A man on a mission

How Irish Columban Fr Tony Coney’s concern for disadvantaged children transformed many young lives in a poor area of Lima, Peru.

Fr Tony Coney in Lima, Peru. Photos: Asociación Civil Santa Bernadita, Atonio Saula SeetoFr Tony Coney in Lima, Peru. Photos: Asociación Civil Santa Bernadita, Atonio Saula Seeto

For me, life began at 40”, laughs Fr Tony Coney, remembering how he arrived in Lima on his 40th birthday. (In addition, the date was August 30, providentially the Feast Day of the city’s patron, St Rose of Lima.)

Tony came as a man with a mission. For years he’d dreamed of setting up a project to help needy children. He knew all about children, coming as he did from a family of seven. However, his interest in disadvantaged children sprang from his experiences as a newly ordained priest working in his native Belfast during the early 1990s where the poverty and violence of the Northern Irish “Troubles” had taken its toll especially on the young.

Tony was also inspired by the writings of pioneer Scottish educationalist A. S. Neill who, in his seminal work “Summerhill”, had advocated a completely new approach to rearing “difficult” children. “The idea was for those children to be given freedom, the scope for self-expression. This really resonated with me”, Tony recalls.

In Peru, he found himself in a huge parish on the northern outskirts of the capital where shantytowns sprawled endlessly over the barren hills. Here, the children suffered from poor diet, poor housing, poor education, poor everything.

Tony’s chance came in 1997. “A house became available. I bought it with my ordination money.” He made it into a day centre for needy youngsters. “We started with six volunteers and about 100 children. In a few months, we had 300. After a year, we had to extend. Irish Aid paid for the extension.”

Tony also increased the services on offer, employing psychologists, speech therapists and social workers. The latter staffed a “defence desk” to cater for children at risk. “Nowadays we receive up to 400 kids a day, from a weekly pool of 1,200.” As to the day-to-day activities, Tony has adopted the “A. S. Neill system”. “The kids do whatever they want - arts and crafts, play, homework, reading, theatre, music, dance, computers, and the lot. There are no ‘closed doors’. Children get the chance to BE children, with no adults telling them what they have to do.” Instead, the children themselves come together to agree on their own norms and rules.

Tony called it, St Bernadette’s Children’s Centre. Why choose St Bernadette? “After buying the house, I had no money to renovate it, so I wrote to my home parish in Belfast - St Bernadette’s. Theirs was the first donation I ever got, so I adopted their name.”

Overview of all three Centres in Lima, Peru. St Bernadette's Children's Centre is the yellow triangular construction on top of a hill. Photos: Asociación Civil Santa Bernadita, Atonio Saula Seeto

Overview of all three Centres in Lima, Peru. St Bernadette's Children's Centre is the yellow triangular construction on top of a hill. Photos: Asociación Civil Santa Bernadita, Atonio Saula Seeto

Unfortunately, from the outset, there was a problem which perhaps vexed Tony more than any other, and that was the ugly matter of child sex abuse. It soon became clear that this was rife in the area. Worse still, the abuser was often living under the same roof as the child. “The subject was ‘taboo’, no-one wanted to listen. Meanwhile, the kids remained in abusive situations”. Consequently, “the idea arose that we needed a residential home, where the child could be separated from the situation and get therapy until the legal set-up in the family could be resolved”.

And so, it was that a second centre was born, St Bernadette’s Home, with a 36-place capacity. “Now, attitudes have changed”, explains Tony. “People are more conscious of the problem and open to doing something about it. We work with the Government. They refer cases to us. We still meet with resistance, from the police for instance, but that’s where our defence desk comes in. We more or less force them to act.”

Meantime, St Bernadette’s Child Protection Programme seeks to combat the threat of child abuse in the wider community. “We go into schools, do formation courses for pupils, teachers and parents, get them to set up protection teams.” Up until now they’ve gone into some 30 schools and prepared thousands of children. “In 2019 we reached exactly 10,016 children”, adds Tony proudly. But, as you address one issue, another appears. Tony’s team quickly noticed that many of the youngsters in the day centre displayed learning difficulties not necessarily because they weren’t bright, but because of the emotional difficulties they were experiencing at home. This awareness moved Tony to found a third premises, St Bernadette’s Remedial School.

Here, he explains, children can “attend for a year or so, come up to standard and go back into mainstream education, given that they’ve often been thrown out of the state system because of low grades.” Up to 120 pupils at a time reap the benefits of this initiative. Taking stock after over 25 years, Tony’s dream has realized itself in the form of three centres, 65 paid staff and a child protection outreach programme, almost all financed by overseas donors (many of whom are The Far East magazine readers). He says that the priority now is, “to sustain all this. The goal is to make it permanent. We’ve achieved a lot, but…a way to go yet!”

Tony’s life may have begun at 40, but a great many people in Lima are hoping it’ll go on for a long time yet.

Columban Fr John Boles has worked in South America for the last 25 years.

In the words of a student:

For many years, Christina has been connected with St Bernadette’s Day Centre. This is what she told us.

“When I started school I went every day to the library in the Centre, where the staff helped me with my homework. They were very patient and I was able to go on learning. In the workshops, I learned how to make bracelets, necklaces, keyrings and many other things. 

At home, though, often I felt very lonely and sad because my parents separated and my Mum had to go out to work. Even now at times, I feel sad because I have several brothers and sisters and I have to look after the smaller ones and feel as if I’m the mother who has to do everything. It’s because of this that in the Children’s Centre I can forget all my sadness and problems.”

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