By Mike Safley | February 11, 2012

Sister Antonia: Charity and Spirituality

By Mike Safley

Quechua Benefit has been fortunate to have been provided a vision of service by Don Julio Barreda, a Peruvian alpaca breeder, who inspired the charities beginning. Another figure, an American nun, Sister Antonia, provided a spiritual example for the charities work that has inspired our volunteers and given guidance to our interactions with the Quechua people. She died not long ago but Quechua Benefit continues to be animated by her memory.

In the Colca Valley of Peru, close to where Quechua Benefit built Casa Chapi a children’s village and health center, is the Catholic Church in Yanque where Sister Antonia used the courtyard to feed as many as 600 people per day for more than 30 years. With little more than two acres of garden and two green houses and no visible income she found a way to feed millions and millions of hot meals to people who would otherwise have gone hungry. When asked how she managed to fill the pots full of a rich broth and vegetables each morning she replied; “God provides.”

To a degree Sister Antonia life inspired the charity to become a non-denominational faith-based organization. The board wanted to welcome as many people as possible to serve the poorest people in Peru. As Quechua Benefit learns what it means to work as a faith-based charity in a foreign land we have taken many lessons from Sister Antonia’s life in Peru. We see how she brought her life experience as a Catholic nun to Peru and integrated herself into a life of service with a culture that was the antithesis of her early years in Brooklyn New York.

There are many lessons to be learned from Sister Antonia. The following text is adapted from a moving essay on her life in Peru by María Angélica Matarazzo de Benavides (Lima, April 2012):

Antonia was born Dorothy Kayser on July 17th, 1924 in New York City. The youngest of three children, her father died when Antonia was 10 months old. During her childhood she was very poor and lived with her mother, sister, and brother in the Bronx in New York City. During the 1930s, the years of the Great Depression, Antonia had to stand in line for food distributed to poor families. Antonia’s family was very religious. Her older sister also became a nun and, eventually, a Mother Superior, living in a cloistered convent in Brooklyn, New York.

After arriving in Peru, she worked with priests and nuns from MaryKnoll in Juli. During this period she began to learn about the indigenous culture and customs of the Quechua and Amarya. These included the belief that people have several souls and when one sleeps, a “soul” can travel freely in the highlands and appear like a strange package to travelers. The unwary on opening such a package, would be killed by the “soul.” In the highlands people also believed that a Franciscan friar could be heard ringing a bell and asking for alms, and that the souls of the departed, especially of those who died after committing the sin of incest, roamed the Puna (high plains) forever.

When mass was held in the church, Antonia participated in religious chants in Quechua. She spoke Quechua with the people, especially older women who did not speak Spanish. If there was no priest available, Antonia would celebrate traditional religious ceremonies such as the blessing of the Cervantes Bridge during Carnival, or the prayer service held on the Monday following Easter Sunday, when the relatives of all those who had died the previous year set up “altars” inside the church with newly harvested produce which was then donated to the parish and the catechists.

Whenever a problem arose in the village, Antonia always took the side of the weakest. Although she instilled in people the spirit of struggle for the rights of the poor, she was sometimes discouraged when the villagers lost faith in that struggle.

Antonia got along well with the Protestant missionaries. She had been a friend of the missionaries who worked in Yanque when Father Paul and his team moved there. When the missionaries left Yanque in the 1970s, they had trained a local group in the doctrine they taught.

In Canacota, a very poor village in the district of Chivay, located on the road to Tuti, there was a young Protestant missionary, called Lillian. She moved around on a motorcycle and came to visit the Sisters in Yanque quite often. Antonia used to treat her very well. At one time, Lillian rented a room in Yanque, but I do not remember if she proselytized there.

Antonia was tolerant about aspects of Andean religiosity that were unrelated to the teachings of Christ. She thought that this happened partly because in the past some priests had charged excessively to administer sacraments and celebrate masses, encouraged celebration of the saints’ feasts, which brought money to the parishes, but failed to teach the real spiritual message of Christianity.

Antonia said that she felt the presence of God more in the countryside, in the open air, than in a church. She loved to work in the garden. She had great faith in God and in the teachings of Christ.

One of the MaryKnoll nuns, Sister Aurelia Atencio, accompanied Antonia to the hospital during her last illness and said, “that the pain was so severe it made her feel helpless.” She was soon at peace, however, as she passed away on July 8, 2010, surrounded by two priests who were her friends and several nuns of her congregation.

Antonia’s wake was first held in Arequipa, and the following day in Yanque, where a large funeral service was held. She was buried in the Yanque cemetery, and rests beside Sister Sara Kaithathera.

Sister Antonia’s life was one of strong faith in God and a belief that charity and tolerance were an important part of her faith. She welcomed anyone who would serve the poor. Quechua Benefit will do well by learning from her life.

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