Life is not quite like that
When Clotilde Nonato was a small girl living on one of the huge cotton farms, “haciendas”, a few kilometres north of Lima her grandparents would tell her about life when they were still black slaves.
Clotilde was born in 1900. Her surname is significant - “not born”. It refers to Caesarean section or literally not born naturally. It is unknown whether this refers directly to Clotilde or her lineage. Aged 19 years her parents arranged her marriage to an older man. She bore him two children and then discovered that he had other women, so with her children, she left the hacienda to make a life for herself in Lima.
The 1920s in Lima were anything but dull – rise of the urban working class, emerging new political movements and the beginnings of the movement of country people to the big city. Clotilde found work as a butcher in a local market in an area that became, under Columban missionary auspices, the parish of San Martin de Porres.
She worked hard at her trade for many years but had to retire in her 70s when a stroke paralysed the arm she used to swing the meat axe. She never entrusted herself to another man but she did have three more partners and bore a total of 14 children. She loved life and lived it to the full in a variety of ways.
Hers was a hard life but she never became a hard woman, but was she tough! - tough and loving. She had a deep faith in God and expressed her faith via the forms of popular religious practice typical of Peruvian Catholicism.
Being black she was a devotee of Martin de Porres, who was canonised in 1962, the year she turned 62 years of age. She was also a parishioner of the first parish ever named after San Martin de Porres. In fact, the parish was called Blessed Martin before he was declared a saint.
Fr John O’Connell was the Columban parish priest who oversaw to completion the magnificent church built to honour the new saint. When John’s mother died during his first year on mission and just before Christmas, Clotilde told John that she would adopt him as her son and treated him as such until she died.
She looked after a few other priests too, including yours truly. One weekday morning I was on the 7.00 a.m. mass and the readings were about love, so I preached on that topic. After Mass Clotilde sidled up to me and complimented me on the sermon and then added that life is not quite like what I had said or implied. She went on to tell me about her life. For a long time after that I shied away from talking about love in my sermons.
At the end of the day, Clotilde’s biggest impact on me was her belief in the risen Christ and her capacity to continue loving to the end. Abandonment, hardship, disappointment and loneliness did not stop her walking that path. Tough and loving to the end she stands high in Columban memory.
Clotilde died in 1989.
Note by Fr Leo Donnelly, Lima, Peru, on Martin Varela
This portrait of Clotilde Nonato was painted by Martin Varela. It has been thanks to Columban benefactors that he is becoming a real success as a painter. Five years ago his first painting, Washing of the feet was featured on the cover of The Far East. It was this painting that attracted our interst in helping him with his studies in Fine Arts here in Lima. He gained entrance into The Catholic University in Lima. While studying he has produced more than thirty commissions, sold mostly in Australia but also in Ireland and Peru. At this point his strength seems to be in portraiture but he is also proving adept at scenery.
Fr Peter Woodruff SSC first went to Peru in1968 and is now based in Australia at the Columban Mission Centre in Essendon, Victoria.
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