Friday, October 05, 2007

History of the Puerto Ocopa Orphange in Peru

History of the Puerto Ocopa Orphanage

I will be going to Peru in two weeks delivering supplies to several desolate projects we are involved with there. One of these projects is the Orphanage in Puerto Ocopa which is located 300 miles east of over the Andes Mountains. It is a long three day taxi drive to arrive there while moving supplies of food and clothes.

The following article was written last March and gives some more history about this forgotten Orphanage in the jungle.

Franciscan Mission cares for needy Peruvian children
By Barbara J. Fraser
Catholic News Service (

PUERTO OCOPA, Peru (CNS) – The morning mist still clings to the trees as more than a dozen girls line up on wooden pews in the chapel of an old Franciscan mission, and under the gaze of a statue of Jesus dressed in a white robe with bands of red, green and purple well-suited to the tropical climate of Peru's central jungle. Five Franciscan sisters care for nearly 100 children at the mission. Children arrive at the mission under different circumstances. Some come when they are newborns, while others are left at the mission because their families don't have enough food.

After prayer, songs, Communion and the kiss of peace, the children file into the cavernous dining room for a breakfast of oatmeal and bananas. They are joined by half a dozen older boys whose plates are heaped with rice in deference to their adolescent appetites. Amid a clatter of benches and a quick song of thanksgiving, the youngsters head downhill to the river to scour their tin plates and cups with fine, dark sand from the riverbank.

For nearly a century, the mission has taken in children from distant communities with exotic names such as Ucayali, Shanky, Jairikishi and Shevoja, who live half-hidden in the dense forest. Most are indigenous – mainly Ashaninka, with some Shipibos and members of other groups.

"They come speaking Ashaninka, and little by little they learn Spanish. And we learn Ashaninka," said Sister Nelida Vicente, superior at the mission. She and four other Franciscan nuns care for nearly 100 children during the school year. In January and February, the South American summer, most of the youngsters return home, but about 30 remain at the mission. "Sometimes we get newborns. The mother dies and they bring us the baby," she said.

The children stay through adolescence, attending grade school and high school in the tiny community of Puerto Ocopa, a river port reminiscent of an old Western movie set, but surrounded by lush jungle vegetation. A new vocational school offers courses in nursing, agriculture and animal husbandry, enabling youths to gain job skills without going to a distant town, a move that is often prohibitively expensive. Sister Nelida reminded the girls to change from skirts to shorts before picking up brooms and mops, then took time out to play a singing game with one of the mission's youngest residents.

By mid-February, she had already received 17 new children, and more were trickling in. This put the mission almost at capacity before the school year started March 1. "Some people bring us them because in their communities they don't have enough to feed them," she said. "A woman came this morning. It took her five days to get here."

Once a jumping-off point for Franciscan missionaries heading deeper into the Amazon, Puerto Ocopa is the end of the road in the rainy season. From there, boats crowded with people and goods head up and down the network of swift-flowing, chocolate-brown rivers that serve as highways in the Amazon.

Walter Mejia, 12, arrived at the home about six months ago after his mother died. "I like working in the garden best. I like being in nature," he said, although he hopes to grow up to be a doctor. The garden helps the mission stretch its meager budget. Sister Nelida said the children "plant it themselves and eat the bananas and cassava that they grow."

But food is a constant worry. Donations from a government nutrition program are insufficient. For 100 children, she calculated, she will need about five cases of evaporated milk per day at $30 a case. And that doesn't count other food, clothing and school supplies. There is barely enough for basics and nothing left over for frills.

For reasons of hygiene, she would like to upgrade the kitchen, a huge, brick room where food is prepared over an open fire. But she needs plywood and tile, and has no money. "If we had the materials, in 15 days the kitchen would be nice," she said. "If we get even tiny donations, we know how to stretch them."

The mission has a long history of welcoming people in need. Franciscans first arrived in the 1600s, but earthquakes destroyed the original buildings. Father Teodorico Castillo Corrales, 81, has worked at the mission for 50 years. He said the convent, which was rebuilt in 1918, is known as the "rescue mission" because the friars took in children "who were being traded or sold (into slavery), or who were condemned to death because they were suspected of witchcraft."

In 1947, another earthquake destroyed the buildings and flooded nearby towns. Ten years later, Father Castillo was sent to rebuild the mission. He also started agricultural programs to help the communities increase their income and improve their diet. But his plans were cut short by the eruption of political violence by the Shining Path, a Maoist insurgent group that had launched an armed uprising against the government in the 1980s.

"When the subversion came, everything came to an end," said Father Castillo, a tall, gray-haired, good-humored man whose vigorous gait belies his age. Members of the Shining Path abducted entire Ashaninka communities, indoctrinating young people into fighters and holding women in virtual slavery. Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimated that 10 percent of the Ashaninka people were killed during more than a decade of violence – a figure that constitutes genocide under international law. Most fled during those years, but Father Castillo stayed although the Shining Path threatened him and the military urged him to leave.

He took in refugees, and the mission's population swelled to about 1,000. On July 21, 1991, Shining Path members torched the wooden buildings in Puerto Ocopa, then headed toward the mission. Father Castillo watched from the second floor. "I thought my time had come," he said. But the subversives stopped at the foot of the stairs, talked among themselves, then slipped away into the woods, apparently aware that soldiers were pursuing them. Eventually the violence subsided, but that was followed by a cholera epidemic, measles and the problems that come with drug trafficking. Little has changed for the Ashaninka people, who still suffer from malnutrition and lack access to health care and education. But, Father Castillo said, "they know, from times past, that the mission will help them."

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Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops



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