By Mike Safley
“The two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day you realize what you were born to do.” When I first read this thought-provoking quote, often mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain, my mind wandered to my own life and then to the life of Quechua Benefit, which turns 25 years old in 2021.
For Quechua Benefit the answer to the first question is easy. It was the day Don Julio Barreda, a world-famous alpaca breeder, asked me if there was anything that people in other countries could do to help the poor in his community, Macusani, a remote Andean village perched at 14,750 feet elevation, just below the icy mountaintops that melt into the Amazon River basin far below.
Sister Antonia in the sacristy of the church in Yanque, 1999
The answer to the second question took more thought.
When did Quechua Benefit truly learn what it was born to do?
I think the second answer began to unfold the day I met SisterGeorge Anthony Kayser or “Antonia,”a Maryknoll nun from Brooklyn, New York, who lived in the 16th century church sacristy on the central plaza in the Colca Valley town of Yanque, Peru. Sister Antonia was dedicated to improving the lives of the poorest Quechua women and children, and she was the living embodiment of Anita Canfield’s observation that, “You were born to bless the lives of others. You were born to make a contribution.”
Antonia’s compassion for the poor was like a warm ray of sunshine falling on an otherwise cold reality. Her stock and trade was hot soup, served at 5:00 in the morning, 6 days a week, for 30 years until she passed on July 8, 2010. All that she ever asked in return for the soup was maybe a tiny piece of kindling or dried cow dung that could be used for the next day’s cook fire.
“Hermana” Antonia served millions upon millions of free meals with no financial assistance from the local Parish. When I asked her where she found the necessary funds she replied, “God provides.”
Tending the morning meal in the courtyard of the Yanque Church, 2001
The poor Quechua women and children of Yanque knew no fiercer advocate. Sister Antonia learned the Quechua language and became a friend and mentor to the people, providing medical attention to the sick and advocating for poor women in need of social services, single mothers, and the abused struggling for the same human rights that we might so easily take for granted: the right to own land, access water, and access education and basic economic opportunity.
In 2010 Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.” This citation by the Nobel committee describes Antonia to a tee: she revolted against poverty, and she enthusiastically resisted anyone who sought to take advantage of those under her care. She never conceded defeat, always looking forward. The Nobel Committee citation also gives us a window into why this world-famous author, separated by class and status, became Sister Antonia’s friend, and often wrote about her affectionately.
Here is what Mario Vargas had to say about Sister Antonia:
The Church in Yanque, built in the late 1500s
“Another marvel of the Colca is Mother Antonia. She lives with two other ‘gringuitas’ like herself—Mother Mariella and Mother Rosemarie—in what was the sacristy of the church of Yanque, in rooms of glacial stone which the three little Maryknoll nuns warm with their kindness and good humor… But really, they are peasants who live on what they can produce on their piece of land which lies next to the church. It is enough to see their hands and feet to realize how rough it is to work the land under the conditions prevailing in the Colca, and to understand to what extent these women have become integrated into the society in which they live.”
Checking in the women and children for their breakfast, 1999
I believe the hands and feet he observes are not those of peasants but are hands and feet representing God by serving the poor. Hands and feet of a tiny nun that never asked to be served.
Mario Vargas also wrote of Antonia’s ferocious advocacy on behalf of women and children in the village.
“When I met her, on my first trip to Colca in 1981, Mother Antonia had been in Yanque for twelve years, one of the main villages in the valley. She was a well-known character throughout the city, the protagonist of a mythologic phosphorescent. Across the area there was not a single policeman, and this Maryknoll sister had thrown them [the people of Yanque] on her shoulders with a reckless obligation to defend the weak from the abuses of the strong and persecute the rustlers.”
She told Mario Vargas, “I had no qualms about going to warn drunken husbands who beat up their women.”
Vargas continued, “They had already beaten her up for doing so … She received many death threats, which kept her perfectly careless.”
Writing many years later Mario Vargas said,
Door to the sacristy, 2000
“Now, if I must keep only two of the wonders of this Andes performance, I will stay with the Condors and Mother Antonia. I was surprised—and I was very glad—to know that Mother Antonia was still standing, and always in Yanque, giving the usual war against injustice. She must be nonagenarian… She continues to live in what was the glacial sacristy of the church of Yanque and has shrunk and subsumed to the extreme that she looks like a little girl. She wears those red framed eyeglasses… and is curved so much that her back is a question mark. But her frank, generous laughter and the giggle of her eyes are the same as I remembered.”
Sister Antonia and Mike at the entrance of the sacristy, 2001
I met Antonia when I was in my early fifties, not long after founding Quechua Benefit. Over time that day led to the realization of how Quechua Benefit might best serve the Quechua people. From that moment the vision became clearer, not all at once, to be sure, but little by little as I watched her approach to social justice.
She lived by the “Royal Law,” as defined in the Bible as “love thy neighbor,” which is explained in the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan.
Sister Antonia with her neighbors, 1979
In this story Jesus answers a lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” by asking him to identify the neighbor in the parable. A critical part of the message from the parable makes it clear that neighbors are not defined by friendship, race or religion but are simply people in need.
Sister Antonia’s love encircled everyone she met, from the highest most powerful members of society to the least powerful poor single mothers standing in line at her door every morning for a bowl of hot soup. Those women lived in a very small sphere of love, so small they might not have felt it at all if not for the warm heart and soul of Sister Antonia, who is remembered by many as the “Mother of the Colca Valley.”
Treating a small child, 1980
The day I realized the totality of her ethos was the second most important day in Quechua Benefit’s short life. Quechua Benefit would need to inhale her example to be able to breathe out any relevant service to the poor.
Although she was a nun, we never talked about religion, prayed together or otherwise philosophized, but I saw the spirit burning in her for the Quechua people. She led by example. I believe to this day she is the “Mother Teresa” of Peru. A saint really.
I visited Antonia shortly before she passed. She told me that she would likely be gone when I returned to Peru. I broke down, but she said, “Mike, don’t cry. I am going home.” I told her that Quechua Benefit would continue to tend her flock. She held my hand and smiled.
Today, Quechua Benefit’s generous donors, volunteers, and strategic partners, together with the Board of Directors, have created three pillars, or programs, that form a rock-solid foundation for our mission:
- K-12 schools and adult education programs that attack multigenerational poverty,
- Free preventative medicine and nutrition for highland women and children afflicted with the world’s second most prevalent disease, anemia, and
- Economic empowerment programs meant to liberate and generate independence for women, many of whom are single mothers.
Elderly woman dining at the Sister Antonia Kitchen in Ichupampa, 2020
Sister Antonia’s primary insight, that substandard nutrition is at the center of local poverty, is why Quechua Benefit, with your support, has participated in the creation of two community kitchens in the Colca Valley over the last four years, one in Ichupampa and another in Yanque.
Both are close to Casa Chapi. The kitchens are named in her honor and independently operated by the local community associations. These new, modern buildings each have space for a women’s and children’s community center, and this is where the next chapter in Sister Antonia’s legacy, with your help, will unfold.
Sister Antonia Kitchen, Ichupampa
Quechua Benefit is exploring the opportunity to open Women’s and Children’s Community Centers in the existing Sister Antonia Kitchen buildings. They will be staffed by local women who are respected in the community and can be fierce advocates for the women and children, offering advice on topics such as pre- and post-natal care, anemia prevention, and making medical referrals. They may offer job training, family planning advice, suggest employment opportunities, and provide adult education about family violence. All these needs can be addressed and prioritized in consultation with the women in the community. Local Quechua Benefit social workers, in partnership with the Church, the Peruvian Ministries of Health and Education, MINSA, the local mayors and private charities such as Vitamin Angels, Direct Relief and Vida Peru, can implement programs that address the most pressing needs as defined by the community.
This model is not new. Dr. Paul Farmer, head of Harvard’s Global Health Initiative and founder of Partners in Health, operates similar clinics in several countries, including Peru, that Quechua Benefit board members have visited and observed. Dr. Farmer is credited with defeating AIDS in the poorest of countries. He often works together with the Gates Foundation, which uses the community center approach around the world with great success.
This Community Center model is in perfect alignment with Quechua Benefit’s Three Programs. If successfully implemented, it will help all of us to work closely together, weaving threads of sustainability to break the cycle of poverty and make the world a better place for the wonderful Quechua people.
Sister Antonia 1924–2010