It is important that we respond to the warning of the Puebla document (1979): “If the Church does not reinterpret the religion of the Latin-American people, it will produce a vacuum that will be occupied by sects, messianic secular politics, consumerism that produces disgust and indifference or a harvest of pagan sexuality…”  (pg. 469).  The “St. Teresa of Avila” foundation is for the body as well as the soul; it is for those who are marginalized in society.  It is a mission with spirituality: here, in Colombia, in Villa de Leyva, one kilometer from the centre.  I would like to repeat my earlier conviction: this work was born of faith, and is developing in faith.  It is an undertaking that has been blessed by God for the future.  In imitation of St. Teresa, in the great times of her foundations, here too St. Joseph has been accredited as the Protector.



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Updated 10 dic 2005  by OCD General House
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