Meet two of my Missionary friends

Sylvia Thompson, Fr Chris Baker & Sylvia Thompson in Peru,  Georgina Barrientos - Photos: Fr Chris BakerSylvia Thompson, Fr Chris Baker & Sylvia Thompson in Peru,  Georgina Barrientos - Photos: Fr Chris Baker

Our good friend, the risen Lord, leads us to work together with his other friends. Reflection convinces me that such meetings are no accident.

The long journey to meet my first missionary friend began in 1950. Immediately after being ordained a priest in Melbourne, I was on board HMS Strathmore, heading to Rome for further Theology and Scripture studies.

On the day I reached Rome, I joined thousands inside St Peter’s Basilica on the eve of the Definition of the Assumption of Our Lady. The next morning, Monsignor John Dooley and I were back in the Basilica for the Definition by Pope Pius XII.

To mark the occasion, the Gregorian University asked a student from each continent to tell of Our Lady’s role in his continent. Perhaps because of my recent arrival, they asked me to speak for Australia. An Irish newspaper reported the talks, so my mother used that newspaper to find out if and where some of her long-sought Thompson relatives lived. The following year, I visited the Columbans in Ireland. I also met some relatives, including the Limerick family of Noel and Gertrude Thompson, with a baby daughter called Sylvia. We then kept in touch, and Sylvia grew up to be my first missionary friend of the story.

Meeting my second friend happened this way. I was appointed in 1955 to teach Scripture at St Columban’s College in Turramurra NSW, where I spent 22 fruitful years. After helping to form young men for the missionary life, I was appointed to Lima, Peru. Once I had learnt enough Spanish in Cochabamba, Bolivia, I was ready for pastoral work in the Blessed Sacrament parish in Condevilla, an emerging suburb of Lima.

At the far end of the parish, I met Georgina Barrientos with her parents and their large family. Georgina emerged as my second missionary friend in this story. She was a teenager who started a group called Christos Jovenes in response to a Spanish hymn, ‘The World Needs Young Christs’. We had meetings in a local home for a few years to deepen our faith and outreach to others. Georgina herself entered a religious congregation. After some ten years, she decided to leave it and return to continue her work in Condevilla.

In 1989, I was back in Ireland at our Columban seminary in Dalgan Park, Navan, as editor of Columban Intercom. One of my former students in Turramurra, Noel Connolly, had also moved to Ireland as Vicar General of our Society. He told me he had spoken to Sylvia Thompson at a Pax Christi meeting and that she was living in Belfast. On visiting her, I found that by now, she was a highly qualified speech therapist working in a large Belfast hospital. But another motive for her being in Belfast was to further the work of Pax Christi to establish peace among the armed factions fighting each other in those troubled times. Her group went to console, and pray with, any family on either side if they had lost a loved one to violence.

By 2000, I was back in Peru as parish priest of Virgin Mediatrix, one of the poorest parishes in the Archdiocese of Lima. Some parents had disadvantaged grownup sons and daughters without any school education. They invited me and a Mercy Sister, Millie McNamara, to join them in founding the Association for People with Special Abilities – ASPHAD. It was for those disadvantaged people aged 18 years of age or more. We bought a family home with one storey finished.

Gradually we built it up to become the four-storied ASPHAD Centre. It had facilities for ten small workshops to help the students develop their unique abilities and self-esteem. We needed teachers for each workshop, so Georgina Barrientos joined us to teach them how to use sewing machines and make simple things for sale. She worked with us for many years, active also in the wider mission of the Association. She was elected its president for a term.

In 2003, after returning the parish to the Archdiocese, I lived permanently in the Columban Centre House at Sol de Oro, Lima. There, while I continued with ASPHAD, I became more involved in the work of our two big projects next door. One was the Manuel Duato Special School, established for children from zero years to 18. It had grown to have around five hundred children on its campus, while its teachers also helped hundreds of students with lesser disabilities in surrounding schools. The other was the Centre for Mission Education and for Columban Mission Co-workers. In due course, Georgina also enrolled as one of the co-workers.

Sylvia Thompson visited me in Lima about twenty years after our meeting in Belfast. She wanted to see the wonders of Peru but also to assess the possibility of using her professional skills to help people with special needs in both ASPHAD and Manuel Duato. She returned to Lima in 2013 to work for three years as a volunteer at ASPHAD and Manuel Duato. She helped enormously with speech therapy and in many other ways. The Spanish she had learnt in Ireland let her communicate pleasantly with teachers, children and their mothers alike. She also became a Columban Mission Co-worker, going out with Georgina each Sunday to lead the liturgy with a small community on the outskirts of Lima. Once a month, I went with them to celebrate Mass and share in friendly formation. That bonded Georgina, Sylvia and me still more for working together in ASPHAD on the weekdays.

As usually happens among missionary friends, we parted ways when Sylvia returned to Ireland, and in 2018 I retired to Australia. We are grateful, however, to our Good Friend, for his promise to the sad Apostles just before he completed his mission on earth: “In my Father’s house there are many rooms, … I am going now to prepare a place for you, and … I shall return to take you with me, so that where I am, you also may be.” (Jn 14,2-3). 

Columban Fr Chris Baker lives and works in Australia.

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