By Mike Safley
Sister Antonia Kayser is a plucky 81 year-old Catholic nun with a secret. Born and raised in the borough of Brooklyn, New York she is a member of the Maryknoll Order. Sister Antonia has been feeding 800 dirt-poor people a day since 1973 from the courtyard of the church in Yanque, a small town in the Colca Valley of Peru. Antonia does this five days a week, year in year out. On Saturday she feeds 400 more-young children who rarely get enough to eat. If you were to do the math you would find that over the years, Antonia has provided hungry men, women, and children with nearly 6 million individual meals. She is legendary in the Colca Valley. I asked an Indian woman from the far end of the Valley, many hours away from Yanque, if she knew Sister Antonia. She replied, “I know of her-she is the nun who feeds people.”
“How do you feed all of those people?” I asked. Sister Antonia replied by having the gardener show me the green houses where the vegetables grow, and said, “come back tomorrow at daybreak.” I arrived as the mist was limping away from the morning sun in the town square. It is a very simple operation. A dozen gigantic soot-stained pots are filled with vegetables from the garden; add a little meat and gallons of water roped from the church’s hand-dug well. After simmering for hours, the soup is ladled out to the line of women and children who gather on the other side of the courtyard’s heavy wrought iron gate before dawn waiting, silently, patiently, for the gate to swing open, each clinging to a piece of dry cow dung or a tree branch to fuel the cook fire; it is their contribution to the meal. Antonia keeps a notebook with a checklist of people, the poorest of the poor, who get a ration for each person in their family. They sign in, their pail is filled, and they fade into the dawn. I asked Sister Antonia how she had supported this program for so many years. She replied, “God provides.”
I met Sister Antonia while working with the Quechua Benefit not long after we began our annual dental trips to the towns of the Colca Valley. But this story is not about pulling teeth. It is about the Cuy’s magical juxtaposition with modern medicine—about Antonia’s belief that the Cuy has cured her ills and prolonged her life.
I sat down for tea in the front room of Sister Antonia’s spartan quarters, the former sacristy of the church in Yanque with its white, cut-stone towers visible for miles. The entry door opens from a courtyard that is flanked by the greenhouses that grow vegetables for the daily offerings. The morning sun traced squares, filtered by the wood-framed window, on the worn planks of the kitchen table.
Sister Antonia was animated and full of enthusiasm for the day. I asked after her health. She turned 81 in 2005. “It’s great!” she said, “I have discovered a special remedy for all that ails me.”
Her blue eyes flashed conspiratorially when she leaned forward and said, “It’s the Cuy.”
Cuy? “Do you eat it?”
“Oh my no, we use it like a wha-ch‘a call it? CAT-scan.”
“Yes, Sister Maria at the Maryknoll house in Arequipa is an expert at using Cuy to diagnose disease.”
“Oh my yes, she learned it from the Quechua women,” said Sister Antonia.
“How does it work?” I asked.
“Well you start with a fat, well-fed Cuy and you put it in a little cloth sack and place it over the important areas of your body, like the heart.”
Finally, I had to ask, “What is a Cuy?”
“A guinea pig,” she laughed, her bent spine twisting with mirth.
“A guinea pig?” I asked, not sure I had heard correctly.
“Oh yes, it’s actually very simple,” she said. “You just hold it on the problem areas for about an hour or so at each spot.”
Guinea pigs were first domesticated by the Indians of South America thousands of years ago. Also known as a cavy, a grown guinea pig weighs 2 pounds, is from 8-14 inches long and stands a few inches tall, living on the dirt floors and in the bedding of their Quechua keepers. They are the preferred prey of every known Peruvian predator, but the petite pigs survived by breeding at a young age and producing large litters. They have long been associated with healing powers, and almost every tourist visiting Peru has been offered this most traditional of delicacies for dinner.
“These guinea pigs, they cure you?” I asked.
“Oh no, it’s not that easy. Once she passes the Cuy over your body, Sister Maria slits its throat and dissects it—first the heart, then the lungs, bowels and so on.”
I tried to picture this nun, scalpel in hand, dispatching a clueless Cuy. I thought about Sister Antonia who rode the winds of fate to Lima, Peru in 1973, where she chose to live for five years, tending the sick and learning Spanish. From there she was called to Puno and spent another 5 years learning Aymara. But it was in Yanque that her heart and soul found a home some 17 years ago. Here she learned to speak Quechua and has never left the humble town for more than a few days. I was dumbfounded by what this gentle Maryknoll sister, with her close-cropped, elf-like, white hair told me next.
“Sister Maria studies the Cuy’s corpse and if she sees heart damage she gives you one remedy, if the guinea’s stomach has ulcers she prescribes something else. Maria has a remedy for every condition, in every part of the body.”
By now confused, I asked, “Do you mean to say that while the Cuy rests on your chest its body replicates any symptoms that you might have?”
“Oh yes, like I said, it’s a physical form of CAT-scan.”
“Really,” I murmured.
“Oh I know it’s hard to believe but it’s true, I have proof!”
“Really,” I murmured again.
“I was in pretty bad shape a while back, she said, and the sisters in Arequipa insisted that I come to the city to see a doctor. When I arrived, Sister Maria suggested I try the Cuy. I did and sure enough she found my problem. It was right there to see in the Cuy’s corpse!”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I took the potions she gave me and immediately began to feel better.”
“Really…” I thought about Antonia’s evangelistic belief in the Cuy’s power and her renewed health. I began to sense another force was at work.
“Here is the good part,” she said with her Brooklyn accent still resonant. “My fellow sisters insisted I go over to the hospital and see the doctor; they were skeptical of Sister Maria you know. I had to keep the whole gang happy so I went.”
Her eye’s lit up, and this tiny bundle of radiance, who feeds 800 people a day at no charge, finished her story.
“When the doctor gave me his diagnosis it was exactly as Maria had said just two days before! That’s how I know it’s true,” she beamed.
Sister Antonia, who many people in the Colca Valley believe to be a living saint, is healthy and vibrant today. Her frail frame may be spent, but her spirit is young. And in the corner of her yard, by the sunlit quarters off the chapel of the church in Yanque, are some of the best fed guinea pigs in all of Peru. I know that this wisp of a woman from Brooklyn believes that the Cuy keep her alive. But I believe it is God’s hand. There are so many people to feed, you see.